When the initial builds of Windows 8 were released I was excited where Microsoft was going with in-app digital media support. Naturally Microsoft’s new UI framework included media components which allows developers to playback media directly within their applications. However what some people don’t realise is that in many cases that media can be output to a compatible DLNA media renderer (such as a TV in your lounge or office).
DLNA and Play To
Anyone who has purchased a Smart TV recently has probably heard of DLNA (probably as part of the sales pitch for the TV). DLNA stands for “Digital Living Network Alliance”, an entity representing the interests of companies producing various pieces of consumer technology.
In practical terms DLNA is responsible for the interoperability standards which allow your TV (for example) to talk across the network to your PC and play media, not necessarily the video/audio formats themselves but the communications protocol between the various actors on the network whether it be a media server, media renderer or a device being used by the end-user to control the whole experience.
Microsoft is a member of DLNA and have taken some significant steps to integrate support for the various standards into their products, and whilst this post is about Windows 8, DLNA has enjoyed various degrees of support since Windows XP. Within Windows 7 there is a feature called “Play To” which allows the user to select a media file either locally or on the network and instruct a remote device to play that media thereby “playing to” a device.
Play To vs. AirPlay
Play To is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s popular AirPlay technology. I would argue that Play To is better in some respects because it builds on DLNA and enjoys broader support in consumer devices. However in true Apple style AirPlay has been elegantly implemented and is easy to get up and running if you have the right Apple hardware.
Aside: Screen Mirroring
One feature that AirPlay has that Play To doesn’t attempt to address is screen mirroring, a technology that allows the user to push a view of their actual desktop for display on the TV in their office or lounge. On a PC you need to use Intel’s WiDi (Wireless Display) technology to achieve the same ends with significantly less ease of use.
WiDi requires some relatively modern hardware to work (such as an Ultrabook with all the included Intel goodies) and many TVs are now starting to support the technology. In fact my mother-in-law purchased a Samsung 55″ LED TV last weekend and I managed to get WiDi working (look ma, no wires!).
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a TV with WiDi support, companies like NETGEAR are starting to ship add-on components which connect to your TV to receive the WiDi signal and then push it over HDMI to your TV. I’m personally looking forward to getting my hands of a PTV-3000 when they finally become available here in Australia.
Incidentally this space is really heating up with various bodies such as Wi-Fi Alliance working on coming up with standard approaches to solve this problem (Miracast). Today even phones can easily drive media to the wide-screen TV in your lounge room.
Play To in Windows 8
When Windows 8 was released Microsoft integrated Play To support directly into WinRT so that applications themselves could push media to compatible DLNA devices. When playing a video inside an application simply swipe in from the right-hand side and select devices, followed by the device you would like to send your content to.
Didn’t work? There could be two reasons for that. The first is pretty simple to fix, Windows might not know about the device yet. Simply swipe in from the right, select settings, change your PC settings and go to devices. Add a new device and wait for your device to appear and select it (it might automatically install anyway).
The second problem is a little more difficult to solve. Unfortunately Microsoft added another layer of certification which effectively neutered support the feature unless you were lucky enough to have the specific device models blessed by Microsoft. One work around was that if you had an XBOX 360 you can use it with Play To in some circumstances but the experience was frustrated by the special treatment that XBOX 360 gets in the various built-in Windows 8 applications.
Working Around Certification
The truth is that a great many of the devices out there will work happily with the new media experience in native Windows 8 Store applications if only Windows 8 would let you try it. It turns out that there is a way to side-step the certification process but it isn’t for the feint hearted.
If you are willing to do a little bit of registry hacking this article shows you how to tell Windows 8 that your non-certified device is in fact OK to use. I can verify that this trick works and instantly your digital media world is looking brighter. Hat tip to fellow MVP Barb Bowman who has a great blog on the evolving digital media landscape.
Apps & Play To
Getting the TV to support Play To is only part of the problem. The next step is finding applications that support it. Fortunately if application developers just use the built-in media control getting Play To working is a walk in the park. After using the hack above I’ve noticed the following applications work just fine (note some of these are more for the Australian market).
- SBS On Demand
- Youtube Player
Limitations and Room for Improvement
Currently I see three major problems with Play To. The first is the ridiculous double certification requirements (DLNA then Microsoft). One of the reasons that people choose PC over Mac is that the software doesn’t get in the road of just trying something – consequences be damned. In my opinion the certification requirement should be removed, if Windows can see the DLNA media renderer then it should pop it up in the devices menu at the appropriate time. Fixing this issue could probably be done now via Windows Update.
The second problem I see is one of discovery. Even if you do have the correctly certified equipment Windows does nothing to promote the fact that it has this awesome digital media capability. I would like to see the device charms menu “hint” that there is something available for the user to do with the media currently playing on the screen (same goes with the sharing charm by the way). Maybe if the icons bobbed on the screen for a few moments from time to time. This could be one of several usability enhancements slated for Windows 8.1.
Finally a great deal of the legitimate content sources (such as XBOX Music in Windows 8) just flat out don’t work using Play To. I have an XBOX Music Pass subscription and I can’t play the content via Play To on my lounge TV (for example) because of digital media rights. Personally I believe that digital media rights manage is too much of a burden for the average consumer. The way it currently stands, a piece of pirated content is actually easier to use on your various media devices than licensed content. All it is doing is frustrating those who pay for the media.
Personally I would like to see many more content-specific applications available on Windows 8. Instead of a media application for a particular channel/station I would like to see a media application for my favourite TV show, that application would use the various features of Windows 8 (such as notifications) to allow me to keep up to date at home and on the go. With good Play To support within Windows 8 I could turn this personal viewing experience shared experience on the big screen in the living room. To make this work “show apps” would need to promote other shows based on observed viewer habits.
Stations like SBS and TEN are in the prime position to take advantage of this model because they already have content in a format that is consumable on Windows 8.
I think that over-the-air broadcast is almost dead. It might take longer to die here in Australia and other places outside the USA but it is definitely on the decline, but before the average household can turn off their PVR (who watches TV live these days) they need to be confident that they can get the content that they want when they want it. If that means catching up on your favourite reality TV show six weeks after it finished then so be it. The expectation that a station can prescribe based on a schedule when viewers are going to watch content is obsolete thinking and based on the limitations of a broadcast model.
Besides, on-demand viewing creates a great opportunity for dynamic insertion of advertising content based on the audience (a very desirable feature for advertisers).
I think a combination of “channel apps” and “show apps” makes sense along with a combination of advertising funded content creation (how it works now) and pay-per-view for archived content which is no longer marketable from an advertising perspective.
It is possible that none of this will come to pass. The media consumption space is moving so quickly now that companies like Microsoft (with XBOX One) and Samsung (with their devices and S-Recommendation) could end up usurping the place of traditional TV stations by going direct to content produces and providing a channel to market and a means to draw revenue from an advertising network. In fact that what Amazon Studios is cooking could really change the landscape of original content creation.