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Watching Web video on a computer can be an irritating experience. Nothing illustrates this quite as powerfully as trying to watch clips streamed from the internet on a TV.

A host of new set-top boxes from Google, Apple, Tivo and Boxee, not to mention add-ons for Wii and Xbox, as well as the built-in features of certain Samsung TVs, already are set to bring video transmitted via the Internet to your television. But only a handful of platforms–notably Boxee, Roku and Tivo–are currently are currently offering video from the internet–the kind of material that has made sites like YouTube so popular.

Without anyone realizing quite what happened, Roku has gained an early lead in this race, probably because of its super-easy setup, low price and ability to stream Netflix. That got Roku boxes into a million-plus households, and, as Steve Jobs can tell you, market share is step one when trying to convince partners to create content for your platform.

Roku boxes allow developers to create and freely distribute apps–called “channels”–that let any existing streaming service play through a Roku and the living room TV.

But Vimeo’s newly updated software and Roku app makes it even easier to watch web video from a TV. Like Netflix, it allows you to create a queue of things you’d like to watch later. Unlike Netflix, the app is populated with an incredible library of high-quality indy content. The standouts are mostly shorts and music videos created by an international group of film school and animation students. It’s the kind of cotton-candy internet ephemera that people pass along on Facebook, Twitter and on blogs.

A Qualitatively Different Viewing Experience

Viewing web video on TV is qualitatively different from viewing it on a PC, or even, I’d argue, a tablet computer:

- Watching Washerbots on my television without a chat window open or an interruption from my email client, I notice all its charming quirks, and when the visual gag rolls around, I laugh out loud instead of just smirking and posting it to Twitter.

- The Monk and the Monkey becomes an excerpt from some longer and more profound knockoff of Kung Fu Panda, instead of an excessively long interruption of whatever I was trying to accomplish on my laptop.

- Esquivel, which feels like (and is) a viral ad when viewed on the web, become a meditation on the potential to revive the dying art of hand craftsmanship.

Instapaper for Television

The combination of Vimeo’s “watch it later” with the Roku app accomplishes the same thing for video that Instapaper does for the written word. Instapaper allows us to read long magazine article or blog posts on an iPad, iPhone or e-reader, taking a piece of content that demands our full attention and putting it on a device that allows us to consume it distraction-free. Similarly, Roku erases the distinction between lean-forward and lean-back viewing, and allows users to reap the best of both modes of consumption.

The results are stunning: Vimeo’s “watch it later” queue becomes a repository for material that has been filtered for us by our friends and other trusted sources. It also becomes a holding tank for the kind of distractions we’d like to minimize in the middle of the day. It has the power to enhance our leisure time by making it more concentrated and meaningful, even as it increases our productivity by giving us a safe place (mentally as well as physically) to file away things we know we’ll want to get to eventually.

The point isn’t that Vimeo and Roku have apparently gotten here first. Boxee offers something similar, but until the Boxee Box arrives, hooking up a media PC to your TV is not exactly trivial.

Right there, alongside the on-demand movies and the rented television shows and the live streaming content, will be all that independent stuff that has made YouTube such a sensation. Web video is about to break free of the physical constraints of the PC, and that means a (further) democratization of consumption and distribution for everyone on both sides of that equation.

Joost image cc Thomas van de Weerd

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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