Crowding around the home television may one day seem as quaint as the 1940s images showing families gathered around console radios.
Big TVs may be the best screen in the home -- and U.S. consumers spent $20.4 billion on flat-panel TVs in 2010, according to NPD's Consumer Tracking Service -- but, increasingly, the real best display depends on the kind of device and network you can access at any given time.
Now, one of the oldest names in Web media, as well as a just-hatched startup, are beta testing approaches -- albeit very different ones -- for turning mobile devices into connected media centers that give you benefits of home entertainment on the go.
One Website for All Devices
Following the spinoff of the Rhapsody music service into a separate company, RealNetworks is looking for a new multimedia flagship service with Unifi.
Unifi is an Internet server-based storage and syncing solution that competes, to some extent, with software-Web hybrids such as Dropbox and SugarSync, but is optimized for rich media. It lets you store and manage photos, music and video on several different devices. For example, if you purchase songs from the Amazon store on an Android device, they would appear as part of your iTunes library when you return to your PC.
Unifi will let you access your entire media collection, even if you're on its basic access plan (pricing has not yet been announced), by keeping a shortcut to all content on its servers. If you request media that is not yet stored in the servers, it will add the actual files to the service on the fly. Unifi also plans to integrate with other websites, starting with a Facebook partnership that would let you bring in photos on the social network.
Entering the JetStream
Another player in the mobile media field, JetStreamHD starts with an iPad app as its target. The new product (which includes a hardware device that plugs in to your home network and a downloadable iPad app) was revealed this spring and will cost $200. It collects media from around your home network and turns it into an iPad-friendly format on the fly over a local network or the Internet.
But the JetStreamHD taps into rich movie metadata (or information about a movie such as its title, actors and poster art) and the iPad's graphic capabilities to create a mobile experience even more like those offered by high-quality home media centers. This distinguishes it from the functional, yet more utilitarian, user interfaces of competitive remote file access and sharing devices such as the PogoPlug.
Unfortunately, the JetStreamHD won't offer the capability to download its videos for offline usage at launch, but the company's CEO, Grant Hall, said it's been a popular request that is now on the development roadmap.
Products such as the JetStreamHD and services such as Unifi sit somewhere between remote access products and media centers. The JetStreamHD app, for example, includes support for Apple's AirPlay to send videos back up to AppleTV-equipped televisions. More significantly, though, their focus on a richer mobile media experience is pushing to take home theater out of the home.