Getting online video content off the small screens in people's bedrooms and studies and onto the big screens in their lounges is a nut that a whole bunch of big media companies have been spending a lot of time and money trying to crack.
Microsoft was one of the first out of the blocks with Windows XP Media Center, launched way back in October 2004. More than two years on and Bill Gates' dream of a Media Center PC under every TV is still just that, a dream. Put simply, not enough people were willing to shell out for a dedicated media hub to sit in their front room. Whilst the integration of Windows Media Center into Vista (Premium and Ultimate editions) will massively increase the number of Media Center PCs in the market, most of them will be sat on a desk rather than beneath a TV screen.
Apple took a different approach, bundling Front Row with all Macs from October 2005 onwards but waiting until January 2007 to finally bridge the PC/TV gap by launching a set top box (cunningly named Apple TV) capable of wirelessly streaming video (and audio) from your computer to your television. The obvious shortcoming of Apple TV (apart from the fact that it's still not shipping) is that it only works with iTunes.
So, if Windows Media Center and Apple TV aren't yet delivering online video to people's television sets in serious numbers, what is? The answer is the latest generation of game consoles, which are increasingly looking like the trojan horse of the digital home, delivering so much more than small Italian plumbers and hyperactive blue hedgehogs.
One such trojan horse is Nintendo's Wii, which, having sold 4.5 million units in its first three months of launch, is now the fastest-selling console in history. The launch of a (free) Wii-specific beta version of the Opera web browser (a.k.a. Internet Channel) last December turned those 4.5 million Wii's into potential conduits for online video. Whilst the browser can successfully render most webpages, it wasn't long before sites specially designed for the Wii began appearing. Below is a quick compendium of some of the best Wii-specific sites for accessing online video and music.
What's noticeable about these sites is how well designed many of the interfaces are. The limitations of the Wii controller and the likely distance of the user from the screen have forced the designers to come up with bold, simple interfaces which in many cases outshine their web-based cousins (compare the FineTune Wii Player with the regular FineTune site).
Wii video sites
As the name suggests, MiiTube is specially designed for watching YouTube videos on your Wii. The homepage pulls in YouTube's 'featured videos' and there are separate pages for 'recently added', 'top favourites' and a selection of 'most viewed' charts (i.e. daily, weekly, all time) plus a 'viral chart'. For a site whose USP is accessibility on the Wii, some of the text could do with being a bit larger and there's no option to increase the video size (which you can do on the regular YouTube site).
Another Wii-friendly window on YouTube, with an infinitely swisher interface, WiiToob's homepage is dominated by a dynamically updating list of recently viewed videos, an alarming proportion of which are not suitable for the office. You're better off heading straight to the 'most viewed' or 'most discussed' lists. Giant font sizes and a visual style which successfully apes Nintendo make WiiToob a joy to navigate.
RedKawa certainly thought outside the box when developing the interface for SofaTube, using search rather than lists as the main mechanism for finding videos and deciding to present the featured videos as a jumble of Polaroid-style tiles which can be dragged, dropped and bought to the front. It's a neat idea which almost works but ultimately feels a bit gimmicky.
SofaTube's key differentiator from MiiTube and WiiToob is that it indexes videos from Revver as well as YouTube (although you can't search the two together and I wasn't actually able to get the Revver videos to play). Another niggle is that the search results don't fit on the screen (horizontally or vertically) which feels frustrating when the site has just accurately detected what browser I'm using.
An innovative approach let down by poor implementation.
Wii music sites
FineTune Wii Player
The FineTune Wii Player is a big-button version of the Pandora-esque online music service, FineTune (reviewed on this blog a few weeks back), offering streamed playlists/radio stations themed around artist or tag. It boasts a gorgeous interface and enables you to log on to your online profile to access your saved playlists, artists and tags.
Besides a pun-tastic name, WiiHear offers genre-based streaming radio stations (85 stations across 15 different genres at the time of writing) and supports the three 'R's of Web 2.0 sites (reviews, ratings and recommendations). The interface isn't a polished as FineTune's with too much small text, although there are a few nice touches, such as the 'past tracks played' lists which accompany every station.
The number of Wii-specific video and music sites is sure to mushroom over the coming weeks and months (keep an eye on Wiidesigned.com) and will no doubt soon be joined by an array of sites tailored specially for Sony's PS3 (which launches in the UK on March 23rd and features a built-in browser). Opera has also indicated that Wii web widgets are on the cards, which could be very interesting.
As suggested in my earlier post on key technology trends for 2007, the converged digital media hub is arriving by stealth. The next trojan horse looks likely to be the set-top box, which are getting smarter and more connected by the day.