Technology

Touting Sights, Sounds and Safety

9/16/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

When Intel Corp. unveiled its “VIIV” chip set last month, the microprocessor giant said it was focusing on “ease of use, performance and connectivity in the context of delivering a great entertainment experience to users.”

Behind those platitudes stood Intel’s vision of an entertainment PC that will let consumers share digital content throughout a home network.

Put more simply: Here’s another alternative to the set-top box for gathering and distributing material from the digital cornucopia.

SO MUCH TO STORE

These objectives have been rumored for more than a decade, but they’re taking on more significance of late, as digitally savvy consumers look for ways to move video games, music, photos and images around their home networks.

Long-promised home-security features — including sensors and monitoring systems, plus tele-health services — are also part of the revived networking vision.

Intel’s VIIV (rhymes with “strive” or “drive”) chip set includes a dual-core processor with a network controller. Its automatic transcoding ability means content can be moved to any other device without requiring users to manipulate the transfer — a fundamental capability in the emerging multiple-media environment.

VIIV’s debut further energizes the competitive duel between sectors seeking to provide networked multimedia solutions.

As such computer-centric approaches as Intel’s and similar ideas from Microsoft Corp. and consumer-electronics companies gain momentum, the cable industry is advancing a comparable assault. Souped-up set-tops will accommodate many of the same storage, manipulation and distribution services for personal content in and around the home.

“If you can do video, then everything else comes pretty easily,” said Ladd Wardani, president of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA), a group that has been developing home-network standards that use existing home cable wiring. Wardani points out that the home network is “not too particular about what multimedia you’re sending over it.”

Like others, Wardani lists games, music and photos as the primary features that consumers seek to distribute around their homes and to transportable devices.

MoCA’s member companies — including cable companies Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc., plus would-be video providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. — have tested graphics-rich video games through set-top box technology.

'GAMES ARE EASY’

Games generally require data speeds of only 80 Kbps or less. Wardani compared these slow processes to the 20 Mbps needed for HDTV, saying “games were easy” by comparison.

Similarly, Wardani noted that photos and other images distributed to multiple home devices are not only relatively small files, but do not have the quality-of-service requirements that video, voice and gaming require.

Nonetheless, Wardani characterized video games as the fourth element in a “quadruple play,” along with video, data and voice.

Other observers predicted vast opportunities for multiplayer video games in the home. For instance, several players could compete at the same game from within their own rooms. The game would reside on a console or within a media server or set-top box.

Ted Archer, marketing director of multimedia-over-coaxial solutions developer Coaxsys Inc., said, “IP networks will make it easier to deliver … [services] from one central hub to lots of targets.”

He agreed that gaming would be “quite big,” because so many people are looking for games away from the central device.

Archer acknowledged that wireless systems will continue to be useful within a home. “But when you get to higher bandwidth and longer distances, a wired network will always be able to delivery more speed, security and reliability,” he said.

He also cited hybrid home networks as a means of enhancing cable’s voice-over-Internet protocol ventures. Network nodes within a home can afford greater reach for cordless phones, Archer added.

Wardani is also vice president for business development at Entropic Communications Inc., which makes home-networking chip sets and software — the basis for much of MoCA’s approach.

Motorola Inc. has installed Entropic chips in some of its DCT 700 and DC3412 set-top boxes. The box maker said it has shipped about 900,000 of these devices, but declines to identify its U.S. customers.

Motorola officials — seeking to leverage their company’s mobile phone and looming mobile-music ventures — are focusing on “seamless mobility,” characterized as the ability to move music around the house or to portable devices and cars.

IN MOTO’S VISION

At the same time, the ability to manipulate photos and e-mail messages, moving them to any appropriate device, plays a significant role in Motorola’s vision. A spokesman — lumping together several company initiatives — describes scenarios where digital images, captured on a mobile phone, are merged through a set-top box and networked to a variety of display devices.

Motorola’s acquisition early this year of uCentric, a home-networking software provider, reinforces the move toward IP delivery. Motorola intends to integrate uCentric services “more tightly” into its set-tops by early 2005.

Extended uCentric software will be OpenCable Applications Platform-ready by then, which means that any OCAP application will be accessible through the set-top.

The unified interface lets consumers move among disparate data storage systems to find the content they want and direct it to the appropriate display device. Those devices are likely to include legacy playback devices, such as stereo equipment and TV sets.

In addition to music, photos and games, the networked devices can be linked to a variety of security systems.

Motorola envisions low-powered sensors around the house, managed through residential gateway technology in the STB.

SMALL MARKET NOW

Tricia Parks, president of Parks Associates research firm, acknowledged, “It’s a small market right now,” but said she sees tremendous opportunity in the security-conscious climate.

“What a wonderful application for IP cameras,” Parks said. But she cautioned that it is a “complex process,” because security providers “have to make sure they are not subject to hacking.”

Parks predicted that “digital health” will emerge as a vital application for the home-network structure by the end of this decade, starting with such “teeny steps” as monitoring of homebound elders.”

As more systematic systems for reminders and notifications are developed, these tele-health services will play a larger role in home networks, although “the trick will be not to invade personal privacy,” according to Parks.

September