What IEDs and armored vehicles have to do with the future of television

A few years ago, Mark Buff was chipping away at a matter of life and death. For his PhD at North Carolina State University, he was trying to figure out how to better protect soldiers in the field from roadside bombs, also known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The answer? Many IEDs were remotely controlled, so finding them had a lot to do with detecting their antennas.

After graduation, Buff used his knowledge to found Greenwave Scientific, a defense contractor that set out to develop a variety of antennas for armored vehicles and other military use cases. Some of these antennas had to be very stealthy, leading to the development of a completely flat antenna that didn’t look at all like you would an antenna expect to look like.

And then, in 2010, Buff suddenly realized that there also was a civilian application for all of this: Consumers increasingly started to look for alternatives to their expensive monthly cable TV bill, and the digital TV transition had provided them with free, HD-quality TV feeds from all the major broadcasters and a number of niche stations. Buff and a few colleagues started to develop a consumer-level product, and in early 2011, they began shipping the Mohu Leaf — an antenna that’s just as stealthy as Buff’s military products, but much better looking.

Mohu’s good looks may have been one reason that the company saw 700 percent growth in 2012, and it is now looking to more than double sales in 2013. Buff thinks that the attitude towards antennas has changed in part because they don’t look like wiry rabbit ears anymore.

“Antennas have been ugly,” he told me during an interview this week. Now they’re starting to become something people show off. The company has seen customers decorate its antennas, and recently started to sell a designer model that looks more like an Apple accessory that an antenna. “It’s a sign that something becomes mainstream,” Buff said.

Mohu has also gotten a lot of help from cable companies and broadcasters, as conflicts over retransmission fees have gotten increasingly ugly. Buff said that most consumers still don’t know about free over-the-air television — but episodes like the lengthy blackout of CBS (S CBS) on Time Warner Cable helped a lot to raise awareness, and further accelerate the interest in cable TV alternatives. “It’s a ripple effect,” he said.

Buff’s company now wants to win over even more consumers with a new, still-unnamed product that will combine over-the-air TV with online streaming options. Reports about Mohu building its own set-top-box first surfaced in August, but Buff told me that the product will be more like a “smart antenna,” complete with a programming guide for over-the-air TV and an open platform for streaming apps. He said that the product should be available for consumers later this or early next year.