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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Set-Top Box That Goes Beyond TV

Sigma Designs’ set-top box is ultrathin, can control your connected home–and doesn’t actually sit atop your set.

  • June 22, 2011

Sigma Designs announced a new set-top box on Monday. Only, this box doesn’t sit atop your TV set, but rather plugs directly into an outlet, making it something of a misnomer. In a few ways, in fact, Sigma’s new set-top box displays something of an identity crisis–and that’s probably a good thing.

Sigma Designs’ box (which it isn’t manufacturing itself; it announced a reference design for other manufacturers to use) does away with many of the inconveniences of other set-top boxes. First of all, it’s tiny–not much larger than a deck of cards. There’s no power cord, and no need for a coaxial cable. You simply plug it right into an outlet, and from there, it can decode multiple IPTV streams to feed content to various HDTV’s around your house. Not only will it stream content to more than one TV at once; it can also serve as the DVR for multiple TV’s. And since it uses Z-Wave radio-frequency technology, instead of traditional infrared technology, the box can be placed out of sight and still receive a signal from your remote control.

Not only is this set-top box not really “set-top,” it also doesn’t have to just interact with your TV set. Sigma Designs has made a box that can be used to control much more than your TV–over 500 Z-Wave devices, from lighting to door locks to thermostats, can in theory be controlled by the device. Your TV remote may soon become the dashboard to your smart home.

Products based on Sigma’s reference design could hit the market as soon as Christmas, Sigma’s VP of Corporate Marketing Michael Weissman told the L.A. Times, and could sell for less than $100.

The Times adds one caveat to its praise of the new ultra-thin box. The full promise of set-top boxes won’t be unleashed merely by innovative hardware design. Their full promise will be unleashed when cable companies and Internet content providers (like Netflix and Hulu) begin to cooperate–or are compelled to do so. Once you have a box capable of streaming your favorite cable and Web content, wouldn’t it be great if you could pay a single, negotiated rate for all those services? Currently, though, there’s no real carrot or stick to make the cable companies work this way: “Any company selling premium tiers and on-demand movies would have little or no incentive to help customers subscribe to Netflix instead,” points out the Times’s Jon Healey.

What would make Sigma Designs’ new technology all the more powerful would be if the FCC would finally rule on AllVid, a new standard it has proposed for set-top interoperability. The likes of Best Buy, Google, Sony, and TiVo all support the implementation of the AllVid standard. Cable companies, though, stand united against it. Despite proposing the idea back in 2010, the FCC has yet to rule on AllVid–meaning the ultimate fate and value of set-top boxes still hangs in the balance.

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