ZeeVee Makes Watching Your PC on Your HDTV EeZee

It’s one of those strange ironies in consumer technology. Now that it’s possible to buy a flat-screen HDTV for under $1,000, millions of American homes boast huge, beautiful high-definition displays. But as anyone who has invested in an HDTV knows, only a fraction of the content available from broadcasters and cable systems is in high definition. And high-definition DVDs are still rare and expensive, thanks to the lengthy, destructive, and confusing war between proponents of the BluRay and HD-DVD formats.

Meanwhile, the real explosion in high-definition media content is happening on the Internet. ABC.com offers streaming, high-definition versions of popular shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, and Lost. Hulu, the streaming video site headlined by content from NBC and Fox, includes a high-definition gallery, and video sharing sites like Vimeo include thousands of homemade HD videos. But for the most part, it’s only possible to view all of this cool high-resolution content on the relatively tiny screens of our laptops and desktop PCs.

What’s needed, obviously, is an easy way to use your computer to collect HD content and then use your HDTV to actually watch it. Sure, you can buy a special cable to connect your computer’s VGA or mini-DVI port to your TV’s DVI input—in effect, turning your HDTV into an external monitor for your PC. (In fact, that’s exactly what I wrote about last week in my column about turning your HDTV into a digital art gallery.) But unless you get a really long cable, you’re going to wind up sitting about two feet away from your giant screen. And if you do get a longer one, well, you’ll still be tethered to your TV, with a thick, unsightly cable snaking across your living room.

For the last three years, a stealth-mode company in Littleton , MA, called ZeeVee has been working on a solution for this problem. And today it’s taking the lid off its new technology, which it calls “localcasting.”

ZeeVee’s ZvBoxThe ZeeVee system is built around a small device called a ZvBox that connects to your computers’s VGA and USB ports on one end and to a cable TV jack on the other. It’s basically a miniaturized version of the same television servers that TV stations use to turn recorded TV shows into the digital signals that are sent over the cable system to your home—except that broadcasters pay upwards of $50,000 for their versions, whereas the ZvBox will cost $499.

The ZvBox turns your home PC into a local-area TV transmitter, sending a high-definition signal to any TV in your home over the coaxial TV cable already installed inside the walls of your house or apartment. Once it’s set up, you can designate any unused channel on your TV as the ZeeVee channel, which you can then tune to just as if it were a regular broadcast channel. But the programming on this channel is the content stored on your computer—which you can access either directly, using your computer’s regular desktop interface, or through an elegant new graphical interface called the “Zviewer.”

ZeeVee’s designers dreamed up Zviewer in order to make it easier to browse content on your computer from your couch, which is likely 10 or more feet away from the screen. To navigate the Zviewer interface, ZeeVee provides an advanced remote control with a built-in touchpad, which takes the place of a computer mouse. The whole ZeeVee bundle—including the box, the remote, and all the necessary cables and splitters—is available for pre-order on Amazon.com starting today, with the first shipments expected on June 30.

ZeeVee’s Zviewer interfaceBrian Mahony, ZeeVee’s vice president of marketing, argues that a ZeeVee box is a better investment than other types of TV peripherals such as AppleTV, and possibly even better than paying for cable service from the likes of Comcast. “The whole set-top box business model is fundamentally broken,” he says. “By the time you’ve set up a cable box, a high-definition DVD player, a game console, and a DVR, what you’ve got is basically a kludgy PC. And each of those devices has a two- to three-year development cycle. Meanwhile there is a tremendous amount of innovation in the software marketplace, all of which is immediately available on your PC. We are basically opening a portal” to that innovation.

Since the ZeeVee equipment isn’t available yet, I haven’t tried it. But based on my conversations with folks at ZeeVee and the literature the company has released, I think Mahony has a good point, and I can see a number of other, more mundane plusses to the localcasting approach.

One is that it gets rid of the external cables you’d otherwise need to link your PC to your TV. Another is that it lets you … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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