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Wii TV from the BBC

bbc wiiNintendo’s Wii isn’t the target of many complaints.  It’s fun.  It’s accessible.  It’s playable.  What the Wii isn’t, and it doesn’t claim to be, is a high performance gaming beast.   It’s not about horsepower and bleeding edge graphics rendering.  The Wii’s creative interface and controllers put playability first and at that, it succeeds.  That doesn’t mean the Wii doesn’t aim to be more, just the opposite, it continues to chase large ambitions.

There are two areas where the Wii sometimes fails.  One is its limited onboard memory. (No hard drive means downloadable bonus content like the extra music offered with rival versions of games like Rock Band isn’t possible).  Another related, and occasionally criticized shortcoming, is the Wii’s failure to take greater advantage of its onboard Internet connection.

To the critics, the built in browser is too lightweight and the Wii fails to offer the kind of convergence potential its DVD-playing, CPU-boasting rivals offer.  They long for Wii equivalent to Microsoft’s Xbox Live, a connected destination that brings more on-demand.  So what if non-gaming functionality isn’t its core purpose, they want more.  It’s a living room device, they might say, and it should be able to do everything.

Some of those critics may now get what they’re asking for…at least if they live in the UK.  After paying a onetime fee of about $5 dollars to purchases the upgraded Wii Internet channel, Wii watchers will now be able to surf to the BBC’s iPlayer streaming service and watch selected TV replays to their hearts content (subject to some time constraints).   Welcome Wii TV.

Previously, the flash based iPlayer streaming video service, which debuted in December 2007, had been limited to PC’s and iPhone (or iPod Touch) viewers.  Partnership with Nintendo on a Wii TV  beta is the iPlayer’s first extension into the living room.

According to Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of future media and technology, the Wii’s appeal is a mix of its family audience and large installed user base.   The BBC’s strategy says Ashley is “to reach as many people as we can and this is the last ten yards of missing rail track.”

To function properly on the Wii, a little technical wizardry was necessary.  The opera browser on the Wii currently runs an older version of Adobe’s flash software (Flash 7) but the iPlayer requires a more current version.   To accommodate, the BBC is spending the time and money to re-encode the video specifically for Nintendo audiences.  We’re essentially “transcoding an additional 400 hours [of video] per week" for the Wii said Anthony Rose, the BBC’s Head of Digital Media Technologies.

The service is currently limited to UK residents, but as an initial test, it is notable for expanding the Wii’s functionality. It positions the console as yet another possible bridge between TV and PC.  In that capacity, it joins a future service from LG/Netflix, Apple TV and other convergence devices already in the market.

For those outside the UK, if they use the upgraded Opera browser (which also supports a USB keyboard for ease of use) Wii TV functionality is still possible by surfing to web video sites.  Some content, however, ranging from sites like YouTube, Veoh, to Hulu and others may not be viewable because of the limitations of Flash 7.  (Hulu, for instance, relies on Flash Player 9).  Services that provide video via downloaded client software (Joost, Babelgum) will not work on the Wii at this time either.

An update of the Wii browser to support current generations of Flash is expected at some point but no date has been announced.

[Note: In addition to the iPlayer, the BBC is also at work on a broader streaming video platform called Project Kangaroo. More on that can be found here]


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