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Connected Homes November 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Kyle M. Whitman

Streaming Sticks

Why is this topic significant?

Similar in size and shape to a USB thumb drive, the "stick" form factor has become a popular one for inexpensive devices that connect to televisions and stream content from online services. Reflecting a general trend among streaming devices, streaming sticks are gaining advanced capabilities, including the ability to run games and software applications and to improve on the smoothness and responsiveness of the smart-TV user experience.

Description

Many manufacturers offer low-price (typically less than $50), low-profile Wi-Fi devices that plug into a television's HDMI port and enable users to play back video content from local or online sources. The devices have the appearance of large USB thumb drives, and their compact form factors and ability to connect directly to a television without video cabling facilitate easy installation—particularly for wall-mounted televisions. Streaming sticks do typically require a separate power input, but televisions that have powered USB ports generally can power a streaming stick directly.

Early streaming sticks tended to deliver a poor user experience, requiring users to be technically savvy and willing to deal with flawed or outdated software. Following Google's 2013 release of Chromecast and the device's streamlined software for PCs and mobile devices, other brand-name and "no-name" companies introduced their own products in the stick form factor. Roku began offering its streaming stick in early 2014, incorporating all of the features and performance of the company's entry-level media player in a remarkably compact stick format. Amazon.com will begin selling its Fire TV Stick in November 2014. Amazon's device is notable for its combination of low price and high performance; the device's storage, memory, and processing power are significantly better than those of competing devices and are on a par with those of a midrange smartphone.

Implications

Amazon advertises the Fire TV Stick as being capable of playing games and running a diverse set of software applications in addition to conventional video-streaming applications. The device's inclusion of a dedicated graphics-processing unit also allows for a smoother and more responsive on-screen user interface that may compare favorably with that of high-end smart televisions. Assuming that future streaming-stick products from Roku, Google, and other major players have similar capabilities and similar price points, consumers will be able to add the feature set of a high-end smart TV to any HDMI-equipped television for less than $40 without increasing the television's footprint.

Impacts/Disruptions

Smart-TV feature sets have not resonated with end users to the extent that manufacturers had hoped they would. In contrast, streaming devices, which offer access to the same services that smart-TV features do, have enjoyed high popularity and user engagement. This popularity has led to a fertile third-party-developer ecosystem that engages in continuous software improvement, which has thus far eluded smart-TV makers. Now that streaming sticks are becoming more powerful, the app ecosystem that surrounds them likely will become much more diverse and valuable.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Smart TV, television manufacturing, home automation, home entertainment, broadband connectivity, content production, data analytics, application marketplaces, software

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Riftmax Theater

Why is this topic significant?

Riftmax Theater is a software application for virtual-reality headsets from Oculus VR. The application enables multiple users to access a shared virtual theater space over a broadband connection. Users can interact with one another or watch videos and movies together inside the virtual theater.

Riftmax Theater is an application for computers equipped with virtual-reality (VR) headsets from Oculus VR. The software creates a VR representation of a large movie theater—which includes adjacent rooms and hallways—and a second large theater with a stage and talk-show-style props for performances. The software enables users to create humanlike avatars and to use those avatars to interact with the virtual environment and other users' avatars. Avatars tilt their heads in sync with the users' real-world head movements (which sensors on the Oculus headsets interpret). The software also supports Razer's Hydra handheld motion controllers, which track users' hand movements; Hydra users' avatars replicate those hand movements in the virtual environment. The software plays back user-supplied video on the theater's large screen. Users can also talk to one another using microphones and headsets. The software attempts to mimic a real-world conversational environment through the use of acoustic models that control the volume and positioning of users' voices.

Thus far, Riftmax Theater has been accessible to only a niche of dedicated and tech-savvy users. Much like the Oculus VR headsets that its users wear, the software is still in the early stages of development and has many bugs that require complex work-arounds. Nevertheless, users who have been able to run Riftmax say they generally have had positive experiences—especially with the software's ability to create a convincing sense of a shared physical space for human social interaction and with the "natural" feel of interacting with other users.

Implications

Long before the broadband revolution, people were using home computers to connect with one another across vast distances and interact together in shared virtual spaces. Indeed, the concept of a virtual movie theater in which peoples' avatars gather to watch a video together is an old one. But even richly detailed 3D environments such as those in Second Life have provided users with only very limited ability to share a convincing virtual environment in which they can watch a movie together or engage in some other social activity. Oculus VR replaces a computer screen with a medium for immersing users in a virtual environment so completely that virtual social activities apparently do feel just like real ones.

Impacts/Disruptions

Riftmax Theater's becoming a mainstream success in its own right would be a very surprising development. The software nevertheless provides a concrete example of the inherently compelling nature of VR-based social interaction and of the potential that interacting with other people in VR has to become a mainstream activity. For many users, the best place to interact with others in VR will be in the comfort of their homes; home broadband connections might take on an enhanced level of importance in the lives of such users.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Broadband connectivity, virtual reality, gaming, social networking, retail, health care, elder care, telecommunications, telework

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: