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HDMI dongle turns TVs into giant Android tablets

Nov 14, 2013  |  Eric Brown

A startup called BiggiFi is approaching its Indiegogo funding goal for a $79 HDMI dongle that essentially turns HDTVs into supersized Android tablets. The BiggiFi device is claimed to let users run unmodified Android apps on their TVs using their phone or tablet as the TV’s touchscreen — including motion input for games — without screen-mirroring overhead latency.

At first glance, BiggiFi seems like a variation on WiFi mirroring technologies like Apple’s AirPlay, Intel’s WiDi, or Miracast. Yet, there’s a key difference with all these technologies designed to bring content from your mobile device to the big screen: no content is being transmitted.



BiggiFi is built into an HDMI dongle
(click images to enlarge)

 


BiggiFi
(click to enlarge)

Works with unmodified Android apps

In an email exchange with BiggiFi creator Karl Zhao, he explained that BiggiFi, which runs a modified version of Android on a dual-core Cortex-A9 system-on-chip, does not use mirroring technology. Instead, an Android app running on the user’s phone or tablet collects touch input signals and transmits the touch data to the BiggiFi. The HDMI dongle-style BiggiFi device downloads, hosts, and runs the content, thereby reducing latency. The lack of mirroring is also said to reduce power drain on the WiFi-linked mobile device.

“When a specific touch action is performed on your smartphone or tablet, it is captured by the app and sent over WiFi to a server running in Android Framework layer on the BiggiFi device,” explains Zhao. “The server passes the touch event to the device driver layer. When the action finally reaches the app, it will be as though the BiggiFi device itself has a physical touchscreen. What you end up with is a fairly lossless Android experience on your TV.”

BiggiFi supports input gestures such as slide, scroll, pinch, zoom, and soft keyboard input. It even accepts input including vibration and accelerometer movements, enabling tilting for gameplay, says Zhao. His team is now working on translating camera and mic input, he says.

BiggiFi shares some features with Google’s Chromecast, but according to Zhao, Chromecast is “at this point, really only good for YouTube and Netflix.” By comparison, BiggiFi can handle any Android app, he adds. “It pretty much eliminates any need for porting since all the apps run in a ‘native’ control environment,” he adds. Most Android games are claimed to run without any additional modification.


Plair
(click to enlarge)

The closest parallel, says Zhao, is the Linux-powered Plair 2, a $49 follow-on to the original Plair. “The Plair 2 is more comparable to our device but their interface uses a sort of custom scheme that has a touchpad on one half and some directional swipe controls on the other half,” says Zhao. In addition, he notes that some recent reviews have not been kind to the device.
 

Simulating a local touchscreen

When using BiggiFi, the Android smartphone or tablet screen does not mimic what’s shown on the TV, but instead displays a fairly blank interface screen (see screenshot below). Keeping in mind all the taps, swipes, zooms, and text inputs used on an Android device, we asked Zhao how you would know what part of your smartphone’s touchscreen to tap or touch to get an accurate corresponding effect onscreen.



BiggiFi remote touch demo
(click image to view demo)

 

In order to provide screen location feedback to the user, the device offers two modes of operation — mouse mode and touch mode — and also renders screenshots on the tablet’s or smartphone’s screen.

“In mouse mode, BiggiFi operates very similar to when we use a laptop,” says Zhao. “We give the visual queues in two ways: (1) show touch trajectory — this is good for the dynamic touch interaction; (2) take a screenshot of TV display — this is good for pinning down touch locations that are more static. For example, in the driving game, after the snapshot, the smartphone/tablet screen essentially becomes a custom controller. You can locate the accelerator, brake, and so on. It can be different from game to game.”

When typing, meanwhile, BiggiFi uses a separate typing mode that pops up a keyboard on the Android device. At this point, the user’s keystrokes are transmitted to the Biggifi’s server daemon, which forwards them through the keyboard driver to the Android app running on the device.
 

Inside the BiggiFi


Inside BiggiFi
(click to enlarge)

Underneath the hood, the BiggiFi device features the following specs:

  • Processor — 1.5GHz dual-core SoC:
    • 2x ARM Cortex-A9 cores with 512KB L2 cache
    • Mali-400MPU GPU
  • Memory — 1GB DDR SDRAM; 4GB NAND flash
  • Memory expansion — microSD slot
  • Wireless — 802.11 b/g/n
  • I/O — HDMI port for up to 1080p; USB 2.0 port
  • Media standard support — OpenGL ES 2.0; OpenGL ES 1.1; OpenVG 1.1
  • Operating system — customized Android 4.0

BiggiFi device’s design was initlally based on a TI DM3730 SoC, which integrates a single ARM Cortex-A8 core, but has since migrated to the dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 chip. Users can add Bluetooth peripherals by connecting Bluetooth dongle to the BiggiFi device’s USB port.
 

Multiuser SDK

BiggiFi offers a multiuser SDK that lets developers design apps that receive multiple inputs from multiple smartphones, therefore enabling multi-player split-screen gaming. The SDK also supports performance and latency tuning for single-player games.


Two-user game demo
(click to enlarge)

How might the device’s multiuser capabilities be utilized? “There is one BiggiFi device and multiple smartphone/tablet users, all having the BiggiFi app running on their mobile devices,” explains Zhao. “All can connect to the BiggiFi device wirelessly. They can all control the device. The server running on the BiggiFi device will regulate them. For example, when you play Fruit Ninja, say each device provides two touch points, so four devices together have eight touch points, the server running on the BiggiFi device aggregates all the touch points and passes the data to Fruit Ninja, which thinks that all eight touch points are coming from single device.”
 

Crowdfunding objectives

BiggiFi chose the crowdfunding route in order to cover the costs of FCC certification and continuing its software development. An iOS app is in the works, in addition to the longer range camera and mic integration, and other enhancements. A Shenzhen-based manufacturer is already lined up, says Zhao.

Time will tell if the BiggiFi device does a better job of meeting its technological goals than products like Google TV, Chromecast, and Plair. In the meantime, the Irvine, Calif. startup is well on its way to meeting its Nov, 28 goals for Indiegogo, having reached almost $20,000 of its $25,000 target. Funding packages that include the device start at $69, although the retail price will bump up to $79. Other packages range up to $5,000, with multiple device discounts in between.

No ship date was provided for the final BiggiFi device, which is available on pre-order for $69, but will move up to $79 at retail. More information may be found at the BiggiFi Indiegogo page.
 

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PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

12 Responses to “HDMI dongle turns TVs into giant Android tablets”

  1. Caitlin says:

    This would be even more exciting if they offered a device driver to be installed on more powerful Android HDMI sticks. I’m sure they could charge more for the code alone than their profit margin on their own slightly underpowered HDMI stick.

    It’s still a good deal, and I ordered one, but in the long run dual core Cortex-A9 is weak.

    • Karl Zhao says:

      Catlin,

      Thank you for your comment and appreciate your support! Thanks for suggesting software licensing model. The problem is that our core intellectual property closely coupled with the low level firmware and in a lot of cases silicon/hardware dependent. More importantly, if we work on other hardware it is hard for us to deliver the end-to-end user experience. This is our foremost objective. As far as the power of the silicon, we do have plan to develop next generation product using silicon with higher performance.

  2. Tommyb says:

    How much different is this than a Mk808 or Mk809?

    The 808 is a dual core 1.6GHz Android device, and on ebay they are $40.

    The 809 is a quad core 1.6GHz Android device, and on ebay they are $80

    • Karl Zhao says:

      Our device runs a modified version of Android that allows you to use your smartphone as a “native environment controller” which basically means that you would control apps on the dongle the same way you would control them on your phone. The Mk808 and Mk809 is still reliant on USB/Bluetooth traditional controllers (tactile button remotes, gamepads, etc) or a controller app that experiences high latency (see RemoDroid) or a non-standard control scheme (see DroidMote), something that BiggiFi doesn’t have to deal with.

  3. Syd Alsobrook says:

    Not the first of its kind, but looks promising.

    I have a Pocket TV from these guys http://www.infinitec.com

    It is an interesting market niche.

    • Karl Zhao says:

      Pocket TV relies on AirRemote which would not interface with Android apps as seamless as BiggiFi. Our device is not a smart tv replacement. Instead it extends mobile apps to TV, as the title of this article puts it perfectly: “Turning TVs into Giant Tablets”. We believe that this will be a cool gadget for a lot of smartphone / tablet users.

  4. Sam Harper says:

    will it work with kindle fire HD (not HDX) and Motorola Maxx HD?

    • Karl Zhao says:

      As long as it runs Android and has access to the Google Play Store, it should work with our device. The Motorola Maxx HD should definitely work with our device. We are currently submitting the BiggiFi app to the Kindle store.

  5. karl says:

    Will work with the Microsoft surface.

  6. Paul says:

    Will it work with an I phone

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