In TV streaming race, a new product thinks out of the box

Dabby mashes up elements of a tablet, Chromecast, and the Echo Cube. But its creators hope that a finely tuned knowledge of content will help it compete against streaming box giants.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Once, products such as the smart TV boxes from Roku were used as a way to add broadband TV connectivity to a set without Internet access or as an alternative to the poor interfaces that early smart TVs offered. Nowadays, though, virtually every TV is a smart TV, and their user interfaces have come a long way, reducing the need for such products. Recently, for example, Apple moved to support TVs from some of the world's largest TV companies for its Apple TV+ service, as it ultimately recognized the limited reach of add-on TV hardware.

A follow-on effort from a company that produced one of the early casting products, Dabby is a mashup of a tablet, a Chromecast, and an Apple TV. Rather than use the TV to create a subpar graphical content selection scheme, Dabby uses voice commands to pinpoint streaming content. (It doesn't work with traditional over-the-air or cable programming.)

Of course, other devices such as the Alexa FireTV and Apple TV can also use voice commands to find TV shows and movies. But Dabby claims to outperform general purpose agents with one that has been deeply trained in content, including YouTube clips. Dabby's creators also claim to access a broader array of video content than any of the existing set-top options -- since it uses a custom web browser to access virtually everything available via an app on other services, as well as many video sources for which an app is not available. The web browser-based approach also eliminates any installation hassles common to Dabby's TV box competitors.

But the biggest difference between Dabby and, say, a Roku-like device is that Dabby is a consumption device in addition to a control device. You can use its tablet-sized display to watch something different than what's on the TV, take what's playing on the TV with you to another room, and even cast it to another television when you get to another room that has a compatible receiver.  What the Alexa Show is to the smart speaker, Dabby is the remote control.

Like many high-powered remotes before it, Dabby relies on a charging dock to remain at the ready. The company says that the final product will be both thinner and lighter than the prototype shown in its Kickstarter video. Still, it's difficult to look at the Dabby and wonder why the company didn't just go the software route, at least for the display. This is particularly true as Dabby's functionality has started to extend to features such as video chats and second-screen content.

Dabby counters that its screen-based device was required for critical elements of its functionality, including the video content handoff that requires proximity sensors, custom browser requirements and an Echo-like always-on microphone that precludes having to ensure that a particular app is always in the foreground. Still, at $250 for a single Dabby control/viewing device and companion dongle, Dabby is more expensive than even the 4K Apple TV. And even a slimmed-down version of the device will be more of a presence in the living room than your typical remote.

Dabby enters the streaming content control space at a transformative time. While Roku and competitors offer scores of channel options today, a few major services dominate the subscription space and thus offer broad support. It's not unusual, for example, for a living room to already have multiple different devices that can serve up Netflix, and that's not including smartphones that may be able to cast it to the television.

Still, be it Disney, WarnerMedia, NBC Universal, or Apple, there's no shortage of big media names that are entering the streaming TV space, which stands to make cord-cutting a more fragmented and expensive proposition. Those that cannot get consumers to pay directly for their services may build viewerships through subscription bundles such as the deals that Netflix has with T-Mobile and Hulu has with Spotify. And even if few people add them all to today's favorites, a growing number of services such as Tubi, Xumo, and Pluto TV have joined established services such as Vudu and Crackle, and the Roku Channel is offering ad-supported movies and TV content. For streaming aficionados determined to find the shortest path to all that content, Dabby offers a novel approach that should only improve with time if the company can stick it out.

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