BBH Central IconBBH Report Home PageSandy and Dave
  CENTRAL home  |   REPORT home About/Contact Us  |   Subscribe  |   Index by Topic  
The January 22, 2004 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
Table of Contents Print this article Email this article to a friend

The Year of the Digital Media Adapter

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.


DMA Attributes

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:

  • Media rendering: DMAs can render one or several forms of media. Some handle audio only (AudioTron), some audio and images (Roku HD1000), and some audio, video and images (many others).
  • Media sources: All DMAs handle networked media--the simplest are stand-alone networked devices without any local media storage. More complex DMAs include local media storage: the Roku HD1000 includes slots for many formats of media cards; the Gateway Connected DVD Player includes a DVD player. PVRs such as TiVo and Replay TV include hard drives for recording broadcast television from cable or satellite. Some now include deals with content partners for broadband audio or video content.
  • Display connections: Some DMAs have very simple connections - analog audio only, or audio and video. Others add digital audio, S-Video, component video, etc. to provide better rendering on high-quality audio and video equipment. The Roku HD1000 interfaces to a high-definition TV.
  • Network connections: Almost all DMAs include Ethernet connections. Some also include other forms of built-in networking, most often one or several flavors of Wi-Fi: 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11a/11b/11g); others include phoneline (HomePNA) or powerline (HomePlug).
  • User interface: Audio-only devices like the AudioTron include a user interface on the front panel. Devices with video output typically use the TV screen as the interface. User interfaces differ widely in functionality, complexity and ease of use; two devices with similar functionality can have vastly different interfaces.
  • PC server support: Many DMAs require the user to install "server" software on one or more user PCs; a few can find the media content without server software.

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:

  • Actiontec Electronics announced the Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player with Built-in Card Reader. Consumers can play digital images and music on their TVs and stereos from any of the eight major portable memory card formats used in digital cameras, digital camcorders and MP3 players. The VCR-sized appliance wirelessly links computers to home entertainment centers for enjoying PC-based content such as downloaded music and Internet radio. The appliance interacts with the user's PC through media manager software that instructs the media player where music and images are located on the computer; databases from multiple home computers can be merged, making it possible to aggregate the digital media libraries of different family members. ( www.actiontec.com )
  • Gateway's Connected DVD Player combines a DVD player with a DMA for many formats of images, audio and video. It connects by Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and has higher-end audio and video connections including progressive-scan component video. ( www.gateway.com )
  • Hauppauge DMA --> Click for larger pictureHauppauge Computer Works has focused on "bringing TV and broadcast data to your PC"; several Media Center PCs use Hauppauge boards to interface with cable and satellite connections. Now Hauppauge has introduced the MediaMVP, a simple DMA to bring audio, video and images from the PC to the TV. It is targeted to the price-sensitive part of the market and priced at about $100. ( www.hauppauge.com )
  • HP "entertainment hub": HP introduced their HP Digital Entertainment Center de100c in Oct 2001. At CES, HP CEO Carly Fiorina announced that starting this fall HP will introduce its new entertainment hub that will serve as the single, central storage repository, distribution and access point for all music, photo, video and movie collections in the home; it will also include DVR functions for cable, satellite or HDTV sources. In the second half of 2004 HP will also start supporting Microsoft's Media Center Extender technology for its Media Center PCs. The HP iPAQ is going to become an intelligent remote control for controlling entertainment devices and accessing all digital content including music, photos and videos, either locally, streaming or remotely. Fiorina also announced a series of partnerships with content creators. ( www.hp.com )
  • Linksys rolled out their DVD Player with Wireless-G Media Link, a product that combines a progressive scan DVD player with a Media Link adapter with the networking capability to wirelessly distribute digital video, music and pictures stored on a PC to view and play on a TV and/or stereo system. Linksys also rolled out the Wireless-B Media Link for music which uses 802.11b networking to deliver digital audio content from a PC to a home stereo, without running cables. ( www.linksys.com )
  • Sean Stanton demonstrated the new version of Prismiq --> Click for larger picturePRISMIQ announced a new MediaPlayer/Recorder that adds digital video recording to the MediaPlayer introduced last year at CES, using a PC hard drive as a video recorder. The MP/R works over both wired and wireless networks (the faster 802.11g would probably be best for wireless video file transfer). Unlike the stand-alone player, which offered only PC support, the new MP/R also supports Mac and Linux systems. Prismiq also announced it has teamed with RealNetworks to give consumers access to Rhapsody on their home stereos via a wireless or wired home network; it will be available at the next public release of PRISMIQ software, currently scheduled for early February, and will be compliant with RealNetworks' security enhancements. Prismiq also announced a partnership with CinemaNow to combine technologies to enable web-based video-on-demand on the television. ( www.PRISMIQ.com ) ( www.real.com ) ( www.cinemanow.com )
  • Rockford Omnifi showed us their DMS1 WiFi Home Digital Media Streamer, an audio DMA that streams music stored on PC hard drives to the home audio system. We were particularly intrigued by the DMP1 Digital Media Player, which installs in the family car and plays through the existing car audio system; the DMP1 uses Wi-Fi to automatically synchronize its 20G hard drive with media stored on the home PC. Both products are based on the SimpleCenter software suite from SimpleDevices. ( www.omnifimedia.com ) ( www.simpledevices.com )
  • Roku DMA showing classic art --> Click for larger pictureRoku had previously released the HD1000 Digital Media Player, which allows users to view their digital photos in high-definition on a high-definition TV. HD1000 supports CompactFlash, SD/MMC, Memory Stick and SmartMedia cards, as well as a network connection to a home PC; Roku offers custom Art Packs on CompactFlash to create a home art gallery on the HDTV screen. HD1000 also plays digital music files over a user's home network. At CES, Roku introduced its second product line, the SoundBridge Network Music Player. Consumers can listen to digital music stored on their computers in any room of their homes, through a built-in Ethernet link or an optional wireless adapter. SoundBridge can access playlists from both Mac- and Windows-based computers, and supports most audio formats; the product will ship in February. Roku also announced availability of a software developer’s kit (SDK) to create media applications for high-definition television via the Roku HD1000. ( www.rokulabs.com )
  • SMC released its SMCWMR-AG Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver in the fall and we have been testing one in our home. It is a simple DMA handling audio, video and images, and operating over both Ethernet and all three flavors of Wi-Fi. It uses the TV as its user interface. ( www.smc.com )
  • TiVo had previously introduced its Home Media Option to retrieve digital music and photos from the computer to the TV via the TiVo box. At CES, TiVo announced TiVoToGo; it provides a way to send recorded TiVo programs back to a laptop or PC for viewing or recording to DVD. They have also added the capability to remotely program your home TiVo through any Internet connection, including those on wireless phones and PDAs. TiVoToGo will be released in fall 2004. ( www.tivo.com )
  • Video Without Boundaries introduced its MediaReady 4000, which combines a PC, a DVD player, and a jukebox for audio and video media into a piece of equipment designed for the home entertainment center. It's designed to connect to a broadband Internet provider and a home network. The MediaReady 4000 is more a consumer device than a traditional PC; targeted to a consumer price point, it is based on CAC Media's MediaReady Convergence Software Suite (MCSS) rather than Windows. It will be marketed under the Lafayette brand and is expected to be available in a few months. ( www.vwbinc.com ) ( www.cacmedia.tv )

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

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

Jeremy Toeman demonstrates the Denon NS-S100 server and client functions powered by Mediabolic --> Click for larger pictureDenon 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

5 different Windows Media Center Extenders --> Click for larger pictureMicrosoft 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

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.

DENi

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:

  • It assumes that “backbone” distribution in the home uses Gigabit Ethernet over Category 6 cabling (Fast Ethernet over Category 5e cabling is also supported) with bridges for wireless networks and adapters for 1394 devices such as digital TVs.
  • It defines a new type of network: a “DENi network”. This is an Ethernet network containing at least two DENi host devices – network routers, media servers, media players and/or media controllers – conforming to the DENi standard. While the DENi standard is primarily designed to define the proper interaction of DENi host devices, it recognizes that a unified network will also contain legacy non-DENi devices.
  • It recognizes that video streams require quality of service, and mandates a approach for QoS over Ethernet. It defines rules to allow network controls (highest priority), real-time bidirectional streams (telephony, gaming, videophones), unidirectional streams (video, security camera monitoring) and best efforts data (lowest priority) to coexist in the same network.
  • It specifies the transport and control mechanisms for many media types including video, audio and images. It defines specific requirements for different types of media players – for example, an audio player does not need to support video and a video player does not need to support high definition. The specification defines required video, audio and image formats for each type of player, with optional support for many additional formats.
  • All DENi devices use UPnP for discovery and control. This is a key element in network unification since Windows XP fully supports UPnP and many existing networking devices already have UPnP built in.

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 )

DHWG

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.

( www.dhwg.org ) ( www.intel.com ) ( www.microsoft.com ) ( www.sony.com ) ( www.samsung.com )