Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wireless Media Display Experience

Generally speaking, this can be a very broad topic. Lately though, the subject has become very interesting, IMO, as the technology around Wireless Media Display has been improving. Andrew vonNagy provides some very interesting perspective on the shaping landscape, from the technology standpoint. What is really interesting is the experience and how it is evolving. While CES sets the stage for all the latest and greatest 'products' companies like Rovi (as an example) are quietly focusing efforts on providing a better overall 'Consumer Electronics' experience of what you want to see and hear and where. 

Pealing back a little on wireless media in the home, most consumers keep it (for lack of convenience) pretty simple. There is a source and a desired destination and WiFi in between. I will use my wife as an example, a typical consumer she is. There is a picture or movie on her iPhone, laptop, iPad or on my NAS that she wants to see on one of our large displays. On most days, the source determines the destination. While we are predominantly a 'fruit-based' product home we have some Android/Linux in the mix as well. As Andrew and others point out, AirPlay (or the DLNA equivalent for Apple products using AppleTV on iOS-5 or above devices) is by far the strongest product/technology in terms of simplicity, performance, experience in the market right now. So, getting media to show up on a display flawlessly in our house (from an i-device) requires a $99 hockey-puck device called AppleTV connected to a display.

What we all know and love about Apple products is that they just work. This comes with an ongoing price though. For most, that is great. But for the rest of us we want more, (and for less). While the $99 price point of the 'puck' itself isn't a deal-breaker other off-the-shelf aspects of AppleTV potentially are. Here are a few:
  • Pay for content. This is Apple's life-blood. Music, Movies, TV Shows, it ALL costs $$.
  • Limited (local) media playback support. Basically .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
  • iTunes dependent for shared network content (media server)
  • Closed eco-system. (Netflix and YouTube are not an ecosystem) Hulu rumored
The 'mainline' Hulu buzz (now more like a baloon deflating) is the saddest of all. While it would add greater feature capabilities to an already great product it also threatens Apple's profits, putting $s first. If we have seen anything in the world of fast moving tech it is that THIS DOESN'T SCALE, accept maybe for Apple. To my wife's chagrin I don't see Apple inviting in all the key streaming content players and opening the architecture up to multi-protocol, multi-vendor platforms anytime soon. But...

There may be alternatives coming. One alternative right now that I have been enjoying immensely is jailbreaking the AppleTV. Many view the process of jailbreaking as too technical and risky. Truth be told, it is far easier to jailbreak on ATV2 ver 4.4.4 (un-tethered) then one may think. The great folks at FireCore bring us Seas0nPass. here is the simplified version of the JB instructions below: (full instructions here) (good video here, on Win)

  • Download and install the latest version of iTunes (check for updates through Software Update located in Apple menu).
  • Download Seas0nPass for Mac [10.6 or later] or Windows [XP or later].
  • A micro USB cable will be required to complete the jailbreak.
  • Disconnect any iPods, iPhones, and iPads from your computer.

Step 1: Unzip the ‘’ file and launch Seas0nPass.
Step 2: Select the ‘Create IPSW’ button to start the jailbreak process.
Step 3: The latest Apple TV software will be downloaded and used to create a custom ‘jailbroken’ software file.
Step 4:When prompted, connect your Apple TV using a micro-USB cable (leave power disconnected).
Step 5: iTunes will open automatically and start the restore process.
Step 6: iTunes will confirm the restore when complete – your Apple TV
 is now jailbroken. Please proceed to the ‘tethered boot’ section below.

*NOTE: I recommend using the full instructions above, it has pictures. ;) Also important to note is that you do not need the power cord connected for jailbreaking, only the micro USB. I had to wiggle mine around a few times to get the light to start blinking which signals you that the fun is about to begin. Check video if not sure.
Here is what you get with a jailbroke AppleTV 2 (v4.4):
  • AirPlay Mirroring: Now with video mirroring – wirelessly stream what’s on your iPad 2 screen to your HDTV.
  • Photo Stream: View photos recently taken on your iOS device and pushed to your Photo Stream in iCloud.
  • Trailers: A whole new way to browse and view hundreds of the latest theatrical trailers.
  • National Hockey League: Watch live games. View highlights, scores, and more.
  • Wall Street Journal Live: Watch up-to-date news, business commentary, and financial analysis from leading experts.
  • Apple has also added support for subtitles in Netflix and three new slideshow themes: Photo Wall, Flip-up, and Shifting Tiles.
Which plugins are supported on 4.4?
Couch Surfer (works) (works)Media Player (works)NitoTV (works)Overflow (works)Remote HD (works)Rowmote (works)RSS Feeds (works)Weather (works)XBMC (AWESOME)Plex (see these instructions)
Hulu (oh yes, on JB)
Now the experience gets more interesting. And the best part about going this path is that all the work is being done on your shiny black puck and there is no more frustration over content or source. You can now continue streaming (AirPlay) content via your i-devices (and even other devices) but now with support for more video formats and lots more choices. But wait, there's more..
OK, so I have saved the best for last. XBMC

I cant tell you how much I love this plugin. This is the X-Box Media Center code that has been around a while and was re-tooled via the open source community. It can be installed on many hardware platforms and even the D-link Boxee uses it as it's framework. Simply put, it rocks. Now this is a UI. With skins!

Adding the plugin is simple.
While powered on and HDMI cable connected to a screen:

  • Connect the USB cable from ATV to a laptop
  • Open up your terminal/ssh application and enter the following command to log in to your ATV2
  • ssh <device IP address under settings
  • You will be asked for a password, default password is: alpine
  • Continue to enter the following commands:

apt-get install wget
wget -O- | apt-key add -
echo "deb stable main" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/awkwardtv.list
echo "deb ./" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/xbmc.list
apt-get update
apt-get install org.xbmc.xbmc-atv2

You should now have the XBMC plugin 'Eden' Beta 1 for ATV2.
Extremely simple. I was done with  the entire JB and XBMC process in less that 20 minutes. Well worth it!
With just two relatively simple modifications and one of many plugins I now have an extremely robust product that is capable of providing a rich experience in a very small form factor.
Some networking highlights form the many XBMC capabilities:

  • UPnP
  • DLNA
  • SMB
  • NFS
  • FTP
  • etc,etc
You can browse for your NAS and connect to it, or other devices, using a variety of protocols and enjoy your local media your way. For online movies the Icefilms plugin provides online streaming, although I am not endorsing this service. If your happy with Netflix and your local media as I am this setup mentioned here provides more than enough home entertainment. This also provides the essentials for growing your media center much larger.

I could go on and on. With all the options available and growing every day it is going to be very hard for Apple or any other closed system manufacturer to force non scaleable products and features on consumers. As personal media libraries grow faster now no one is going to like those libraries remaining tethered to a laptop or desktop PC running iTunes and go through the frustrating process of continuous iTunes updates. PC based media servers need to die. If they don't soon, its going to make the process for that much more difficult for the average consumer to migrate to a more flexible, scaleable wireless media experience.

Almost forgot, there is a remote App for XBMC for the iPhone and Android devices in the App Store or Android Market. 

Hope this has been helpful. Please let me know. I am diving in deeper and may write some more up.

Thank you.