As PCs, broadband and home networking penetrate ever larger numbers of homes, a growing set of companies is working to get music, photos and videos stored on PCs onto the stereos and TV sets where people are accustomed to experiencing entertainment and media. Digital Media Adapters (DMAs), which started appearing two years ago, are the first devices that allow this to happen. Their emergence has led to a wave of experimentation and innovation about the ways in which the long-awaited PC/TV courtship will evolve; a raft of new products are marriages of various elements of the mix, many including digital video recording (a la TiVo). The progeny of this relationship include Microsoft's Media Center PC and Intel's new Entertainment PC (discussed in the CES article above), and a host of products we discuss below.
Digital Media Adapters (DMAs) act as "bridges" between two worlds. The new world of networked broadband, PCs and personal video recorders (PVRs) is entirely digital; PCs and PVRs provide great storage devices for audio, video and image media. Home audio systems and TV-based home entertainment centers are the best ways to listen to music and to watch video; but this old world of audio and video equipment is mostly analog, and it will be many years before it is supplanted by digital equivalents. A DMA typically sits between the two worlds--retrieving media over a network from a PC or PVR, and playing or "rendering" it through the existing audio and video equipment.
DMAs are really hot. We saw lots of different ones at CES; they were a critical part of our discussions with CEA and DHWG about emerging home networking standards reported in the following article; and we included several in our Connected by Design tour (see a later article).
Almost two years ago, we reported on the Turtle Beach AudioTron, one of the first DMAs. We use it every day in our home to play music from our computer hard drives on our main audio system. Most of our music tracks come from our CDs, some from legal Internet downloads - and now we're converting our old vinyl LP records into digital format (we'll write about this in another issue).
We have long said that the "broadband home" is about much more than PCs and Web surfing. These new devices are quickly bringing digital media into the mainstream, and accelerating the penetration of broadband and home networking.
We will first describe some of the attributes of these devices, and then describe some of the devices currently on the market and those announced at CES. We follow with some new developments in multi-room DMAs and PVRs and describe some emerging standards coming from CEA and the Digital Home Working Group.
Because DMAs represent a new product category, no "standard" form or function has yet emerged. Manufacturers are trying out many different attributes for media rendering and media sources, connections to displays and networks, media recording and server functions, etc. The current crop of DMAs provides many different combinations of these attributes:
DMA Devices and Servers
A few DMAs have been available for some time, and many products were announced at CES. We have written previously about the AudioTron Digital Music Player, the ReplayTV 4000, the TiVo Series 2 and the Prismiq MediaPlayer. We've also written about Microsoft's Media Center Edition, which extends Windows XP to provide extensive media acquisition and server functions; and about DigitalDeck, a new DMA which converts analog to digital as well as digital to analog.
Here is just a sampling of the DMAs and media servers introduced late last year or at CES 2004:
Multi-room PVRs and DMAs
In addition to the individual products described above, several companies have introduced complete media systems with both server and adapter components. PCs based on Windows XP Media Center Edition add media functionality to PCs. Denon's new NS-S100 multimedia server adds PC-like functionality to a "traditional" audio/video component. DigitalDeck and Ucentric provide multiple components acting as bridges between the PCs and consumer electronics in the house.
DigitalDeck introduced their DigitalDeck Entertainment Network--a "whole home" entertainment system--at CES. As previously reported, it allows users to watch or record TV shows or digital media from any TV or PC in the home, under the control of a central management unit--either a Windows- or Linux-based computer or a stand-alone unit; this arrangement allows multi-room access to DVR content or a DVD player. Networking is done over wired Ethernet connections. The retail package includes the software, a Send & Play adapter and a Play-Only adapter; it will ship this spring and sell for $450. ( www.digitaldeck.com )
Denon Electronics won the TechTV “Best Of Show” award at the 2004 CES for its new NS-S100 Network Multimedia Server, a networked personal video recorder (PVR) that stores and organizes digital music, photos, and videos, and records live television and radio broadcasts. Denon also demonstrated the NS-C200 Network Multimedia Client, which accesses all content and functionality available from the NS-S100 over a digital home network; the devices communicate via IP-based networking over Ethernet. ReplayTV (a sister company to Denon) delivers the electronic program guide (EPG) data via its back-end ReplayTV Service. ( www.denon.com ) ( www.replaytv.com )
Mediabolic’s M1 middleware provides the platform for the integration of Denon’s NS-S100 and NS-C200. The same Mediabolic platform also powers connected entertainment devices for other companies, including HP, Creative Technology, and Fujitsu. ( www.mediabolic.com )
Microsoft announced the Windows Media Center Extender, software that allows Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs to be used as an entertainment hub for the home. It will be complemented by TVs and set-top boxes from companies including Dell, Gateway, HP, Samsung, Tatung and Winstron that will support Media Center, making it easier for users to access content stored on the Media PC. Microsoft also introduced an XBox Media Center Extender kit that allows users to access the Media Center PC through an XBox connected to the TV. ( www.microsoft.com )
Ucentric Systems announced the release of its Whole Home High Definition Digital Software Suite of products including a photo application and off-air high-definition multi-TV digital video recorder (HD DVR) application. These were showcased along with the Ucentric multi-TV DVR and Whole Home Music 1.0 products at CES. Ucentric also announced a joint trial of its Whole Home Music 1.0 product with Comcast and Samsung; this trial is an extension of the ongoing whole home multi-TV DVR trial. Finally, Ucentric announced that its software is powering the VOOM HD Home Media Network, a whole-house solution designed specifically for HD programming, which is expected to be rolled out this summer by Rainbow DBS, Cablevision Systems Corporation's satellite division. The VOOM receiver box is made by Motorola Inc., with interactive software provided by OpenTV Inc. and a conditional access system provided by NDS. ( www.ucentric.com ) ( www.comcast.com ) ( www.samsung.com ) ( www.voom.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.opentv.com ) ( www.nds.com )
Setting Standards for Digital Media: DENi and DHWG
It's easy to run into problems with DMAs. There are many different audio and video formats--some standards-based and some proprietary. Some DMAs support many different audio formats, while others play only MP3s and don't recognize tracks that have been coded in formats like WMA and AAS. DMAs that render video are typically limited to a maximum speed of 3 to 5 Mbps; some PC video is coded at higher rates and doesn't play correctly. DVRs such as TiVO and ReplayTV can exchange video programs with other devices from the same brand, but not across brands. Current rules for digital rights management (DRM) prevent playing a DVD on a PC and transferring it across a network to a TV.
These problems and more must be overcome if DMAs are to become mainstream devices: consumers will not put up with what leading-edge techies will accept.
Two groups have been working to establish standards for digital networking: the R7 home networking group at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), and the recently-formed Digital Home Working Group (DHWG). We previously wrote about DHWG; in the past few weeks, we have looked more deeply into both efforts and met with several of the principals of DHWG.
CEA's R7 home networking group published the Digital Entertainment Network Initiative (DENi) standard, also known as CEA 2008, during the summer of 2003. DENi is a comprehensive standard, based on more than 60 existing standards, for audio-video networking over IP and Ethernet. Key features of DENi include:
DENi is a very attractive standard that deals with many of the issues when combining PCs and consumer electronics systems over the same network. But our conversations with many players indicate that few if any consumer electronics companies are moving forward with DENi; instead, they are focusing their attention on DHWG.
( www.ce.org )
The Digital Home Working Group (DHWG) is addressing many of the same issues as DENi. The key difference is that a much larger group of companies--including key players in the PC, consumer electronics and mobile markets--are working together to address a larger problem with a very tight announced timetable. While DENi was narrowly focused on audio/video networking, DHWG is focused on "PC, CE and Mobile convergence".
A few months ago, we reported on our interview with Intel's Bob Gregory, a member of DHWG's board of directors. At CES, we met with Bob and three other members of DHWG's board--Pat Griffis of Microsoft, Ko Togashi of Sony, and Chung-Kon Ko of Samsung--to get an update on DHWG status and forecasts.
When we talked with Bob a few months ago, DHWG had about 30 member companies; now there are 92 members including some of the biggest names in PCs, consumer electronics and mobile. The board consists of HP, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony; additional "promoter members" include major players like Fujitsu, Gateway, IBM, Sharp and Thomson.
DHWG sees the Digital Home as having two kinds of devices: servers and renderers. A server can acquire, record, store and source media, and may also be able to render it; examples include advanced set-top boxes, PVRs and PCs. A renderer can only render and playback media; examples include stereos, monitors, home theaters, multimedia phones and game consoles.
One of the clever approaches DHWG is taking is to set the minimum media format requirements fairly low, with options for higher-level formats. DHWG has addressed the conflict over competing audio standards by requiring only stereo Linear Pulse Code Modulation (LPCM) audio -- the same uncompressed audio format used as a minimum on DVDs. Other audio formats--MP3, AAC, WMA--are optional and are used only when both the server and the renderer support them; if both don't support an optional format, the server converts the source content to LPCM before sending it to the renderer. JPEG and MPEG2 play the same roles for images and audio/video.
DHWG is working on a fast track, and has announced a target for first products based on the DHWG guidelines during 2004. Since the guidelines are not scheduled to be completed until the end of the first half, and interoperability testing will start only in the second half, we questioned whether it would be possible to have interoperable products on that timetable. We learned that a more realistic expectation is that some products may well reach the market by the end of 2004, but these might not be interoperable. Products that have passed certification tests--and identified with a "DHWG" logo--won't be available until some time in 2005.
We've heard before about CE industry plans to produce interoperable standards-based products, only to see good intentions evaporate. So we were impressed when the Samsung and Sony representatives--both senior executives--assured us that it will really happen this time, and we should expect to see DHWG-compliant products on the CES floor this time next year.