Google, Apple, Boxee: The war for the living room is about real estate, not cost

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After hearing that Apple is (rumored to be) retiring the existing Apple TV and replacing it with a $99 iTV device based on iOS, I took a long hard look at my entertainment center and realized something: the war for the living room/home theater is going to be as much about geography as it is about price.

My first thought about iTV was something along the lines of "$99!? How can I not buy it at that price!?" but the difficulty isn't going to be in paying for it, it's going to be in placing it. Now I'm a skirmisher in this war for the living room. Most people don't have as much junk hanging off their TV as I do (3 game consoles, a Roku Player and a STB from FIOS), but in the next few months alone we're going to see the launch of Logitech's Google TV box, the Revue; D-Link's Boxee Box; and now this iTV gizmo. None of these will be very expensive and each appears to do something slightly different, so home theater fans could easily wind up wanting all three, plus their existing STBs, Blu-ray players and whatever else they have.

The challenge will come down to physical space and HDMI ports.

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Let's look at physical space first. I wouldn't expect these devices to be very big. The Roku box is a tiny little thing that will tuck in almost anywhere and I expect the Revue to be only slightly larger. The iTV is anyone's guess, but we know how big an iPhone is, right? Expect iTV to be pretty small, too. Now D-Link's Boxee Box is another story. It isn't that it's big so much that it has that odd 'sunken cube' design that means it'll take up a lot more space than it ought to. And forget about stacking anything on top of it (and I wonder if that isn't the real reason for the odd design). The Boxee Box isn't going into a rack, that's for sure. It's going to have to sit on a shelf or on top of the top-most component in your 'stack.' I really wish D-Link would produce a second version of the Boxee Box in a plain rectangular case that I can place neatly into some nook or cranny of my home entertainment system.

Before I get to the HDMI challenge, let me diverge a bit and talk to hardcore gamers. Imagine what your TV will look like if you have a Nintendo Wii and both the Sony PS3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 and their new motion-control systems. The Wii's 'motion sensor' is probably on top of your TV, or sitting right in front of it. Microsoft's Kinect camera array looks like it'll also have to sit front and center, just in front of the TV; it looks too big to sit on top of a thin-screen. And Sony's Move needs the Playstation Eye camera, which again expects to be centered in front of the TV. And oh by the way, many of us already have a center channel speaker sitting in that coveted spot. So we can move the Wii's Sensor bar to the top of the TV; that still leaves a 3-way fight between Kinect, Eye and center speaker for that one sweet spot in front of the TV. I have no solution for that other than switching gear in and out. Maybe there'll be enough 'looseness' in the placement to put the two cameras side by side in front of the center speaker?

But the biggest battle in this war for the living room comes down to HDMI ports. How many do you have? Personally I only have two even though my TV (a 52" Sharp Aquos) is only a few years old. My receiver is ancient and has no HDMI so I have to run video to the TV and audio to the receiver via TOS cables. But even the newest receivers generally have four HDMI ports, at most. And you're probably already using 3 of them for a STB, Blu-ray/DVD player, and a game system. What will you do when you want to add iTV, Google TV and a Boxee Box? Plus any kind of portable device you might own that outputs 720P video via HDMI (like some of the newer phones do).

The solution for me has been an HDMI switchbox but those aren't really ubiquitous at this point. I got mine mail order (you can get a 5-port switch with a remote for $20-$30 or Best Buy will sell you one for $250; your call) but it'd be nice if they were widely available at places where you can buy other A/V cables and accessories. The switchbox solution works but of course it adds another component vying for space in your entertainment center. So is there a better solution? Not one that's available for you or me right now. Wouldn't it be nice if component makers added some kind of 'pass-through' HDMI port on their devices? I'm no engineer so I don't know how feasible this idea is, but I'm picturing having all the bits and pieces of my home theater connecting in one long daisy-chain of HDMI devices.

There's been some promising work done in wireless A/V delivery but so far it's kind of a one-to-one affair that won't help us too much, plus it tends to be fairly expensive. See for example Zinwell's Brite-View BV-2500 Wireless HD Video Transmitter and Receiver Kits (link is to Amazon where it sells for $286.54 for 1 pair). What I'd really like to see is a single wireless A/V receiver that connects to an HDMI port on your TV or receiver, then multiple wireless A/V transmitters that hook up to the HDMI out on your components. In other words, a many-to-one setup with the receiver intelligently switching depending on what is broadcasting. Turn on a device (which can be located anywhere in the room, or even in a nearby closet), it starts transmitting and the receiver tunes into it and starts displaying HD picture and sound. Oh, and it needs to be cheap enough that we can add a transmitter to a $100 device without tripling the cost of the install. As far as I know, nothing like this exists yet. (Please educate me if I'm wrong about that.)

So there is, I think, hope for the future but for the next couple of years we'll be stuck with stacks of switch boxes and rats' nests of cables (which some of us geeky types will put up with), or we'll have to pick and choose what we attach to our home theaters carefully. I don't think we'll make those decisions based on price so much as we'll make it based on what device gives us the most features per/HDMI port, rather than the most features/dollar.

I'm not sure how you spin your marketing campaign to circumvent these issues. Someone needs to speed up research into consumer-level HD wireless A/V, I think.

If you have a clever way to combat component sprawl, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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