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Nearing the age of digital media portability

Posted: 02 Aug 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:portable design? media? digital? codec? video?

With a plethora of cellphones, PDAs, DVDs, STBs, MP3 players and other portable devices ready to burst into the consumer market, the goal now is to provide consumers with ubiquitous access to their coveted entertainment anywhere, anytime. But it is not so easy; numerous challenges and requirements need to be addressed and resolved to deliver customers a complex product with a simple user experience.

Currently, industry leaders, operating individually and jointly in standards groups, are addressing the issues involved in bringing the future of enhanced portability into our hands. These issues include: the need to develop cohesive standards for the creation of digital media, communication for both wired and wireless devices, content protection for new methods of data transmission and storage and compatibility across multiple devices and products.

As we move toward resolving these issues, a number of industry trends are shaping up to deliver a user experience that supports the transparent reuse of digital entertainment media from a myriad of consumer devices, the Internet and personal computers.

Portability with codecs

Digital A/V content has begun to appear in many different formats, taking advantage of the quality and compression efficiencies afforded by new codecs. Music content is released, downloaded and shared in various formats, including CD, MP3, WMA and more. Likewise, video content has moved beyond its DVD beginnings and now includes MPEG-4 and DivX, with Windows Media Video 9 (WMV9) and H.264 soon to come. Ultimately, once the content is digitally encoded and distributed, each piece of consumer equipment must be able to decode it at play time.

Adding fuel to the fire is the movement toward HDTV, providing wide-screen viewing with lifelike quality, which is expected to top consumer electronics trends for the next several years. Sporting events and epic adventure movies drive the fundamental consumer desire for adopting HDTV. The HDTV trend is being driven first by the U.S. market, pushed by an FCC-mandated conversion and supported by a cross-industry cable-ready proposal. There is increasing expansion of HDTV in Japan, and HDTV broadcast services have also begun to appear in Europe and in parts of Asia through satellite services. Perhaps bearing the largest impact on high-definition video demand is the upcoming high-definition standard for DVD video, HD-DVD, which is set to be finalized later this year.

As we move into the new era of high definition, which occupies six times the bandwidth of standard video, momentum has increased for advanced codec technologies, notably WMV9 and H.264, which can efficiently compress this content. As a case in point, the new provisional HD-DVD specification from the DVD Forum requires mandatory support of WMV9 and H.264 as well as MPEG-2 for future players.

To support this trend, the media processor industry has accelerated its new codec support, moving to an era of multistandard chips and players. These new codecs offer up to three times the compression efficiency as their predecessor (MPEG-2), along with additional programming flexibility. New media processor chips featuring multistandard operation offer studios and content providers the latitude of encoding material in the most optimum choice for their material. At the same time, consumers purchase equipment that accepts any format of audio or video content presented to it.

Getting physical

Assuming that the digital content can be played on any capable consumer device, we must find a way of getting it there. This is where industry standards can either create convenient interoperability, or draw a hard line in the sand that inhibits the consumer from mixing and matching their equipment.

DVDs provide a physical storage media that enables easy plug-and-play portability of content from published titles, to downloaded and burned content, to PC-created content. Over the past several years, the industry has moved with incredible speed in making DVD a cross-industry standard, becoming the core of most set-top consumer players, as well as standard equipment for a modern PC. The trend toward recordable DVDs is also making its way into the consumer space and will soon establish the de facto means by which entertainment content can be originated from consumer devices and passed back along the chain.

Just when we thought it was safe to build that library of DVD titles, along comes the next generation. High-definition DVD, with its unmatched visual appeal, brings a battle reminiscent of the VHS vs. Betamax contest. The DVD Forum, having established the world's most successful media standard, is moving ahead to establish specifications for producing compatible media that supports high-definition video. There are two versions--a red laser approach (used on current DVDs), which offers the most economical method, and the blue laser approach, which offers substantially higher capacity. In a parallel effort, another industry group, populated by many of the same members and operating under the name of BluRay, is attempting to establish an alternative blue laser standard. Regardless of the minutia of differences between these, studios and consumers will likely only support one version, and thus portability between devices.

On another front, portable media devices have strayed from the familiar DVD disks and are embracing new forms of storage, including miniature hard disk drives, and small-form-factor optical and high-capacity solid-state devices. To support these trends, the industry is moving ahead to establish wired and wireless communication standards that will enable seamless transfers from the PC, networked DVD player, set-top box and personal video recorder (PVR) to these handheld devices, much like PDAs are synchronized to the user's PC.

Sharing at home

A key part of the trend toward ubiquitous digital entertainment is the advent of the digital media adapter (DMA) or digital media receivers. These devices support distribution of A/V content to television sets throughout the home using wired or wireless connectivity. DMAs are steadily moving down in price and typically work with a PC or media gateway to offer ubiquitous digital media within the home. As simple as this concept appears, it actually embodies a number of technology challenges.

First, the primary momentum is being created by wireless versions that make it painless to set up this entertainment network in any home. This requires a high-bandwidth wireless channel that offers quality of service for video data (even high definition), and operates impervious to the many walls, microwaves, cordless phones and other electrical devices in the typical home. Secondly, it often requires a unique form of digital rights management (DRM) technology to handle license exchange and source decryption, then re-encryption in the PC or media center with a reciprocal decryption capability at the receiver end (the remote televisions). Finally, it must provide an interactive two-way protocol that enables the remote user to control the selection and playback of any number of media services (DTV, PVR, DVD, streaming services, etc.).

Alongside the trend toward DMAs is a similar movement toward networked DVD players, which are becoming available in two flavors. First is the locally networked player, which supports in-home sharing of PC-based content much like the DMA. Second is the Internet-connected DVD player that also supports, among other features, the ability to play streaming-content directly (or downloads if hard disk is available).

Challenges ahead

Summarizing these trends, digital consumer products of the future will offer many common features as they bridge the gap from yesteryear's early digital devices to tomorrow's world of ubiquitous entertainment. Three trends will make the greatest impact: multi-codec devices, device connectivity and security.

We would expect to see a marked shift in the middle of 2005 toward multi-codec consumer devices, providing both increased content support as well as a hedge against near-term obsolescence. Following the lead set by the HD-DVD committee and now being looked at by other standards groups, we see a majority of these new devices with built-in support for MPEG-2, H.264, and WMV9, along with a similar line-up of audio standards. The industry challenge here is to offer devices that are cost-effective enough for mainstream and portable consumer products, while also offering sufficient performance to support high definition.

Second, there will be strong growth over the next two years in the deployment of two forms of connected devices. Wireless connectivity will reign supreme in the digital-media home of the future, providing the ultimate in convenience to change the location of devices. At the same time, Internet connectivity will begin to grow at an increasing rate, being fed by the need to consume downloaded or streamed content on the television, not the PC. The industry challenge here is to establish effective two-way high-speed wireless standards that offer quality of service, security and interoperability between different products.

Finally, before more types of digital content begins to make its way into consumer hands, new hardened security measures, in the form of DRM technology, will become an integral part of tomorrow's digital media products. This is a substantially different challenge, as it involves the development of solid protection measures, achieving acceptance by the leading content providers, and capable of being reasonably supported in low-cost consumer devices.

Viewed collectively, these changes will represent a small step for new technology, but a big leap for consumer entertainment.

- Ken Lowe

VP of Strategic Marketing

Sigma Designs Inc.

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