When NBC Weather Plus wants to show viewers what the weather looks like in Orlando, Fla., it doesn't bother setting up a costly satellite or fiber link with local affiliate WESH. Instead, the digital network pulls live video through the public Internet via a Slingbox located at WESH and connected to the station's in-house cable system, displaying it in the right-hand corner of its broadcast feed.
NBC Weather Plus also uses Slingboxes to pull live video from affiliates KUSA Denver, KPRC Houston, WDIV Detroit and WKAQ Puerto Rico and is currently deploying the devices across its owned-and-operated stations. It expects them to come in handy in covering hurricanes and other summer weather events. A recent broadcast, for example, showed melting snow on the Continental Divide from a KUSA beauty camera and a glimpse of the Detroit River from WDIV Detroit. The source of the pictures is identified with a simple on-screen graphic, “Via Slingbox.”
“The idea is to take as many pictures as we can from NBC affiliates nationwide and bring it into Weather Plus headquarters,” says Jeff Thein, NBC Weather Plus executive producer. “We want to give viewers as many visuals as possible, using up as little satellite or fiber resources as possible. Sling made that work for us.”
The digital network is one of a growing number of broadcasters, cable operators and production firms that have found professional applications for the Slingbox, Sling Media's innovative device that takes a conventional video input and transcodes it for streaming over the Internet.
While the Slingbox was originally designed to allow consumers to “place-shift” their television viewing, by using an Internet-connected laptop or PC to remotely watch what's on their home TV set while on the road or at work, professional video users have found the Slingbox to be a very effective way to cheaply transmit video, particularly where video quality is not a big concern. Cable operators are using Slingboxes to monitor commercial insertion, content owners are using it to monitor video-on-demand delivery, and studios are using it to transmit dailies to remote executives, says Sling Media CEO Blake Krikorian.
“These vertical markets or b-to-b applications are popping up like wildfire,” he says. “It's pretty exciting to see.”
Sling Media has already sold hundreds of thousands of its Slingboxes, which range in price from $149 to $299 depending on features, through retail channels. The company is now starting to sell directly to professional users and has set up a dedicated group to focus on professional applications and perform customization work.
“Maybe we'll come up with a set of different product lines,” says Krikorian. “I could imagine a Slingbox that was more of a rack-mounted system.”
For now, professional users like NBC Weather Plus are doing just fine with the retail model. All affiliates like WESH have to do to provide the network with pictures is to connect the Slingbox to their in-house cable systems, which generally show not only the live on-air feed but also display video from beauty and traffic cameras on different channels. The “Sling Player” software running on a PC located at NBC Weather Plus then allows producers to peruse the live camera feeds and pick a suitable shot for air, or simply check that the local weather conditions match their computer models.
WESH, for example, plugged a coax cable right into the Slingbox, which lets NBC Weather Plus look at the station's beauty cam at Universal Studios, as well as at two other tower cameras, says WESH Chief Engineer Richard Monn.
To be placed on-air, the Sling video has to run through a scan converter, to change it from progressive-scan VGA to the interlace format, before it can be fed as a live source into a production switcher and displayed in NBC Weather Plus's upper-right corner box. Running the picture small minimizes the hit in picture quality the picture suffers when it is compressed by the Slingbox for Internet delivery.
“I think it holds up pretty well,” says Monn.
Box across the bay
One broadcaster that thinks the Slingbox's pictures are just fine is KPIX San Francisco, which has hooked Slingboxes up to wireless broadband connections and mounted them in weatherproof cases to routinely pull live video from traffic cameras across the Bay Area.
The CBS owned-and-operated station is now experimenting with connecting the Slingbox to a handheld camera on one end, using the device's component video input, and a Sprint smart phone equipped with an EVDO wireless data card on the other, to transmit live pictures from moving automobiles.
KPIX had gotten usable pictures via Slingbox with first-generation wireless cards that provided only 134 kilobits per second (Kbps) of bandwidth, says KPIX Operations Manager Don Sharp. But the quality has gone up exponentially with the EVDO cards, which put out 400-700 Kbps.
The EVDO cards have also proved robust, transmitting reliably even from a ferry going across San Francisco Bay and from a car driving around the region.