7 Surprising Reasons a Media Panel May Be The Next Computing Appliance You Buy

Media Panel in Living Room

Media Panel in Living Room

What is a Media Panel, you ask?

The Media Panel is a new category of computing appliance–a device that sits somewhere between an iPad and Apple TV, replaces neither, and complements both.

Designed for passive group usage in shared spaces, Media Panels are more like a wall clock or smart information/entertainment board than they are like a tablet or personal computer.

They’re not for active usage like checking email, searching the web or playing games (that’s what smart phones and tablets are for). They’re for uninterrupted background consumption of personal media, like photos or videos from the family collection, today’s weather forecast, a snapshot of the family calender, or a glimpse into where everyone is right now.

Media Panel on the Refrigerator

Media Panel on the Refrigerator

The screen size might vary from very small to very large, but most will be between 13 inches and 17 inches. Larger than a tablet, but smaller than most TVs.

Media Panels are full blown computers capable of handling 1080p video and running a full stack OS, but don’t call them an All-In-One. They don’t have a desktop-style operating system, and they’re not meant to be used like tablets or laptops.

Media Panel Side Angle

Media Panel Side Angle

Media Panels have a simplified user experience and are designed to be used while standing up (with a touchscreen) or from a distance using a remote control (on your smartphone). They’re also light, thin and most don’t have batteries since their larger screen size means you typically leave them in place rather than carrying them from room to room.

Media Panels are inexpensive (around $199), and you might even decide you need several. One for the refrigerator. One for the mantle above the fireplace. One on the bookshelf in the bedroom? And one as a gift for the grandparents?

When the iPad was first launched, my first thought was “I don’t need one.” Boy was I wrong. Now my family has four. And tablet sales are exceeding the wildest expectations. Tablet sales grew 78% in 2012 and Q4 worldwide shipments exceeded 50 million units for the first time–half the size of PC shipments.

If you find yourself wondering if you really need a Media Panel, here are seven reasons Media Panels are on the horizon and why this market may surprise us just like tablets did.

Computing is Cheaper Than Ever Before

One of the most exciting events of 2012 was the introduction of the Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized single board computer. Running linux and capable of handling 1080p video, the Raspberry Pi Foundation offers one version for $25 and a slightly more powerful version for $35. This step reduction in price has uncovered a market with surprisingly strong demand. Millions have now been sold and a vibrant and active community has emerged around the Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi Module B. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RaspberryPi.jpg

Raspberry Pi Module B. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RaspberryPi.jpg


This development has invigorated the single board computer market, and players in the space are racing to respond to the Raspberry Pi. Notably, Beagleboard.org, which includes a number of Texas Instruments employees, is expected to release a new Beaglebone that will be highly competitive and could even have some advantages over the Raspberry Pi since it is entirely open whereas the Raspberry Pi includes some closed source Broadcom components.

Combine this with the way tablet volumes and the introduction of Windows 8 are driving down the price of multitouch screens plus the way HDTVs and laptop volumes are driving down the prices of LCD panels, and it would be natural to expect waves of innovation as new product possibilities emerge.

The Raspberry Pi is ideal to power your Media Panel, and if (and when) there is a module version of the Raspberry Pi this will only further accelerate low cost and innovative new solutions because developers will be able to better choose the components for their solution.

Computing Devices are Smaller Than Ever Before

Massive global smartphone penetration is a disruption unlike any seen before–including the introduction of the PC. Over 1 billion people now have smartphones, and this number is growing at over 40% per year. Today’s iPhone 5 has the same computing power as one 2004 iBook, or 4 iMacs, or 40 PowerBooks, or 160 Macintoshes, or 1,000 Apollo Guidance Computers. It is simply a matter of time before all 5 billion people who today have cell phones each have an always on, always connected computer in their pocket that is more powerful than the computer that guided us to the moon.

This change in the world is exciting in many dimensions, and it is difficult to predict how exactly it will change our lives. In the context of the Media Panel, what’s exciting about smartphone penetration is that Moore’s law and experience curves are driving miniaturization and cost reduction on an unprecedented scale. The price of nearly all components are cheaper, smaller and require less power than ever. And despite the frequent claim people make that Moore’s law is ending, there is evidence that the opposite is happening and that Moore’s Law may be accelerating.

Smaller, less expensive and lower power components are key enablers for the Media Panel as a new category of computing appliance. And the fact that everyone now also has a smart phone in their pocket means that this smart phone can easily be used as remote control, input device and shared interaction device for the Media Panel.

Personal Media Creation is Growing Exponentially

I’m not sure how it is in your family, but in mine personal media management is a huge problem.

My wife and I have a 130 GB of personal photos and videos. Alone, that is not the problem. The problem is that 40 GB (30%) has been created in the last 6 months. And this is accelerating at an increasing rate–every few months I have the job of copying 10GB of media off each of our iPhones so we are not blocked from taking photos and videos of our toddler.

Even worse than having a new chore to “empty the iPhones,” once I empty them, the media is effectively packed into a digital shoebox never to be seen again. In fact, my wife told me recently she had absolutely no idea where our media was or how to access it. Aside from being expensive, products like iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox and similar are not a solution. We don’t just need the data backed up or mirrored everywhere. We need it gone from our iPhones so we can keep taking new pictures and videos. We also need it backed up, easily accessible whenever we want it, and automatically organized and intelligently played back to the family via the Media Panel.

Perhaps you’re thinking that Facebook, Instagram or Flickr are potential solutions. Facebook and Instagram are excellent tools for sharing in the moment, but our Facebook friends are not really interested in our family’s 130 GB archive of photos and videos. But we are. Similarly, Flickr is great if you’re an amateur or professional photographer and you don’t mind spending hours tagging your photos and setting up photo permissions. Unfortunately, that’s work. And we don’t want to do it.

Even if you do get your content into one of these online services, who has to do the work to get it back out again? Who curates it? Creates the slide shows? Picks the interesting and relevant photos? You do. And because this takes a lot of time and effort, it doesn’t happen. And your content gathers digital dust.

We’re not alone. This personal media problem is the same reason digital photo frames are mostly unused despite the fact that 25% of US households have one. They require you to do work managing your photos and no one wants to do it. That said, data stored is doubling every two years, and in 2012 the world took more than 375 billion photos. That’s 12,000 every second. Even more amazing, 1 in 10 photos ever taken was taken in the last 12 months.

Looking at a lifetime of photos shouldn’t be a special event. And looking at a lifetime of photos shouldn’t require searching. Or launching an app. Or turning on the Apple TV screen saver. Looking at a lifetime of photos and videos should be a seamless and integrated part of every day life. As simple as being in the house. Telling time from a clock. Or reading a note on the fridge.

The Cloud is Reliable and Cheap

As the volume of media and data generated increases exponentially, it is more and more inefficient and unwieldy to try to manage and care for all this content at home on your own. Not only do people not want to be their own IT managers, economies of scale in the cloud mean it is cheaper and more efficient for Amazon to provide 99.999999999% data reliability to a huge number of customers than it is for most people to buy a set of hard drives and manage their own RAID array.

In fact, storing your data in the cloud is probably more secure and more reliable than storing it anywhere else. And it’s certainly more convenient. You never run out of space and you can access it from anywhere. Scalability is no longer really a question–Instagram was built and run almost entirely on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Facebook bought them for $1 billion.

What is missing are a set of data backup and management services built specifically for photos and video, but these will come and will be seamlessly integrated into any good Media Panel solution.

Media Panels are Designed for Passive Use

Personal computers, tablets and smart phones are designed for active use. They are lean forward devices, where common activities include reading email, searching the web, or playing games.

By contrast, a Media Panel is passive. It’s more like a smart sign. A family billboard where context relevant content is shared.

Is this week your son’s birthday? Your Media Panel should know and be playing photos and videos from past birthdays. Did you take a family vacation to Kauai five years ago this week? Your Media Panel should know and be playing photos and videos from the trip (provided they were any good) and reminding you where and when you went. It might also make sense to share what everyone’s doing today. And where everyone is right at this moment. And what’s on the family calendar this coming weekend?

This is just the beginning of what is possible.

As an analog, consider the physical interface centered around the scoreboard of any major sporting facility. We’ll use AT&T Park where the San Francisco Giants play baseball as an example:

SF Giants Scoreboard. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ttkgeek/

This physical interface tells you what time it is, gives you the score, provides pictures of the players and important statistics, and even plays videos and music. This interface is passively consumed and enhances the experience of being at the game.

It’s also easy to ignore, if you’re talking to a friend or actively watching the game. Your use of the scoreboard doesn’t in any way detract from anyone else using the scoreboard, and it’s always there for you providing context if you decide to turn your head toward it. In fact, with some scoreboards, it’s actually possible to interact with the scoreboard and with other people at the ball game by sending text messages or pictures to it. Which leads naturally to the next point.

Media Panels are Designed for Group Use

Your laptop, tablet and smartphone are all really designed to be used by just one person. You. Yes, you can log out of an account and log back in with a second one…but how many people really do that with the family computer or tablet? iOS requires you to log in with an Apple ID for many features like iTunes and iCloud to work. And in many implementations of Android, you can’t use the device at all until you sign in with a Google Account.

Media Panels are different. They are more like a refrigerator–an appliance that the whole family shares. I don’t have my own version–but I am able to interact with the refrigerator in a way that changes everyone’s experience. If I put things in the refrigerator or take things out of it, everyone is impacted by my actions. The same applies to pictures, notes or a calendar I might attach or remove from the refrigerator door.

Media Panels have one shared interface on the panel itself…but the way I interact with it is primarily through my smartphone or a “remote control.” In this way, there is both a shared interface and a group interface.

In this way, the Media Panel is able to learn about both me as an individual and the family as a group. Contrast this to Apple TV, where there is a single iTunes account associated with the device and required for accessing content. The problem is that our Apple TV can only play content associated with this account. If my wife has bought a TV season on her iPad, she can’t watch it on the Apple TV because it is logged in with my account. And all preferences and information about family viewing habits are aggregated in this individual account. The fact that we might watch children’s shows on our Apple TV does not mean that I want children’s shows recommended to me on my iPhone.

The DIY Maker Revolution

Today’s entrepreneur is able to use open source design, 3-D printing and micro-manufacturing techniques to create a tidal wave of highly customized and often higher margin products. Combine this with marketplaces like Kickstarter and indiegogo, and entrepreneurs are able to get there initial funding for worthwhile projects directly from customers rather than spending time raising seed capital from financial investors stabbing in the dark.

Today, you can hack hardware in a way that you used to only be able to hack software. In fact, if you want a Media Panel and no one makes one to your liking, make one yourself like we did. Learn how to pick the right LCD screen and get the complete step-by-step instructions on how to make your own custom Media Panel.

Have you created a Media Panel? Do you have ideas for how to use Media Panels that we haven’t talked about? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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