You can credit, or blame, the San Francisco Giants for the success of 40-year-old Blake Krikorian, co-founder of Sling Media.
“There was one day in the summer of 2002, working with my brother helping technology companies, and I was dying to watch my Giants play and found there was no way to watch it when I was in the office or on the road,” Krikorian says. An entrepreneur and engineer, he had spent much of his career as a tech consultant for firms like id8 Group Holdings and Philips Mobile Computing Group, both of which he founded.
“I had come across services online that promised the ability to watch those games but, in fact, they were blacking out some of it, even though the vast majority of that programming and that game was on, on my living-room television.”
At the time, he was working with his brother Jason as a consultant to help companies figure out new opportunities in delivering media content to computers and mobile devices. He began tinkering with a device that within two years came to be known as Slingbox, a small box that attaches to TV sets and digitizes signals and “spits them out,” as Krikorian says, to laptops, other TV sets and mobile devices. Slingbox ignited the term “place-shifting,” much as TiVo had done with time-shifting. The device allows users to access the channels they get on their cable service on their computer, whether they're one room away or 10,000 miles away.
“Looking at it as a consumer and looking it at through the lens of where the industry was going, I married those two things with what consumers are looking for, rather than what the industry is trying to drive down consumers' throats,” he says.
By July 2004, Sling Media was launched with seed money from EchoStar and Liberty Media. The first Slingbox was sold in June 2005, with shipments going to more than 1,000 Best Buy and CompUSA stores. Last September, EchoStar bought Sling for $380 million. Krikorian now serves as chairman and CEO of Sling Media.
Krikorian, one of this year's winners of the Technology Leadership Awards, says consumers want the TV content they're accustomed to watching at home wherever they are, noting that some content online is slow to load or is interrupted by rebuffering or frozen frames. “A lot of it hasn't been a great fidelity experience,” he observes.
Slingbox was designed to make television content as smooth on Slingbox as when watching from home. “You're watching living-room television, so expectations are far, far greater,” he says. “When you're talking about video, if it doesn't get to you exactly when it's supposed to, you'll have a bad experience.”
Sling Media developed streamed optimization algorithms, eventually called SlingStream, to analyze the signal coming into Slingbox and then again on the device on which it'll be seen. SlingStream changes the signal for specific types of programs and for specific devices.
“As the [Internet] pipe expands and contracts, the video is expanding and contracting—the bitrate is changing and the resolution is changing,” he says. “All of this is behind the scenes. The consumer isn't aware of any of this stuff.”
Many broadcasters were initially worried about the impact Slingbox would have on their ratings—after all, if you're watching a San Francisco station on your computer, you're not watching the station itself. (Sling Media put in safeguards to restrict viewing to one device at a time.) But Krikorian says Slingbox is also giving broadcasters a chance to capture viewers when they're otherwise unavailable.
Sling's owner, EchoStar, doesn't release the device's sales or audience figures, but Krikorian says broadcasters will be able to get viewers watching their content—and the commercials—more often. It's also relatively easy to track people in Nielsen homes using Slingbox, although that number is small.
“The broadcasters and networks started to realize that this is something that can help maintain their relevance, but also in a way that's measured,” he says.
Meanwhile, Slingbox has other devices in the works with advertising opportunities for broadcasters. Clip+Sling, which is expected to come out in a few months, allows users to record clips of TV shows and send these to other people via Sling.com, on pages that can be customized with broadcasters' ads. CBS has signed on, and likes the idea of using a new media device to woo young viewers. “It's a great way for us to get viral distribution to find new eyeballs and earlobes,” says Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive.
The company has been rolling out other products. The SlingCatcher shifts online content to TV sets or TV content from one set to another. It won the Best of Innovations Award at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
“Consumers have a love and affection for their living-room TV programming,” Krikorian says. “You also then see they're spending more time on these other displays and devices. This is about engineering them together.”