If you're a traveling sports fan who hates to miss your home team's games, technology has just thrown you a lifeline. The Slingbox, from Sling Media Inc., a tech firm in San Mateo, Calif., plugs you into your own living room, enabling you to use your laptop to watch every television channel that you get on your home TV. Fred from Philadelphia can sit in a Tokyo hotel room and watch the Phillies on his computer screen, and Harry Kalas's calls will lose nothing in translation.
Blake and Jason Krikorian, who along with Bhupen Shah cofounded Sling Media, say they were inspired to invent the Slingbox in 2002 when they were traveling often for work and had a hard time following the San Francisco Giants, who were in a pennant race. They thought, What if it were possible to tap into your home TV signal through the Internet? Three years later they've made it happen. On a trip to Singapore in May, Blake was able to watch the UCLA women's water polo team--coached by his brother Adam--win an NCAA title because the game was broadcast on CSTV, part of his cable package back in California. "I was lying in bed watching it in my hotel room just like I was back home," he says.
The Slingbox, which costs $250 (no subscription fees), is a brick-sized piece of hardware that connects to your home cable or satellite box and works with software that you load onto your PC laptop. (A Mac version is in the works.) True, you need to have both feet firmly planted in the 21st century to use this device--your home must have broadband and a router, and when accessing your programming, you must also have a broadband connection at your remote location. Installation takes between 15 minutes and an hour. While the tech-savvy should be able to do it, you can pay someone at CompUSA or BestBuy (currently the only brick-and-mortar retail outlets for Slingbox, though more are expected) an extra $100 or so to handle the installation.
Once you get Slingbox installed, it's easy to operate. You change channels by clicking on a remote-control interface on your computer screen. Your home TV need not be on. The video quality is not as clear as a TV's, but it's not bad. I watched a Mets-Phillies game on a public wireless connection in New York City's Bryant Park, and I could make out Tom Glavine's pitches O.K. But when the Phillies' David Bell stroked a ball into rightfield and the broadcast switched to a wide-angle shot, I could no longer follow the ball and had to read the body language of rightfielder Victor Diaz to see that it was dropping in for a hit. Text on the screen was clear; I could read the ESPN news crawl just fine.
Improving the picture quality is a big part of the company's mission. Since the commercial release of Slingbox on June 30 it has issued three free software patches to make the picture better. But such quibbles aside, it's a wonder that you can flip through the channels on your home TV from anywhere in the wired world. And you can watch any programming, not just sports. You can even access your TiVo and watch those stored episodes of The Sopranos. Your TV can be as portable as a laptop.
One potential complication: You are not just watching TV, you are watching your TV, so if you're tuning in while on the road and someone at home wants to watch a different program, you may be in for a long-distance tug-of-war over the remote.