The Future of TV: Instant Access TV Project

My post about the new Apple TV sucking has generated a lot of traffic.  I thought I’d follow it up with my own impression of what would be a whole lot better.

About a year ago I started a project that I continue to fine tune, but I have perfected it enough to explain.  This is a project so cool everyone will want to do it, and I suspect in the near future, there will be online services and special hardware to make this a lot easier than it currently is.

Basically the project involves doing to TV and movies what MP3 has done to music.  I am converting all video from multiple sources to unencrypted MP4/h.264 video.  It is all 480i format for compactness and mobility. MP4 files are playable on pretty much anything, though the best looking playback is on a Playstation 3 which has the best upscaling technology to turn 480i picture to 1080i without the picture looking slightly fuzzy.  I can also take the videos with me on my ipod touch and watch anywhere.

The bottom line is that I have instant access to all my favorite movies and TV shows without ever having to find a DVD to put in, and no buffering issues or commercials that you get with online TV services.  Just a few clicks, and there it is.  I pair this tech with online services to discover new shows, as well as an aerial antenna/TV Tuner card/Windows Media Center for local TV.  No cable, no satellite, no expensive fiber based TV service.

This all sounds obvious and you are probably asking why hasn’t anyone done this before, and the answer is that only recently the storage has gotten cheap enough and the tech good enough to do this with satisfactory results.

The Hardware

There are three components to instant access TV, a computer of course, a mass storage device preferably a networked NAS box with uPnP server software but a large (1TB or bigger) external usb 2.0 hard drive formatted in FAT32 format works too, and a playback device — ideally a PlayStation 3, but anything that can handle uPnP or that can read the external hard drive (Wii and XBOX360 both can) will do.

The computer converts all your files to MP4 format and moves them to the storage device, and the player plays the video from the storage device.  Its the same as ripping CDs to mp3 files and storing them on your mp3 player, only we are doing it with video which are significantly larger in size.

The Software

The software I use to convert all video to the same MP4/h.264 format is all free, or included in Windows.  The biggest challenge is that the ripping/converting process is very time consuming compared to audio ripping and converting.  The programs I use are Windows Media Center, DVD Decrypter, Handbrake, MCEBuddy, Avidemux, and Download Helper.  If you don’t already have it, VLC Media Player is very helpful too.  Everything I will be describing below is legal in the US as long as it is for personal use only, this may not be true in other countries.  Distributing copyrighted video in any format is illegal.

DVDs to MP4s

Most DVDs contain 4 to 8 GB of data, and yet converting it to an MP4 file will reduce a movie to around 1 GB file, Half hour TV shows are around 200mb, and hour longs are around 400mb.  A 1 TB drive can store 2500 hours of TV and movies in the MP4 format.

DVDs are the best source for MP4 data, which is odd because DVDs are supposed to be a dying format.  Until a service like itunes can sell unencrypted mp4 files, DVD is the best source.  DVDs are themselves protected, but easy to unprotect. For 32-bit Windows you can use DVD43, have it run in the background, then just use windows to copy the files from a DVD to your hard drive, and DVD43 will unencrypt as they are being copied.  For 64-bit I use DVD Decrypter, which is a little bit buggy but quickly creates an unencrypted mirror to your hard drive.  You can use VLC Media Player to test your decrypted image.  Not all DVDs are convertible this way, though I know tricks to get around more stringent protection.

Once you have a decrypted image, you can use Handbrake to create MP4 files. For maximum compatibility  and best file compression, you want to use “Regular Normal” for everything.  For movies there is one really big title, for TV show DVDs there are multiple titles to convert.  You can use VLC to figure out which titles go with which episode.

Note: Handbrake will use every last bit of CPU power available while converting, slowing your computer to a crawl while converting. I set up a queue of conversions to do, then let my computer do them in the middle of the night, so they are done the next morning.

Windows Media Center DVR recordings to MP4s

Even though DVDs are the best source for MP4s, DVDs themselves are not free, and not all TV shows end up on DVD either.  It is possible instead to record TV and convert that to mp4.

Windows Media Center is the best DVR software out there. Just like all other DVR software, you can schedule recordings, pause live TV etc.  The problem is that to record HDTV programs it uses a hell of a lot of hard drive space, about 6 and a half gigabytes for an hour long program, and you still have to fast forward through commercials.

I record my shows to a dedicated folder called “Recorded TV”.  Within this folder are two sub folders called “To Convert” and “Converted”.  I have a program called MCEBuddy which runs in the background looking to see if any new WTV files have been added to the “To Convert” directory.  When it sees one, the program efficiently converts the file to mp4 and stores it in the “Converted” directory about an hour later. Again MCE buddy uses a lot of CPU resources, so don’t drag and drop WTV files while playing video games.

Now the finished mp4 files are still going to have commercials, and that is where Avidemux comes in. Avidemux is a quick and dirty editor, which is worthless if you want to do anything fancy (it has a tendency to unsync the audio and video tracks, especially if you try appending files) but all we want to do is edit out the commercials, which once you get used to using the program, can be done in a few minutes per episode.  When you start Avidemux, set the format to MP4.  When you load a converted show, it is going to say h.264 detected with a warning, say YES to this. There are 3 ways to move through the video, there is a slide bar (the fastest), arrow frame buttons < >, and double arrow key frame buttons << >>.  There are two select buttons, “A” begin block, and “B” end block.  To edit out the beginning, use the KEYFRAME buttons to find the beginning of the program (your final video must begin on a key frame) then hit B to select the non-program stuff at the beginning. Then just hit the Del key and it is gone.  Then use the slide bar and frame buttons to find the beginning of commercials, press A, find the end of the commercials, press B, then Del, and the commercials are gone.  Once at the end of the program, press A then Del to get rid of the end stuff.  Now you can save your commercial free MP4 file.

Online Videos to MP4s

Don’t try this with Hulu,, Netflix or other protected sites like that.  There are programs out there to do those sites, but they are not free, not entirely legal, and they record off your video card, recording all the buffering stutters in low format video and ultimately look crappy.

This is for collecting video from sites like You Tube that you can’t get any other way.  All you need is DownloadHelper.  Some sites like You Tube offer video already in MP4 format, which DownloadHelper will download for you, or if all you can get is FLV files, you can use Handbrake to convert them to MP4.


Once you start collecting MP4 files, it is all a matter of organizing them. I keep them on an NAS for easy access, and also on an external drive as backup.  Having all this video instantly accessible is far superior to all other forms of tv watching.  The chore of finding the disk, putting it in, wading through all the warnings and previews and menus before your movie starts is gone.  Its commercial free with no buffering issues.

This, and PlayOn,  is how I watch TV now.  The money that I would spend on cable or satellite TV, is being spent on new video acquisitions, which I can spend as much or as little as I want each month. I stopped buying TV and movies from Apple, because they are encrypted and only viewable on certain devices. MP4s are viewable on anything.

Why Open Sim is the Future Metaverse (and why it is not the present)

I have been following the Open Sim development for a couple of years now. Some of the latest developments have convinced me that if there is ever going to be a 3D internet, it will be based on Open Sim. I say this knowing that Open Sim currently has a rather low population of participants, low enough that one could question the sanity of such a statement.  Well here is a brief summary of this conclusion.

What is a 3D internet?
A 3D internet is one that is navigable in 3 dimensions rather than two. Instead of websites, you have explorable regions. Instead of 2D text chatting, you have 3D avatar chats.

Why is a 3D internet inevitable?
Sometimes things can be explained easier visually rather than textually, and 3D often gets visual points across better than 2D. For example if you are a photographer with a website, and you want people to see your photographs and find the ones they like best for purchase, the “slideshow” approach is a bad way to do it. After the 4th or 5th click, people start to wonder if it is worth it. Immerse the visitor into a 3D gallery of your photos and people will venture around, allowing them to find the pictures they most like fast.

Hyperlinks in 3D

The thing that got me interested in talking about the 3D web again is the recent development of  “hypergrid” teleporting.  Teleporting from region to region is easy if your start point and end point are on the same grid, but the 2D World Wide Web is built on the ability to move from page to page, where the pages are often on different sites and different hosts.  The development of a 3D web requires the ability to move from grid to grid, and from host to host.

While far from perfect, that obstacle has been resolved.  It is now possible to move from grid to grid without needing to create accounts on every grid or closing your browser.  The picture above is the OSGrid me meeting the Reaction Grid me after clicking on a “hypergrid” link.

It works similarly to the slurl’s in SL except if your destination is on a different grid, your avatar is uploaded to the new grid and your name changes to firstname.lastname @ gridyoucamefrom to prevent conflicting names. It is really cool when it works, but unfortunately a lot can go wrong.  Instructions can be found here, if you want to try it.

Not all hypergrid enabled regions can reach all other hypergrid regions.  Took me about a dozen tried to find a combo that worked.  To get from OSGrid to Reaction Grid, I found a region called Hypergrid Market Middle on OSGrid (a very boring place BTW), then clicked on this link: secondlife://

Eventually all the bugs will get ironed out and an independent 3D web will really start to develop.

Why will the 3D Internet be based on Open Sim?
It wont be Second Life.  There are many reasons. First, a 3D internet cannot be controlled by one company.  Second, it is inappropriate for a 3D internet to be under a virtual economy if it is going to be universally adapted.  Thirdly, the designers of Open Sim are moving away from SL’s strict protocols.  Open Sim regions no longer have to be strictly 256m x 256m, they can be larger.  Researchers have managed to put 200 avatars on a single region, and have run up to 40 regions on a single server.  Open Sim offers a flexibility that SL cannot offer.

It wont Be Blue Mars, IMVU or any other current 3D Virtual World. These all do what they do well enough, but they are all designed to be proprietary.  IMVU is strictly a chat program in 3D, Blue Mars is a gaming platform.

The only real open flexible 3D platform that could be competitive is  OpenCobalt.  It interfaces with Google protocols allowing Sketchup KMZ files used in Google Earth, allowing import of the huge library of 3D objects in Google’s database, as well as in the OBJ format.  This is stuff OpenSim still can not do.  My knowledge of OpenCobalt is small, but there are three reasons why OpenSim will win: 1. it is already proven scalable technology, 2. More developers are working on Open Sim than OpenCobalt, 3. It is a lot easier to add KMZ and OBJ support to OpenSim than it is to add the OpenSim scalable multi-region stuff to OpenCobalt.

Of course, something designed from scratch could be better than OpenSim, but it would take years to develop, and OpenSim has a huge head start.  Network protocols could be designed to replace TCP/IP as well, but would never be implemented because TCP/IP is too well entrenched.  I believe we have reached a point where we are stuck with OpenSim.  Improving the platform is easier than rewriting it.

If OpenSim is the future, why is it not more popular now?
This is a very valid question.  SL has more than three times as many regions (32,000) as all of the OpenSim Grids combined (10,500).  The OpenSim grids are growing at a rate of 10% a month so far this year, while SL has only grown 1.4%.  That’s the best stat comparison.

SL has more than 500 times the number of accounts as OpenSim, and over 100 times the number of active players.  At any given time, about 60 to 70% of all regions in SL are uninhabited. In OpenSim, that percent is closer to 99%.  OpenSims one advantage is cost.  It costs 10 times as much to get a dedicated region in SL as it does to get one on OSGrid, but your SL region is 100 times more likely to get visitors than in OS, so if you want visitors, the premium is probably worth it.

Why the horrible stats?  I like to think of the 2D internet as it existed 20 years ago.  SL is AOL, and the WWW is a couple of years away.  The people who were on the web at that time were students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.  So who are the few people on OpenSim?  students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.

When it became obvious that the open WWW was superior to AOL, everyone flocked to WWW.  I’m hopeful that history will repeat again with OS and SL.  On the other hand, maybe it is more accurate to think of SL as “Windows” and OS as “Linux”, and OS will be forever stuck as a niche platform despite its parity.

What Tech Will be Gone in the NEXT Decade

I saw an article last week on a list of things that have nearly disappeared over the last decade. The list consist of:  calling, newspaper classifieds, dial up internet, encyclopedias, CDs,  land line phones, film photography, yellow pages and address books, catalogs, fax machines, wires, hand written letters.  All of them are still around, they are just becoming archaic or obsolete.

I suspect that over the next decade, there will be other things that are common today that will become archaic and decline over time.

Broadcast Network Television – Rupert Murdoch who runs Fox is already trying to kill the Fox broadcast network and turn it into a cable/Satellite only network.  He also has plans to turn all of his news sites into subscription only, which is likely to fail miserably, but his plans for TV actually make financial sense.  If so, NBC, CBS, and ABC could follow suit, and Broadcast TV as a mainstream media outlet will be dead.  Now if AM Radio can survive for 100 years, so can Broadcast TV. It will just have a lot more infomercials and pointless talk shows (just like AM radio) to fill in the gap.

Satellite Television – You are probably wondering why I would predict the downfall of Satellite after predicting the end of broadcast.  It is quite easy: The future of TV is instant access.  This is doable on internet based TV services like Uverse and FiOS, and even possible with cable services via broadband internet if you have a receiver that can buffer the show as you download.  It is not doable on Satellite. This plus the huge overhead cost of Satellite TV services will spell doom for these services.  I’d even go as far as to predict that one of the two major satellite services (Direct TV or Dish Network) will  stop satellite operations and close, or jump to the IP TV market instead.

Multiplex Theaters – Multiplexes with their 24 small theater screens are likely to head to the scrap heap. Large theaters with big (or IMAX) screens capable of 3D and digital projection will replace them. The multiplex experience is too close to home theater, and with high costs of going out to the theater, it is likely to decline in popularity.

DVDs – Just as CDs started to disappear last decade, DVDs are likely to disappear this decade with widespread On Demand TV and game download services.  BluRay will never be more than a niche market as well. This will also include video games on DVD media. Not only will places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video start disappearing, but those Red Box dispensers will too eventually.

Printed Newspapers and Magazines – Between the Internet, and the Kindle, print is dead.  Online news papers will still exist, some may even thrive via online delivery options, but papers you read by spreading it out on the kitchen table will disappear.

Big Box Bookstores – Just as the giant chain record stores have disappeared with the demise of the CD, the giant chain bookstores will disappear with the demise of print.  Small specialty shops will still be around (rare book stores and comic book stores), as will book departments in department stores. But as more people convert to tablets, like Kindle and the Nook, and access to online libraries to go in them, the market for printed books will be dead.

Libraries – Between budget cuts and new technology, libraries will get rarer and rarer. All the major cities and universities will still keep them around, but with the primary use of the libraries being free internet sources these days, providing free “hot spots” around town is cheaper and can promote commerce in those designated areas.

Gas powered vehicles – Over the next decade, oil production is going to be level or in decline. We are going to be forced to find ways to use less oil, or live in a new Great Depression. Considering the sheer number of gas powered vehicles there are, it seems quite bold to predict their demise, but I foresee natural gas powered hybrids, plug in hybrids and pure electric vehicles (including electric bicycles) dominating the road within a decade… either that or $20 a gallon gas.

Incadescent bulbs – CFLs and LEDs for the win! This one’s a no brainer.

Hard Drives – The one weak point in computers today are the hard drives. They are physical devices with high RPM spin that are almost guaranteed to fail within 5 years. Average life span is around 3. The thing that has kept them around for so long is that solid state drives are still slower, hold less data, and more expensive.  I believe hard drives are at their peak right now.  There is little need for faster or bigger hard drives than what we have now.  If solid state drives can catch up to where hard drives are today, and that is a very likely scenario in the next decade, hard drives will become obsolete.

Desktop computers – You know those big boxes with 2 or 3 DVD burners and 2 or 3 big Sata drives powered by 500 watt power supplies sitting under your desk like the one I am using right now? Archaic dinosaurs by the end of the next decade! I think the 10s will see the end of Moore’s law of bigger and faster, replaced by smaller and more energy efficient. The big desktop computer under my desk is likely to be the size of my ipod touch in 10 years powered by a 30 watt power adapter — and just as powerful.  Its tempting to just predict everyone will use laptops, as that trend is already coming to pass, but the primary attraction of desktops is gaming, which is doable on laptops but it is awkward.  The primary components to the desktop is the full size monitor and the full size keyboard.  Monitors won’t be shrinking in size any, and LED backlighting, touch screens, and 3D capabilities will become more common place.  This pretty much guarantees there will be a place for non-mobile computing, it is the CPU part of the computer that will be getting smaller and more energy efficient.  It may even get small enough to carry around with you to move to different keyboard/monitor “terminals”.

The key to the next decade is energy efficiency.  All signs point to energy being a major concern in the next 10 years.  The more energy efficient our tech, the less impact energy shortages will have, and the cheaper it will be to live.

Why BUILDERBOT is an Awesome Idea!

The Second Life world seems to have its panties in a bunch over a new 3rd party utility by Rezzable dubbed Builderbot.

Basically, Builderbot can copy every object in an Second Life sim and put it into an OAR file that can be loaded onto any OpenSim server, thus making a near exact copy (scripts as usual are a problem).  They also are creating an OAR editor, and (even more impressively) a way to port OAR files into Second Life, thus making transfers from OpenSim to Second Life possible.

There are two things that are upsetting to the Second Life community: 1. Builderbot does not look at copy permissions or ownership, it just copies everything on the sim. 2. Rezzable was planning to release the SL to OAR part of the Builderbot for free.  These things had the whole community grabbing torches and pitchforks ready to boycot Rezzable. Rezzable finally gave into demand and will not be releasing the SL to OAR part free.

Hate to be the person that disagrees with pretty much everybody on this issue, but maybe I’m the only one who sees the big picture. Builderbot is an awesome idea and a key component to expansion of the 3D web. It is probably the most important 3rd party SL utility ever, and if Rezzable doesn’t release theirs, someone out there should release something similar, including the ignoring copy permissions and ownership part.

Mobile Building

Lets start with the obvious need for Builderbot. Currently, putting a build in Second Life requires that you actually be in Second Life and spend sometimes weeks building there, paying monthly tier as you build. If you want to take your time and do it right it will cost you. Then there is the occasional system hiccup that could cost you hours of work.

Builderbot does two things, it moves the building part of the project off the SL grid. You can now build your server build on your own computer, no system outages to worry about. You can save and backup your work to OAR files as often as you like. If you make a mistake, just load the latest backup. When you are done building and ready to move your build to SL, it can be moved into SL in a matter of minutes, or at most hours. This is the primary design of this program.

Fixing SL’s Design Flaws

Second Life as it was initially concieved is a flawed system. Whoever thought it was a good idea to equate Real Estate with computing power, I hope they have learned a valuable lesson. I have written about this major flaw before. Bottom line, SL runs on thousands of computers, and as many as 80% are not doing anything at any given time.

The obvious fix is to store unused regions in memory and load them up to an available server as needed. Linden Labs could cut their server need by 50-75% with such a system.

They could also bring up mirrored instances of extra busy servers. Want to give a concert that 1,000 people can attand? Just copy the build on 10 different servers that can service 100 people each. If more people want to show up, add more instances.

None of this is possible without a reliable backup system. OpenSim has OAR files, SL has got copybot (basically nothing). What Rezzable is doing is creating a tool to save SL regions as OAR files that can be stored when not in use, quickly loaded when needed, quickly mirrored on multiple servers. Obviously there is some extra programming involved to do all this, but considering the cost savings it is definitely something worth doing.

Why it is necessary to ignore permissions

The biggest concern from most of the Second Life players, is that Builderbot ignores permission. Copy a region, move to OpenSim, and everything in that region has no permissions at all. Anything in Second Life could be quickly copied, permissions be damned.

Rezzable argues that there is nothing in SL that cant be copied already. Players argue “True, but you shouldn’t make it so easy.”

Building a region is like building a website. I build websites myself and anyone can steal my code by right clicking and click “view source”, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. It is super easy.

What most Second Life players  are asking for is DRM management for SL content!

DRM has been a failure everywhere it is tried. Music, video, ebooks, the case against DRM is pretty clear. Read to find out why. How many of you asking for DRM for SL have stripped DRM off a music or video file so you can play it in the format you want?

A Future Marketplace

I come from the 3D Artist community where people build and sell detailed models for use in other people’s projects. All of these models are distributed DRM free and fully copyable and sharable. Yes, there is piracy in 3D models, but it is part of the cost of doing business. But since I do artwork I may want to sell, I pay for all my models and commercial licenses.  This business model is where the 3D web (SL and Opensim) will eventually go.

Most SL players are thinking in L$ economic terms without seeing the big picture. Eventually there will be an xstreet for all grids, and the ability to buy a pre built full region builds (OAR files) to load on to your personal server or hosted server is likely to be a new popular alternative method to static build exploring.

There is much money to be made in building custom regions.  Especially commercial clients who would not dare copy other people’s work. Individual objects and props have their place in the new marketplace as well, especially if they include commercial licenses that will allow the objects to be put into other builds.

I believe this could be a huge market. If I could explore lag free by loading OAR downloads to my computer based open sim server, I would love it! If I could edit them and share with others to show my edits, that would be really awesome as well. I’m quite certain I am not the only one.

The possibilities for Second Life are numerous as well. Can you imagine the fun of going to an SL club that has a different build for every event? Random combat locales? Roleplay setting that can be brought up as needed?

Like it or not this is the future! Second Life is just the early primitive beginning. In a few years we will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

The Internet "Golden Age" is Closing

One of the first posts on this blog was about the future of the internet, and the likely decline of the “Golden Age of the Internet” to quote John Dvorak. My older post was about government and lawsuits causing a decline in online freedoms.  The freedom of the Internet seems to be on the decline once again, but this time the driving force to change is economic.

Some notes from around the Internet:

1.) This past week Rupert Murdock has stated that the internet is over. Advertising revenues are down and the business model for online news cannot be sustained without going to a subscription model.

I think the guy is off his rocker, and his plans to charge to access newspaper sites is quite dumb. Subscriptions for news online work for specialized newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or Variety because these papers are the paper of record for specific industries.  General news sites are a dime a dozen, and the only way a general newspaper could make money on a subscription plan is if every paper did so.

2.) You Tube is changing its business model, in light of half a billion dollar losses expected this year.   Check out this video, or at least the first couple of minutes. The guy starts blathering at around the 3 minute mark. To me, the video has an opposite effect on me than he intended.

When you are losing money as bad as You Tube is, you have to reorganize and go back to what works. Hosting users videos for free is a major component of the site, but it is also the least profitable. Hosting video from commercial distributors and advertisers that are good enough to get advertiser support is profitable, and that is exactly where You Tube is going to go.

I’ll even go as far as to predict that You Tube will  start charging a fee to host user videos. This will no doubt reduce the number of videos out there, but the overall quality will improve.

3.) Two of the largest and fastest growing websites, Twitter and Facebook, are both operating in the red as well.

Facebook is probably close to profitability right now. The last reliable numbers I saw were in 2007 when the site was spending twice what they were bringing in. Since then the employment has doubled, and I assume the expenses have as well, but also since then the user base has quadrupled, and hopefully the revenue has too. If so, they are close to being in the black now.

Twitter is a popular tool in need of a way to make money soon before they run out. There is minimum advertising there, and selling ads for tweets is likely to be a hard sell, especially since most tweets are sent and recieved via feeds that dont pass advertising messages.  Rumors have been flying that Twitter is ripe for take over. Who knows what will happen there.

We are not approaching the end of the internet (sorry Rupert), but we are at the end of the “Golden Age” of the internet.

The age of getting a site up and running with VC money and waiting 5 years for profitability are over.  The new model forward is going to be “Make Money quickly or Die”

As sad as I am to see a lot of the FREE benefits we have been enjoying online start to disappear, a leaner and meaner internet may prove to be a good thing in the long run.

I Have Seen the Future, and it is Open Sim!

There is a lot to say about the Open Sim paradigm, and I’ll be covering it in future posts. For now, I’ll just say it is very early and there is a lot of work still to be done. Right now all it is is a poor substitute for Second Life, but I think it has huge future potential as long as they diverge from the SL model at the right point and go their own way.

I just felt the need to introduce the topic in a clever way, because it will be an important topic for the future.

Links to stuff mentioned in the comic:
Second Inventory
NuAthens archive by Lordfly Digeridoo

Previous Related Posts:
Dark Times for 3DVWs Part 3: Second Life’s Fatal Design Flaw
SL Open Source Update!