Sunday, April 26, 2009

Slingbox Enlightenment

It was when my wife complained of never being able to get onto the computer and also of not being able to watch TV in the kitchen that I realised I had a bullet-proof excuse to buy a new piece of technology.

I was looking into having an aerial installed for the kitchen and getting a small Freeview flat-screen TV and a Netbook for her that I realised that I could do everything with a laptop and a Slingbox.

Amazon’s 1-click ordering makes impulse purchases alarmingly easy. Barely a couple of days seemed to have passed before I was tearing open over sized cardboard boxes, spilling polystyrene packing everywhere and logging into techie forums to try and get my new toys to talk to each other. With only a modicum of swearing, I had a lovely new Samsung NC10 laptop in the kitchen showing a perfectly acceptable simulcast of whatever was coming out of the V+/Virgin Media/Hi-Def/Cable/PVR/iPlayer enabled box that sits next to my TV.

It’s a bit of a head-fuck to be honest. The Slingbox plugs into the V+ cable box (or Sky+ box or just into an aerial) and stuffs the pictures from the cable box through my 13AMP domestic electrical circuit (courtesy of a couple of adapters) into my wireless router and out over the airwaves to any wi-fi-enabled devices that I set up with the Slingbox software.

Gone are the days when Anna (who likes to cook and watch X-Factor at the same time) has to rush from kitchen to lounge to watch some dork massacring a sacred piece of music by the Beatles or Leonard Cohen.

I had a particularly satisfying opportunity to show off my new toy to a mildly impressed audience of students and digital big-wigs during a talk I gave last week in Murcia, Spain as part of Cartoon Digital.

I moan about doing these talks but really I enjoy doing them, despite looking here as though the person who just asked me a question is insane. Preparing a talk like this forces me to think about everything that we are doing at Aardman in the digital world and to present a understandable plan of where I think we are going.

The tricky bit is to share enough with your audience that the talk feels personal and stimulating but without giving away too much tactical detail or privileged insight. A bit like this blog really ... Talking about failures that you have had is always good value – especially if you are a successful company. You rarely learn anything from people who stand up and tell you how brilliant they are.

I talked again about Aardman’s Angry Kid and the huge success we have had with that online and with mobile. I talked about how I believe the business is migrating to downloads-to-own and Video on Demand because the web is essentially a free-for-all in all senses of the words. There is just too much content out there and masses of traffic to it but not enough that advertisers are particularly interested in unless your content speaks to one of their favoured niches, like petrol heads for example.

The failures that I talked about are some of the great little shows that we have made for digital platforms e.g. The Adventures of Jeffrey and Pib and Pog and how they have really struggled to match Angry Kid’s financial success despite their obvious quality.

But my favourite bit of my talk was when I got to show off my Slingbox. I was speculating on how we will consume our media in the future and how content will get paid for in a truly digital world. It’s obvious that advertisers aren’t going to be able to pay for all our content, we are going to have to pay for it ourselves and by paying subscriptions. The license fee is going to stop working soon because a small but significant number of people will stop bothering with TV and just watch everything on the iPlayer or on or 4OD or Hulu for which they won’t need a license.

In the UK about 13m of us (about 50% of households) pay an average of at least £500 per year to get our broadband, Pay TV and telephones brought into our homes. I am sure we would pay a little bit more if we could get everything that we get through our dishes, broadband connections, phones (mobile and fixed) on every device that we owned. Especially if we didn’t have to pay the license fee.

So, back to the talk; to demonstrate that you can, even now, get something approximating this digital utopia with today’s slightly clunky technology I fired up my Slingbox in the room to the odd gasp of amazement. Luckily the TV was tuned to some innocuous daytime crap and not to anything weird or inappropriate.

After the talk someone asked me if what I had shown them was really ‘real’ or if I had cheated and run something locally off my laptop. I had to reassure them that it really was ‘real’. I felt like the projectionist must have felt when people screamed in the first cinemas when they saw trains coming towards them on the screen.

People are calling the business model of getting whatever you can get on your TV on any of your devices ‘TV Everywhere’. The cable companies are promoting the most heavily as they are the people best placed to deliver it. It’s a long way off being what it should be though. My cornucopia of technology still looks like this:

What I need is one big fat cable coming into my house which delivers my broadband, my TV/VOD etc and my phone calls. This big fat cable should be plugged into ONE BOX which then distributes everything wirelessly to all my other devices. It looks after everything previously looked after by my modems, routers, PVRs, answer phones and cable boxes radio and TV aerials.

Some of the devices my 'one box' distributes stuff to are big and flat and are hung on the wall. Some have a stand and sit on a desk, some have a battery and can be carried in a briefcase, a handbag or in a pocket. They are all computers – entertainment and data processing devices which wirelessly sync up with each other and with content that I subscribe to.

The 'one box' sends phone calls to the mobile devices – I only have one personal phone number and I cradle my phone when I am at home and pocket my phone when I am on the road or in the office.

My music collection, my photos, my DVD collection, all my downloaded or rented video, my free and premium TV Channels, my voicemails, emails, tweets and pokes would all be available on all my devices.

And to make me feel superior and human and to reassure me that we are still smarter than the machines there would be a printer/scanner/copier somewhere in the house that only worked erratically and paper-jammed and needed shouting at with the vilest of language to make it print even the simplest little letter to my solicitor who will never truly be happy unless I have put everything in writing on real, environmentally destructive paper and signed it in blood.