PBS: Ken Schaffer’s TV2Me Will Change Television Forever

How Ken Schaffer’s TV2Me (or Something Like It, But Cheaper) Will Change Television Forever

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.

TV2Me - Any TV, Any Time, Any Place

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 eclectic 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.

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!

Original article: How Ken Schaffer’s TV2Me Will Change Television Forever