CES 2010: Hands on with ActiveVideo’s CloudTV

Posted Fri Jan 8, 2010 at 10:34 AM PST by Mike Attebery

ActiveVideo isn’t a content provider, and they’re not selling a set-top box. You can think of them more as a distribution network like Boxee. The difference is that with ActiveVideo, you don’t need an external box or HTPC. You just need to access the cloud.

Cloud computing has been around for a while, and has been predicted since long before the internet saw its rise. The concept is simple. Rather than buying a hefty computer to crunch data, you use your computer as a terminal to access a much more powerful machine elsewhere. Many people have used cloud storage to back up files and share data. It’s an exciting concept, but admittedly not the most entertaining application.

It’s only recently that our connection speeds have advanced to the point that the cloud concept can be used for entertainment. Games like Quake Live utilize a bit of the concept, but aren’t entirely cloud based. Netflix is great example of a cloud like video service, but it’s not quite there.

I sat down with ActiveVideo’s Edgar Villalpando for a demonstration of the CloudTV service that’s already active in over five million homes worldwide. The setup they used consisted of the flat screen LCD that comes standard in the suites where we were meeting and a small box to allow the device to connect to the service. While CloudTV was created to work with ‘dumb’ TVs, it does need an internet connection and a small amount of storage space to function, which is what the box provided.

We started by taking a look at some of the content offered by Blockbuster, the newest partner of CloudTV. I was able to browse through menus quickly, with a minimum of latency, and video previews loaded instantly. Even the Blockbuster service itself started in a second or two.

Of course, video streaming isn’t the only possibility. Thanks to a partnership with TAG, gaming is a possibility as well. We rocked out a few rounds of Bejeweled with the slightest of latency, and even attempted Bookworm Adventures, but without a QWERTY remote it proved to be a bit of a challenge.

CloudTV achieves this by using a flat screen display as just that – a display. The Blockbuster program isn’t actually on the television, just the video stream. The only data being sent out is the buttons pressed on the remote, and the only data received is the MPEG video stream.

We did run into a few minor issues with button presses during the games which weren’t noticeable when browsing the video menus. For example, a directional button would every once in a great while move twice for each time it was pressed, or not detect the command.

While this does bring up some questions, it’s important to keep in mind that the demo wasn’t given under optimal conditions. We were using a standard television remote to play games, which is never optimal, and going through the hotel’s internet connection.

We finished up the demo with a bit of YouTube browsing. It was quick to search and load video when we knew what we were looking for, and even trying to find the right version of Apache to load up and laugh at only took a moment. Remember, there’s a nice server somewhere taking care of the search and processing the video, we’re just seeing what it sees.

With all the available providers – Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster, and Amazon just to name a few – and the massive amount of streaming devices that have hit the market in the last year, you might think that CloudTV was simply another one of those. Another video service, another streaming device, another set top that doesn’t quite do everything.

ActiveVideo doesn’t see devices like the Boxee Box as competition, but as opportunities. “If Boxee wants to offload the processing on their end to us, that’s great,” explained Edgar. “We’re not trying to compete with them.”

The advantage to the consumer is obvious. CloudTV’s interface takes up around 200k worth of space on your device’s hard drive, and only needs a standard broadband connection. Offloading the processing to a server means that you don’t need to buy a hugely powerful television to get streaming content, just a TV that’s net capable.

Content providers have an easier time in the cloud as well. Netflix, for example, has to create a new application each time their service is added to a device. With CloudTV, they can simply create one service that anyone can use.

The possibilities of CloudTV are astounding, but it’s got to get to the public to mean anything at all. ActiveVideo is currently in talks with consumer electronics manufacturers and cable companies alike. They plan to be in ten million homes by the end of the year.

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Tags: ActiveVideo, CES 2010, CloudTV, Streaming Content (all tags)