A Minimalist Face to TV Device Design

In the TV hardware field, manufacturers are beginning to notice that the same 17″-wide components that nestle in your living room’s entertainment center have a harder time fitting in to the back bedroom or study, where many auxiliary screens are kept.

Today, Engadget linked to a new streaming TV product from Sigma Designs which manages to bundle the whole product into a small plug-style box which is commanded via RF Z-Wave networking (so that it can be controlled without the need to hit an IR sensor with your remote control; the radio wave from its remote will find it if you’re anywhere in the general vicinity of the box).

The box itself effectively has almost no interface at all–indeed, the product simply hangs from the bottom of a wall socket with a single HDMI and optical port to connect it to your TV. Networking and communication are handled over the HomePlug powerline networking, so there are no additional networking or video input cables to run. It simply plugs into your wall socket–also neatly handling the problem of where to put/mount the device.

(It would have been interesting to see Sigma design the box to occupy the top outlet of a standard wall socket instead of the bottom one, and configured the video/audio cables to run from the top of the device instead of looping around the bottom. As the TV is almost certain to be located above the device, this might have allowed for a slightly cleaner installation.)

Minimal Styling for a Minimalist Device

It’s clear that Sigma didn’t feel that a device that amounts to an oversized wall wart requires much in the way of consumer design or styling. I’m actually not sure I agree on this point, as the large, flush face of the installed product seems to offer a perfect chance for branding, if nothing else. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Apple passing up the chance to have yet another glossy, smooth-edged device sporting a tasteful Apple logo as permanent fixture in the home. All that would be required is an change in the plastics and tooling at a minimal difference in cost.

Similarly, I’m not sure sufficient care was taken with the design or placement of the many, minuscule status indicators seen above at right. These are placed so that they are almost certain to be both illegible and unseen when the device is plugged in behind any bureau, desk, or entertainment center. Here, the designers might have been well-served by having fewer, possibly multi-color lights to indicate status. Edge-mounting them so that they are visible from both top and side to account for various types of view obstruction would also help.

Finally, the LED design might do well to stay as low-key as possible, particularly if it’s meant to live in the bedroom or study. A single, low-key light that indicates that the unit is powered up, and which possibly switches color momentarily to indicate remote activity (or red for an error) is probably close to the ideal for such lighting-sensitive environments.

Taking it Further

No price is given in the press release, and it should be noted that this is always a crucial factor in the home consumer market. Having spent much of my past year in the TV space, I also can’t help speculating on what Sigma’s cost basis might be, if the power circuitry (which seems to occupy much of the right side of the board in the picture below) could be handled by a host in an integrated device.

Once you downplay the physical attributes of a device sufficiently: writing off both function (no controls or displays) and style, it seems that the next logical step is to see if you can make the device disappear entirely. Once the physical face of a product has disappeared, the product must then survive by the virtues of its virtual interface. It’ll be interesting to see this area develop.

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