wtv-set-top-box-blog.jpg(UPDATE JAN 2015 – This series was written in 2009. It still gets a lot of visitors and has some valuable info, but be aware that things have moved on a bit)

I’m heading up a fun project at work to build a prototype set-top box that is capable of receiving video from sites like YouTube, Vimeo & Daily Motion, and present them in a user friendly way on a TV.

The box will be built using off-the-shelf hardware and I’ll be detailing the whole process here. At the end I’ll be interested to see if it is possible to replace normal TV viewing with online TV viewing.

There have been a number of attempts at getting online video onto the TV – games consoles, high end TV’s with internet access, specialist set-top boxes. Typically it’s a feature added as an after-thought, it’s restricted, it’s walled-garden. This set-top box will be built from the ground up to work with online video.

There are differences between watching online video on a computer, and watching it on a TV. Understanding these differences will be key to your own success in designing a set-top box.

  • The user interface is fundamentally different – TV’s are harder to control and text is hard to read
  • There is no keyboard and people don’t want a keyboard on their couch. This will be solved in future with lightweight browsing tablets that people use in their living rooms.
  • Short form online video clips do not work on TV, not if you have to search for them. See keyboard issue above. It’s tedious to be looking for something new to watch every 2 minutes.
  • Online video on the computer is an interactive experience, TV is a passive experience. People watch TV to relax
  • The TV experience has been around for 60 years and people’s habits don’t change quickly.
  • Interactive TV has never worked, despite billions spent.
  • Online video must adapt to TV, not the other way round.

The goals for this set top box are:

  • low-cost (under $100 with mass production)
  • off-the-shelf PC hardware
  • Super simple – it plugs into the mains, picks up a wi-fi signal and connects to the TV
  • It has only one switch – a power switch
  • Maybe it has a DVD player (one extra switch and an extra $20)
  • It should be powerful enough for ‘medium-high definition’ (720p)
  • A Wii-like remote for controlling the user interface
  • When you turn it on, it automatically browses to a website that serves up the user interface

The idea of using a website as the user-interface for a set-top-box is key I think. The advantage will be that the UI can be dynamic and personalized for each individual. It can incorporate live information from the Internet and be improved without the user needing to update software. It will use standard technologies that are widely known.

The parts for the prototype have arrived and I’ll write up the initial hardware build soon.

Read Pt 2 – A look at the parts and putting the hardware together

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