Apple TV. Roku. Google Chromecast. Amazon Fire TV.
There are no shortage of ways to watch video programming these days on your TV, but get ready for yet another.
WebTuner, a 15-person Redmond startup led by TV industry vets, believes it has come up with the most innovative way to watch television. The company has been operating under the radar for the past five years, filing 137 patents on a technology that has yet to be introduced to consumers.
But the company is finally coming out of stealth mode with what founder and CEO Bernee Strom, the former president of Bellevue-based InfoSpace and former executive at Gemstar-TV Guide, calls “an end-to-end broadband television platform.” The technology includes a new type of TV guide, one that does not overlap the content on the screen, as well as a new searching functionality that links content so that consumers can quickly find TV shows or actors. It also includes an audience measurement system, allowing for what Strom dubbed highly-targeted “transaction-enabled ads.”
But the big difference between WebTuner and other set-top boxes, according to Strom, is the ability to watch live TV.
“You can watch all of the world’s content, and by that I mean live, (video on demand), the Internet services, new content, like if Stanford streamed courses,” said Strom. “We can stream ethnic channels from anywhere in the world, because we narrowcast, and don’t broadcast, we can offer unlimited numbers of channels.”
Launching this week at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, WebTuner comprises a hardware and software system that’s designed to reinvent the way people watch TV. Strom dubs it a “plug-in computer” that’s much more powerful than a Google Chromecast, by example, most notably because of the live television component.
Of course, that opens up a huge can of worms, and we’ve reported on some of those issues in the past in our coverage of Ivi.tv, not to mention the legal battles going on right now with live streaming video service Aereo. (A case involving Barry Diller-backed Aereo and the major broadcasters is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court this month).
Unlike those services — which have been sued by major broadcasters — WebTuner is looking to play nice with the TV power structure.
“That’s not us,” says Strom when asked about services such as Aereo and Ivi. She said that WebTuner is working with existing broadcasters and cable companies, trying to fit into the “existing economic ecosystem of television because content is king.”
“We are more like a Comcast or DirecTV, than we are like Aereo,” Strom said.
The main WebTuner device plugs into an electrical socket, with a HDMI cable going from the device to the TV, communicating with a 7-button remote control. (This post has been corrected to better reflect how the device connects to the TV). Final pricing for the system has not been set, though Strom said it will likely cost “somewhere between a Chromecast and a set-top box.”
Pressed for more details on pricing, Strom said the Android-based system will not cost $30 — equivalent of a Chromecast — since it has “very sophisticated stuff in here.”
“We’ve got latest generation everything, from w-fi to chips to everything,” she said. WebTuner will be likely be available to consumers in late summer, Strom said.
WebTuner is looking to work directly with broadcasters and cable companies, taking a different approach from those who came from “the PC-side of the business,” notes Strom, citing her TV roots.
“We decided, rather than totally disrupt everything and bring everything into a shambles, we are a way for the current industry to evolve into the new technology,” said Strom. Partners who’d purchase the end-to-end system from WebTuner would include telecom or cable companies, some of whom already are sitting on content partnerships.
Strom said they are currently testing the technology with several partners, but she noted that they do not have anything to announce at this stage as it relates to partners.
Even though some of the biggest names in technology are trying to enter the TV market, Strom appeared undaunted when asked about competition.
“The way we decided to crack that — since we don’t have the marketing savvy or wherewithal of those giants, as you know — is to partner, including some very large partners who have a lot of clout, a lot of customers and content, so we don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “We are an enabler of the industry.”
In some ways, Strom notes that WebTuner’s system — including the TV guide and device — would allow both existing and new players to compete in the industry.
“We could perhaps offer a ‘cable light’ solution for cord cutters and cord shavers,” she said. “In essence, we bring TV to the OTT (over-the-top) generation in the cool technical things we can do.” She notes that the WebTuner device is portable, allowing people to unplug it and take it with them, and it’s designed to allow users to watch programs without being connected.
To date, WebTuner has raised $12 million in financing from angel investors, with plans to raise up to $20 million in its series A financing round, including cash from strategic investors.