ZeeVee Launches Free, Browser-based Version of Zviewer Video Portal
There’s a new development in the saga of ZeeVee, the Littleton, MA, startup that makes a “localcasting” PC-to-HDTV appliance called the ZvBox. It’s taking the best part of its appliance—an elegant user interface that aggregates video from across the Internet—and making it available to all Windows computer users over the Web.
The newly liberated “ZViewer” functions as a kind of Internet equivalent of TiVo, but without the recording function. In other words, it provides a simple, attractive interface that you can easily manipulate even if you’re sitting 10 feet away from your TV screen. It also lets you subscribe to your favorite TV shows, then alerts you when new episodes are available online, even if they’re at disparate sites like Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, or the TV network sites.
It’s an interesting move for ZeeVee, which has had trouble working the kinks out of its primary product, the ZvBox itself. The device is designed to enable living-room viewing of Internet video, by taking the video signal from your PC—even if it’s located in your den or your basement—and piping it over the coaxial cables inside your walls to your HDTV. I greeted that idea enthusiastically in my May story about the company’s debut, but then panned the actual hardware after I had a chance to test it out in September.
I concluded, after running into one technical snafu after another, that the ZvBox needs some reengineering before average consumers will have a shot at making it work with their existing computer and video equipment. Indeed, when I spoke yesterday with ZeeVee co-founder and CEO Vic Odryna, he called my review “pretty well right on” and said that the company has “spent a lot of time addressing” the kinds of compatibility issues I encountered. ZeeVee will be coming out with “some pretty significant improvements” to the ZvBox by year’s end, Odryna said.
That’s something to look forward to. But meanwhile, the company is going Web-wide with the one part of the ZvBox system that it clearly got right—the Zviewer software, which I described in my review as “by far the coolest thing about ZvBox.” You can sign up to try the beta version of the software on your Windows computer here; it’s an 18.5-megabyte download that works with Mozilla’s Firefox browser.
If you connect your desktop or laptop PC to your HDTV through a VGA cable, you can then use the Zviewer screen as a convenient clearinghouse for free Internet video from sites like Hulu, YouTube, ABC.com, CNN.com, MTV, Joost, and Miro, as well as paid on-demand video from iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. There’s also a “local content” tab that shows you thumbnails of videos stored on your computer. Once you select a video to watch, Zviewer sends you directly to that video’s home site or application.
You can operate Zviewer directly from your computer (for that matter, you don’t even have to hook up your PC to a TV to use it—it provides a nice way to browse videos even if you’re sitting right at your computer). But it also responds to commands from any remote control that’s compatible with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, or from ZeeVee’s own ZvRemote, which has a cool built-in track pad. (Right now you can only get the ZvRemote as part of the ZvBox package, but Odryna says the remote will be available for purchase separately by the end of this month.)
From a technical perspective, “this is really a way to put a 10-foot graphical user interface on existing Web video properties without having to rebuild those properties,” says Odryna. “Most media files can be described by a tile containing a thumbnail picture with a bit of information underneath—a title, the season and episode number, the length in minutes. It’s fairly easy to build a tile for every piece of content a website might have, and suck those in and present them in a unified way.”
ZeeVee has already created Zviewer tiles for prominent video sites like YouTube, ABC.com, and Hulu just by reformatting the information in their RSS feeds. Odryna says the company will soon publish the XML specifications for its tiles so that anyone who publishes video online can create a custom Zviewer button. “If you have a gardening website and you’ve got 40 videos, you can create a feed describing those and your videos will show up in the Zviewer” right alongside the latest episodes of Heroes or Desperate Housewives, he explains.
Why would ZeeVee give away the best part of the ZvBox experience to all comers? Contrary to what you might assume, the company isn’t out to sell advertising. “There’s nothing in our current plans” about monetizing the Zviewer service, Odryna says. “You won’t see ads littering it. Our goal is very simple—we believe the ZvBox creates a very unique way to bridge the Internet and the HDTVs in your house. The more people can get comfortable watching video on the Internet, the more likely our main business will succeed.”