Your next set-top box could be the size of a deck of cards

The future of TV navigation is upon us, as cloud-driven programming guides could soon make it possible to disrupt the current set-top box market. As we’ve written before, we’re dreaming of a future where we don’t need a cable TV set-top box at all.┬áIn that utopia, users will be able to plug a TV in, connect it to their wireless home network and it’ll just work. In the meantime, though, we’ll settle for something like Sigma Designs’ new self-installable thin client.

There’s no power cord. There’s no coax cable wired throughout the home. There’s no big clock flashing at the user from the home entertainment center. Instead, the set-top box is incredibly small, about the same size as a deck of cards. It plugs right into an electrical outlet and has two outputs: one for HDMI and one for optical audio. Using HomePlug AV technology, which enables networking through a home’s electrical wiring, the thin client can decode multiple IPTV streams for display on HDTV sets anywhere in the house. It can even provide whole-home DVR and 3DTV functionality on any of the home’s TVs.

The design offers a media processor that can take advantage of customizable app environments, like Adobe (s ADBE) Air for TV and Adobe Flash. It uses RF remotes to enable users to control the TV without a line-of-sight connection to the box. (That’s good, since we assume that plugging the box directly into the electrical outlet will hide it out of sight.) It even includes Z-Wave technology, which provides connectivity for home control and energy management — basically enabling you to control your thermostat, lighting and even home security systems from your TV remote or other connected applications.

The box is primarily being pitched to IPTV providers in Europe, where powerline networking is much more common than in the U.S. As such, there’s a heavy emphasis on how those IPTV providers can use it to stream traditional linear TV services to their subscribers. At the same time, the box could stream virtually any type of online content, including popular services like Netflix (s NFLX) or YouTube, (s GOOG) if the service provider wanted to make them available.

For service providers, the big advantage of having a product like this is that they’ll be able to allow their customers to plug the boxes in themselves. If it “just works” the way that Sigma Designs promises it will, customers will be able to save a lot of time and money by not having to send technicians out to install a set-top box every time a subscriber gets a TV in another room of the house.

All that said, Sigma Designs isn’t actually making these set-top boxes itself, but it’s providing reference designs for any hardware or consumer electronics manufacturers that want to build them. Let’s hope the concept catches on, since it could be one way to do away with all the bulky, power-hogging set-top boxes that are currently on the market.