Sling Media – The Dolby of Placeshifting?

In the world of technology there are a few companies whose names are held in high regard by early adopters for their creativity of products. One is Apple with its iPod, another is Tivo and its digital video recorder. And still another working its way into this ranking is Sling Media with their Slingbox.

What is the Slingbox you might ask? In the simplest of descriptions is the word placeshifting. This 21st century buzz word, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “watching or listening to live, recorded or stored media on a remote device via the internet or over a data network”. And there is apparently no one doing it better at the moment then Sling Media.

Sling Media CEO and co-founder Blake Krikorian recently took time out from a busy schedule to do an interview with Digital Trends regarding the founding of his company, their quick rise to stardom and how they continually need to reinvent themselves to compete in the ever changing consumer electronics marketplace. Blake Krikorian

Blake and his brother Jason were milling about the San Francisco Bay Area office of their firm id8 Group Holdings, which both advised industry-leading companies on product strategy and invested in new product creation, one afternoon during the summer of 2002. Both being die hard San Francisco Giants fans, they wanted to watch a game via their computers. Surfing the Web brought them to MLB.TV, which they signed up for a subscription to. It was then when they went to stream the game that they got nothing but virtual static. The culprit? Because they lived in the same market as the Giants, the game was blacked out.

“At the end of the day from a consumer perspective this is nonsense,” said Krikorian. “Why the heck can’t I just watch living room TV anywhere I am with any display on I am?”

With this thought in the back of his mind and also armed with knowledge about the coming convergence of mobile phones and PC related content, the Krikorian brothers set out to make a prototype device which would let one “sling my media to anywhere I am”. They teamed with Sling Media co-founder Bhupen Shah during the prototype’s development, eventually folding id8 Group Holdings and starting Sling Media in 2004.

The basic idea behind the Slingbox technology is to let one watch their television, DVD player or Tivo at home, wherever they have access to a broadband Internet connection. A box is connected to the video source or cable outlet as well as being connected to a home network router. Special software installed on a variety of platforms such as laptops and cellular phones works in conjunction with streaming technology to connect remotely to the Slingbox and view whatever video is available from the source as well as offering control options for that source such as changing channels or adding a program to a recording queue on a DVR.

With a prototype Slingbox now developed, they took the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show by force as they wowed press and others alike with their device’s placeshifting technology. They netted multiple awards at CES that year and, more importantly, scored deals with giant CE retailers Best Buy and CompUSA to distribute their fledgling product.

“We got pretty lucky in that the retailers got really excited about it,” said Krikorian.

The Slingbox formally launched in July of 2005, with Krikorian stating they sold out in the first few days of their initial batch of close to 10,000 units. Ramping up production and also retail partners, Slingbox sales reportedly reached into the 100,000s by this past Christmas. Word of mouth was attributed by the Sling Media CEO as being one of the primary driving factors for this huge volume of sales.

“It is one of those products that is so empowering to the consumer,” said Krikorian. “People have a real emotional attachment to it. It’s amazing how much people love their living room TV. We are able to give them the flexibility and freedom to enjoy that.”

Sling Media, not resting on their laurels even as sales continued to do very well this past September unveiled the next generation of Slingboxes. The new Slingbox family, as the company said in a press release, “is designed to meet the varied requirements of today’s TV households whether that’s basic analog cable, standard definition cable or satellite or next generation high definition television”.

“With this second generation,” said Krikorian, “we needed to keep innovating. We kept improving the software and giving users newer and newer releases with better functionality and video quality.”

[EDITOR’s NOTE: For more details on the new Sling Media products, check out our special first look]

Sling Box Family
Sling Box Family

 

Along with rolling out new Slingbox products, Sling Media has also unveiled SlingPlayer viewing clients for a variety of smaller mobile platforms such as Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile Smartphones. They also recently announced they will be bringing the SlingPlayer to phones which run the Symbian operating system, such as select models from Nokia and Sony Ericsson.

With such a variety of devices the Slingbox has to stream to, as well as the variety of issues which can arise over broadband speeds, Sling Media’s streaming technology is designed to take all of these things into consideration as it delivers video over the Internet.

“What it does is abide by what the network conditions are,” said Krikorian. “We have a closed system of sorts where we can detect what kind of content is going into the box and detect what device is rendering at the other end. Sling Stream [the streaming technology] detects how big the pipe is in real time and in real time dynamically adjusts. The video that is flowing through that pipe is expanding and contracting to match the bandwidth.”

What this results in is a smoother video experience, according to Krikorian. “We need to be able to stream clearly on what consumers are using. These technologies that we developed and keep improving address that.”

As with any device like the Slingbox which moves around content that is considered copy protected by its original owner, one might wonder if Sling Media is breaking some rules or laws here. Krikorian said such was not the case, that they are giving consumers the ability to watch their television programming wherever they are and that his company’s products are considered “extremely fair use”.

“We do respect the rights of copyright holder,” said Krikorian. “We only allow the Slingbox to stream to one device at a time. We’ve put certain controls in the system where it is being contained and used appropriately.”

Looking down the road, the Blake Krikorian sees a time when his company might actually license out their technology so the placeshifting experience can be had by a larger crowd.

“As opportunities also come up for partnering with cable operators,” said Krikorian, “we need to make sure we are not totally religious about being the platform versus being a core set of technologies operators can adopt. Maybe over time we [can] become the Dolby of placeshifting.”

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