"Imagine your wife could be watching Sex in the City while you're watching a sports game, but on the same TV, and you could control it all from your iPad," is how SkreensTV was first described to me. Besides the myriad things wrong with this scenario happening in the first place (I don't like sports that much, and my wife is up to date with SitC, thanks), I was curious about anything that's trying to make sharing the largest screen in my house work better than it does.
This has become a first-world problem
For better or for worse (but mostly worse), this has become a first-world problem, one with many solutions. If someone wants to watch something you don't, you can pretty much tune out while still being there. You're a jerk for doing it, but it's possible, and getting easier all the time thanks to phones and tablets. That solution still leaves someone with a big screen and others with their own devices. It's disjointed, and imperfect.
SkreensTV is a $499 product that attempts to solve that problem in the same way pizza places let you order different toppings on the same pie. It's designed to turn one TV screen into many, thanks to a smallish box that lets you plug in multiple HDMI sources and runs software that organizes them on your TV, just like picture in a picture. Want to put an Xbox game next to the TV show you're watching? It can do that. You can also throw up an Apple TV or Roku box too. And maybe even a web browser. The main limit is how big your TV is, and perhaps if you have developed supreme TV multitasking abilities from growing up in sports bars and Las Vegas casinos.
To creator Mark Todd, who spent more than a decade running a video analytics company, that scenario doesn't seem too far off. While developing the box, Todd says his own big screen TV in the living room became a scene of programming mayhem as his neighbors came over to test it out.
"Marc, we're going to need a bigger TV."
"We started having game days on Sunday. The neighborhood kids figured out what I could do, and so I ended up with kids just piling all in the room," Todd recalls. "My wife comes in and I'm thinking she's going to say ‘all right, everyone out!' I mean, we even have the dog in there, and she says ‘Marc, we're going to need a bigger TV.' And I'm thinking [quality assurance] done. That's what we wanted, we wanted people together."
The small box goes up for presale today on Indiegogo with a $100 discount, an avenue Todd's turned to for both marketing, and to gauge interest. He funded the company himself, as well as with an angel investment, and has basically been working on it on his own. Even so, he says his design, which includes custom-designed silicon, is ready to go. The working pre-production model I saw was a little larger, but fully functioning.
The SkreensTV takes up to five HDMI inputs at up to 1080p each, then combines it into one 1080p signal that's plugged into your TV and receiver. You control which ones are on screen at any time and how they're positioned by using a companion tablet app. It comes with presets, but you can also resize and reposition any window, and then save those configurations like you would a layout in Photoshop. Behind the scenes, it's taking all those sources and combining them into one signal. Todd's software takes those signals and handles where they are on the screen, something that initially caused a 7 second signal delay on his prototype hardware, but that he now says takes about 32 milliseconds (which is nearly instantaneous) thanks to newer hardware. A software update sometime next year will eventually let the hardware output unconverted 4K, so that you can get crisper images on high-end TV sets.
Hearing your own show becomes the new problem
The big question, though, is how the system handles sound. Todd's answer to that is to let people tap into each separate sound stream on their phone or tablet. The box has built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and will let you hop between audio sources for listening using headphones. Otherwise, you pick which input you want the sound coming from using the tablet app, and it will come through your TV or receiver. That doesn't quite solve the problem of togetherness in the sense of having a shared, communal experience. Todd contends that the alternative is someone making the programming decisions that alienate everyone else, and that this way kids won't just go off unsupervised.
"In my house ... the kids, they'll have xbox tournaments in the room while I'm able to go watch the news," Todd says. "That's a big deal because my wife — as a mother — just likes to see the kids in the room."
Todd imagines two groups of people who will definitely want to buy the box: gamers and sports fans. To both, he's pitching a way to save money versus buying multiple TVs. "At night, basketball, hockey, and football all play at the same time. And you also have things like the Olympics and March Madness," Todd says. "There's a reason sports bars make a lot of money. It's because you want to get a much better experience."
"One TV is going to turn into five or six TVs."
To come back to the original question of whether this really solves that problem of people being unable to settle on something to watch, Todd says this gives you the option of diverging on a choice but still being together. Then the only struggle becomes who gets to listen through speakers versus who's stuck with headphones, and maybe even who gets stuck with a smaller screen.
"With this, you don't lose anything of the TV today, because if you want to make everything fullscreen you can do that fullscreen, you're just adding an extra dimension," he says. "One TV is going to turn into five or six TVs."