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Making the consumer connection

Wed, 01/31/2007 - 7:00pm
Brian Santo, Senior Editor

LAS VEGAS–The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is enormous, bringing together doodads for cars, dongles for computers, DRAM devices, robots, and wireless refrigerators. But the 2007 edition was a bit less diffuse than usual because of the accelerating convergence of computing, audio, video and mobile products and services.

Media ConvergenceOn display at CES 2007 were a large number of devices that aim to help consumers play IP-based content sourced from the Internet on their TVs. There was also a trickle of OCAP-compliant products, as well as new set-tops and new digital TVs to entice new digital subscribers.

With rising levels of peer-to-peer sharing, supplemented by several sanctioned movie download services that are gaining traction, there is a clear opportunity for shipping video from the PC to television sets around the home.

The most notable new video networking devices are certainly Microsoft's Xbox 360, which will soon receive some new networking capabilities, and the new Apple TV (introduced at MacWorld, which ran concurrently with CES). In these two cases, notability is entirely a function of marketing muscle.

With the Apple TV box, Apple will leverage its phenomenal success with its i-prefixed products and services. Apple TV connects to almost all modern widescreen televisions, according to the company, allowing users to access nearly anything stored on their computers, including the millions of songs and not coincidentally approximately 250 films available through iTunes.

Apple TV is outfitted with a 40 gigabyte hard drive, which translates into approximately 50 hours of standard-def video, 9,000 songs, or 25,000 photos. Wireless networking is provided via an embedded AirPort 802.11 interface. The new Apple TV system will start shipping in February and carry a retail price of $299.

The Xbox 360, meanwhile, in conjunction with a PC running Microsoft's Vista operating system, will soon be able to ship video downloaded onto PCs to nearby TVs. Vista incorporates a number of video-enabling features and technologies, including digital rights management capabilities, which should encourage film studios to make movies more easily and widely available online. Microsoft's next step, promised by the end of the year, will be adding IPTV Edition software to the Xbox 360, which makes the game console look even more like the Trojan Horse the cable industry suspected it might be. Thus equipped, the Xbox could replace set-tops in some IPTV ecosystems, possibly including AT&T's U-verse, should AT&T so desire.

Apple’s new “Apple TV.”
Apple’s new “Apple TV.”

Vista was the hook for a wide variety of products at CES. Chipmaker AMD unveiled its ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. PCs running Vista and equipped with the tuner become PVRs, enabling users to watch and record both SD and HD digital cable content on their PCs. These Media Center PCs can also stream video to the Xbox 360.

AMD also has a line of chips, preliminarily called Fusion, that combine general-purpose silicon with specialized graphics processing capabilities that AMD picked up when it bought ATI Technologies in October. Those won't be available until 2009.

Meanwhile, PCs with AMD's TV Wonder tuner–already certified by CableLabs as OpenCable-compliant–were scheduled to have been available at the end of January 2007.

Hewlett Packard's TouchSmart IQ770 PC, positioned for the kitchen, is based on Windows Vista, and AMD's Turion chip. It also has an NTSC TV tuner and over-the-air ATSC HDTV tuner, and doubles as a PVR.

Also being demonstrated in several booths on the floor was software from Nero that aims to be an all-in-one multimedia package. Nero 7 Ultra Edition Enhanced, which was upgraded to work with Vista, includes Nero Mobile, which allows users to stream live video to a Windows Media Center Edition PC or Xbox 360. The package has applications for recording/burning TV programs and free PC-to-PC VoIP calls.

Sling Media announced its $200 SlingCatcher which will come bundled with two new apps. The Sling Projector allows consumers to wirelessly direct any Web site or digital audio/video format onto their TVs, including IPTV content. The SlingPlayer for TV is a de facto home networking device, that allows viewers to move TV content around the home or access content from the home remotely via a TV.

The SlingCatcher also has the ability to download or stream content directly from the Internet and display it on a TV without the need for a PC to serve that content.

Amino and Orb Networks teamed in an effort to steal some of Sling Media's glory. Orb's MyCasting software, typically installed on PCs, allows users to shift PC content to any Web-enabled media player. Amino will integrate MyCasting software with a series of AmiNET set-tops due to be released throughout 2007.

Digeo Inc., taking steps beyond its primary cable operator distribution channel, previewed two "next-generation" Moxi-based HD Media Recorder (DMR) prototypes, both due out in the second half of the year…and tagged for retail. Both feature the Moxi interface, an integrated CD/DVD player, digital video recording (with Web-based scheduling), and the ability to stream content from the PC to the TV.

The Moxi Multi-room HD DMR will support a slot to house the multistream CableCARD ("M-Card"), a removable module that incorporates the cable operator's conditional access system. The two-way M-Card will handle advanced DVR features such as watch and record. The second prototype, the Moxi Home Cinema Edition HD DMR, is based on Linux and designed for home theater enthusiasts.

Motorola’s DCH6416
Motorola’s DCH6416

Amedia Networks was at CES positioning its Broadband Entertainment Center, which combines a modem, router, wireless access point, and VoIP adapter, and stores and organizes content. It incorporates Ultrawide-band (UWB) technology to distribute HDTV signals to various home entertainment and media devices.

Amedia is explicitly friendly to service providers. It says carriers can tap into the Broadband Entertainment Center's operating system to provide subscribers with any number of applications, including the ability to surf the Web on their TVs.

Also of note in the world of wireless streaming, Samsung introduced a 58-inch plasma HDTV that is, but for the power cord, otherwise wireless. The set comes with a separate Wi-Fi (802.11n) transmitter. It is scheduled to be available in September, for just under $5,800.

SanDisk bucked the wireless trend entirely with a demonstration of the ability to use a specially-configured USB flash drive to transfer video. Plug it into your PC, and drag-and-drop the desired video onto it. Take the drive over to a TV attached to a docking station equipped with S-video or composite outputs, and play your video.

While much of the action at CES was about sharing video among PCs and TVs, Motorola CEO Ed Zander during his keynote address demonstrated the new "Moto Follow Me TV" capability of the company's new DCH set-top boxes, which starts with the long-promised ability to ship video from one TV to another within the home–multi-room DVR. But Zander also provided a glimpse of a next step in video mobility–the ability of an IPTV set-top box to stream video to a mobile handset.

Motorola's line of six new DCH Series digital STBs are also notable for another feature–they all support CableCARDs, Motorola's Linux-Java operating system, and OCAP. Motorola announced a contract extension from long-time set-top customer Comcast, which will selectively take advantage of all three of those technologies, as well as the Follow Me TV capabilities.

The product family features a mix-and-match array of interfaces that include the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, IEEE 1394a, USB, and Ethernet.

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