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Weekly Column

Come to Daddy: How Ken Schaffer's TV2ME (or Something Just Like It, But Cheaper) Will Change Television Forever

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Ken Schaffer is an inventor and a lot more. In the late 1960s, he was a publicist for rock stars, managing the public image of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and even choosing Alice Cooper's name. A lifelong amateur radio enthusiast, in the 1970s he invented the wireless microphone and then the wireless guitar, making more than a thousand mikes at $4,400 a pop for the Rolling Stones and nearly every other big rock group. When Mick Jagger dances around the stage, he is carrying a Schaffer mike. What made a Schaffer mike or guitar worth so much wasn't just that it kept rock stars from being electrocuted (KISS switched to Schaffer after a band member was seriously injured), but that they sounded so good. NASA eventually became a customer to use Schaffer's innovative preprocessing circuits to improve astronaut voice communication. In the 1980s, Schaffer fell in love with Russia and started a company to bring modern voice communication to western companies operating there, later selling that company to Comsat, the biggest player in satellite communication. Schaffer built a system for Columbia University to allow Soviet Studies students to watch live Russian TV by tapping non-geosynchronous satellite broadcasts with an 11-foot dish on a rooftop in Manhattan. Oh, and Schaffer's ex-wife, a famous Russian TV actress, played Uncle Junior's one-legged Russian nurse, who ended up having sex with Tony Soprano.

Yeah, but why should we care? Because Ken Schaffer, who has homes in Russia and America and is often apart from his wife and young son, wanted to be able to watch -- over the Internet -- live Russian TV in New York and live American TV in Moscow. And soon you will be able to do so, too.

Schaffer's system, called TV2ME, is for the moment strictly a point-to-point solution, so you can watch YOUR TV in another city or country, but you can't necessarily share that signal with anyone else. Yeah, right.

The current system, which costs $4,500-$6,500 (remember, this is a guy who sold $4400 microphones), is a Dell PC with a custom video capture board that you have to hook up at your house or whatever place it is where you want to capture local TV. So this is not for the faint of heart or the faint of wallet. But if you have an apartment in Moscow, as Schaffer does, it's easy. The Moscow Dell is connected to the local cable system (actually wireless cable in Schaffer's part of Moscow), and can be controlled over the Internet from any computer with a broadband connection anywhere in the world. Most of Schaffer's early customers are notebook-toting rock stars who don't want to miss their favorite soccer matches while on tour. For fixed installations, he'll rig up IR remote controls and big screens, but many customers also watch TV over WiFi at Starbucks.

If all of this seems too far from your personal experience, let's think about it in different terms. That $4,400 Schaffer wireless microphone is now mass-produced for $300. If all the brains of Schaffer's video capture board (that's where the secret sauce is stored) were reduced to an ASIC, TV2ME could be a $100 product, and probably will be at some point.

But what blew me away this week when I saw a demo of TV2ME in Schaffer's cluttered New York apartment was the quality of the image. Sending live TV over the Internet is a very difficult thing to do, especially over distances like that from Moscow to New York. There are live TV feeds from Moscow available today, and they look terrible no matter how much bandwidth you have. But Schaffer's feed, running at an average of 384 kilobits-per-second, looks like TV. When you change channels to any of the 60 or so on the Moscow cable system, it takes about 10 seconds to rebuffer, and then you have TV. Amazing!

To put this achievement in perspective, I have running in my home in Charleston both Windows and Linux-based PVRs that play through Hauppauge Media MVP set top boxes. This is a Hauppauge WinTV250 PVR capture board running on a fast AMD system with half a gig of DDR RAM and a 125 gig 7200-rpm disk drive. All components are matched and from the same manufacturer, all video encoding and decoding is done in hardware, network connections are all Ethernet, AND I CAN'T WATCH LIVE TV OVER THIS NETWORK. I can easily access my vast collection of pre-recorded Dragon Tales, Caillou, and Arthur episodes, but live TV bombs out even though I'm capturing and sending at two megabits-per-second over a two-hop network no more than 60 feet long.

Ken Schaffer, on the other hand, is capturing at 384 kilobits-per-second using hardware encoding only on the sending end (the receiver is software-only) and he can watch perfectly viewable television that has run through 20+ hops from Moscow or Bangkok or any of a number of other cities where he has friends and customers.

Given that he has no way of guaranteeing Quality of Service, I think this performance is amazing. But given his track record, I can't discount the demonstration. Like his wireless mikes, Schaffer attributes the quality to how he preprocesses the video signal before it enters the MPEG-4 encoder chip. I don't know what he does, but it seems to work.

Ken Schaffer isn't the only person in this business. A startup called Sling Media says it will be shortly introducing a similar product of its own that will send your TV signal over the Internet to whatever device you like, even mobile phones. Maybe this is just as good as TV2ME, I don't know. I haven't seen it.

And Sony has a device, its Location-free TV, a $1,499 12.1-inch LCD TV that can receive through-the-air broadcast TV signals or access a base station back at your house over the Internet. Sony says this frees you from having to carry a notebook computer, but since the Location-free TV won't do e-mail, I think it means you have to buy two devices. Again, I don't know how Sony's performance compares with Schaffer's.

This is the future of TV for people who will never be satisfied with Basic Cable. A couple years from now, it will be a huge driver of broadband sales to ethnic communities, allowing Grandma to watch her favorite soap operas from the old country. This and Tivo-like recording devices are going to change TV (right down to the business model) as we know it. Some people get this, some people don't. Rupert Murdoch gets it and his DirecTV investment is all about preloading pay-per-view movies on satellite player hard disks. Most American broadcasters don't get it, and this is going to hurt them.

And speaking of TVs, why are PC manufacturers suddenly getting in the business of selling them? On the face of it, this makes little sense since TV profit margins are generally worse than PC profit margins, so the more successful a Dell or HP is at selling PCs, the more it will drag down their gross profit margins. But if you look closer, you'll see all the companies are limiting themselves to high-end flat panel models and digital TVs. They see with the coming of DTV a chance to sell over the next two to three years a replacement for every one of the 100-plus million PCs already operating in America. And if Microsoft is successful with its next version of the Media PC, maybe there will be a good tie-in and additional products to sell, though I doubt it.

More likely what we'll see is the PC companies jump on this video and TV bandwagon for three to five years, then drop it. That's because the replacement schedule for televisions isn't anything like the replacement schedule for personal computers. When I moved from California to South Carolina, I recycled half a dozen PCs and one TV, and that TV was built in 1993. We replace our PCs every three years and our TVs every seven to 10, so once this DTV conversion is finished, I predict Dell and the others will stop selling them. That's part of the attraction for wireless products that have life spans in the 12 to 18 month range. Apple not only likes the iPod business, they'll like the iPod REPLACEMENT business that is starting already even more.

Of course, I expect a future iPod to have in it wireless access (iPod Express?) and an H.264 video decoder chip allowing my kids to watch Dragon Tales from anywhere in the world. Zak and Wheezie rock!

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