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The June 19, 2006 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Media Networking 1--Pieces Coming Together

Theory and reality often don't match. While we frequently write about new technologies for media networking and whole home audio/video, we believe the acid test comes when we incorporate the pieces into our lives and see what real user experiences are like. Although we're still some way from the "promised land," there has been significant progress in developing the technologies and products to enable "any content on any device, at any time" within the home. In several articles on different aspects of media networking, we'll describe where we think we are now and where it is leading--starting with our own recent experience.

We often watch television while we're eating dinner in our kitchen. A few weeks ago, late on a Tuesday evening, we watched the most recent Sopranos episode. Before the season started, we had set up our TiVo PVR to record all the Sopranos episodes. The DigitalDeck system we've been testing let us use the TV in the kitchen to watch the program recorded Sunday night on the TiVo in our bedroom.

While watching video from the TiVo on a screen in a different room is new for us, listening to music in a different room is something we've long taken for granted. All of our CDs and some of our vinyl records are stored on a PC in MP3 format. We can listen from any PC, or on loudspeakers throughout our house.

These simple-seeming acts--listening to music or watching "The Sopranos" when and where we want--make use of many not-so-simple technologies:

  • Home networking: We ran Category 5 cabling throughout our house ten years ago--during August 1996--and included the kitchen and all bedrooms in our wiring. We didn't have the foresight to run Cat 5 to the audio cabinet in our dining room, but used HomePlug powerline networking to solve that problem.
  • Digital Media Adapters: We use a Turtle Beach AudioTron in our audio cabinet to convert MP3 digital music to analog stereo audio.
  • PVRs: We have both ReplayTV and TiVo PVRs, one in the family room and one in the bedroom. But we mostly watch TV in the kitchen while we're preparing and eating dinner. Until now we could watch only live TV and the limited on-demand content our cable operator has made available.
  • DigitalDeck: This new system provides video transport and control between sources and sinks, and much more (for example it has its own PVR capability).
  • Windows XP PCs: We have several PCs running Windows XP; we host our music library and the DigitalDeck application on one of them.
  • Broadband connection: We use a cable modem for high-speed Internet access. These connections are now fast enough to carry high-quality video.
  • Video encoding and decoding: DVRs and DigitalDeck use real-time video encoding and decoding chips to convert analog video to digital and vice versa.

Over the past six years, we've often written of the future world in which you will be able to listen to and watch what you want, when you want to watch it, where you want it and on the device you prefer to watch on. That world is now almost here. All the pieces are coming together to make whole home audio and video real--and increasingly to blur the roles of the PC and the TV.

We're early adopters who have been involved with computer and communications technologies all our adult lives, and we made the investment in Category 5 cabling a decade ago. We've upgraded the electronics several times and now use Fast Ethernet--at 100 Mbps, it has plenty of speed to carry video with good quality.

Most people don't have Category 5 cabling throughout the house, and don't want to spend the money to install it. The industry believes that a mass consumer market for media networking is dependent on new high-speed networking technologies that don't require new wiring.

With new home networking technologies promising real throughput of 50 Mbps and up without new wiring, media networking is likely to take off in a big way over the next few years. Many families have become accustomed to using home networks to share a broadband connection around the home; now they will be able to share photos, audio, and video as well. Intel, Microsoft and many CE manufacturers are launching campaigns to educate consumers and create the ecosystems to encourage the purchase and use of these new digital media technologies.

PVR functionality is now included in many cable and satellite boxes. It's also in PC software like DigitalDeck and Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, a popular consumer version of Windows XP. But many people do not want to watch video only on the screen that's connected to the cable or satellite box--much less on the PC screen. Cable and satellite companies have started to offer "multi-room PVRs" that distribute PVR content to TV sets in other rooms.

Media plays a major role in Microsoft's announced plans for Windows Vista, the successor to Windows XP now due in customer hands early in 2007. Vista has extensive support for storing and searching for digital photos, music and home movies. Media Center Edition has always included the ability to receive and encode analog cable channels. The Vista version will provide advanced features for recording from digital and high-definition cable TV, and for "multi-room access to your entertainment".

Until now, premium channels such as HBO have only been available by using cable set-top boxes and specially-equipped TVs. CableLabs has worked with Microsoft and others to develop the OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) which will enable PCs to receive these premium channels directly.

Microsoft recently unveiled what it calls "Windows Rally Technologies" to facilitate the extension of Media Center content to TVs in other rooms. Several companies have announced technologies and products designed to work with Rally.

Intel's Viiv initiative for next-generation home PCs is centered on media and especially on equipping the PC for high-definition video and surround sound. While earlier Intel publicity appeared to place the Viiv PC in the living room, Intel recently expanded the initiative to encompass media adapters that extend the Viiv experience to remote TVs, so all TVs can benefit from Viiv and the Viiv PC can be located remotely from the living room.

Later in this series of articles, we'll consider where this is all is going, what role remains for the traditional stack of audio/video equipment, and whether the PC will displace it. In the next article, we'll start by looking at the present state of "no new wires" networking.

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