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The battle of the media hub in the digital home

Posted: 16 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital home hub? PC TV STB in networked devices?

The home has changed enormously in the past two decades, becoming almost completely digital. A mix of computing and media devices has been populating the home. They've been providing access to information and entertainment both inside and outside of the home. These devices must communicate effectively so that they can all access content stored either within the home or originating from an external source such as a broadcast or online service provider.

People are accessing this multimedia information in more ways than everbe it through streaming digital audio to the study, watching a digital slideshow in the living room or by DVD playback in one or more bedrooms. In this emerging model, the device acting as the media hub will become the most vital part of the network. As the highest value component, it will be capable of hosting differentiated features to safeguard margins and selling prices.

The PC, STB and TV equipment manufacturers all need to claim this position as the media hub to maximize returns in this age of digitally-networked entertainment.

Three-way fight
The PC and Wintel communities are making a significant and sustained effort to position the PC as the digital media hub. On the other hand, pay-TV service operators, who usually provide subsidized hardware to subscribers, need to simultaneously maintain control and extend their reach throughout customers' homes.

Either vision would relegate the TV set to the role of a monitor, providing little more than a high-definition (HD) screen for more intelligent devices. However, this is a three-way fight. Major TV brands enjoying high consumer recognition must quickly enhance the performance and connectivity of HDTVs to prevent younger competitors from overtaking them.

Enhancing usability
The multimedia capabilities of home PCs have improved rapidly in recent product cycles. Media playback and content management capabilities have progressed massively in the latest generation operating systems.

Backing up the PC's position is the enhanced OS capabilities offered by technologies such as Intel Corp.'s Viiv, which removes many limitations experienced in using the PC for domestic entertainment. The benefits include fast turn on, operation by remote control, smooth audio playback, multistreaming and processing of demanding media content.

Consequently, a PC behaves more like a TV or DVD player. The PC can still be used as a media server in the home, allowing access to content from networked devices even when it appears to be switched off.

As digital entertainment increases performance requirements, dual-core processing comes to the fore, supporting multiple streams and enabling several users to access entertainment from the same PC. The improved throughput will also allow PCs to support HD video playback. Future PCs will be able to deliver home theater audio quality, improved color control and image sharpness, and graphics media acceleration to support lifelike 3D effects for gaming.

Ultimately, network media distribution capabilities enable content to be managed throughout the home when combined with digital media adapters. They facilitate cataloging of digital content for remote browsing, access and playback through networked devices in the home. In addition, support for various protected and unprotected media formats allows streaming to a wide range of connected devices.

The inclusion of such technology highlights the Wintel community's ambitions for the PC, facilitating the set-up of verified connected devices as they come to market. Combined with a media portal for devices to access content from the Web, this strategy places the PC in a strong position to act as the hub.

Beyond the STB
Pay-TV providers see the STB as the key controller for their revenues and are keen to see this become the media hub. With this in mind, the service providers are controlling STB abilities, adding features to attract subscribers who would otherwise be content with terrestrial services. This has culminated in rapid advances being driven in home TV and video capabilities, including hard disk recording, bookmarking, instant replaying and dual tuners to watch and record different channels simultaneously.

This aggressive positioning has helped win subscribers, and increased the desire for convenience and freedom in the way in which they view broadcast media. Their track record establishes service providers and their technology partners as being positioned well to add the capabilities necessary to implement a domestic digital media hub.

The first advanced STBs have already entered the market, supporting enhanced TV features and services. High-performance graphics support Internet and gaming content. Wired and wireless Ethernet, and USB connectivity will be essential for operators to maximize their role.

The PC, STB and TV equipment manufacturers all need to claim a position as media hub to maximize returns in this age of digitally-networked entertainment.

However, to realize the full scope of this role, the STB must also enable easy interoperability with PCs and other media devices in the home. Satellite TV service provider DirecTV has already demonstrated how this can be achieved by partnering with Intel to embed digital media adapter functionality. This allows subscribers to easily access digital content held on a networked PC through the STB, viewing photos and video clips on their TV.

TV as focal point
The fact that domestic media networks will allow content from PCs and other devices to be transmitted to the TV's larger, higher quality display lends weight to the TV's position as the media hub. TV vendors such as Samsung, Sony, LG and Toshiba must defend their position at the center of home entertainment to facilitate differentiation of future products and to protect selling prices.

The visual performance of TV sets has improved massively, especially as LCD and plasma have become the norm. Unfortunately, connectivity and audio performance have lagged behind. Interfaces such as SCART and HDMI allow convenient connection to A/V devices such as the VCR and DVD. For the TV to be a serious media hub contender, however, it must adopt standard digital interfaces. These must be backed up with extensive signal processing and routing capabilities.

For hi-fi, games, broadcast signals, PC content and Internet to route through the TV, it must provide a powerful, high-quality junction for audio, video and graphics signals including powerful digitizing and routing capabilities. This functionality is now a de facto requirement and will allow TV vendors to mount a serious challenge to the solutions now being advanced by pay-TV providers and the Wintel community.

The PC and TV are converging. Between these extremes sits the STB. Powerful commercial motivations have already caused the PC and STB communities to make bold moves to claim this territory. The traditional home entertainment brands need to act quickly. Technical enhancements and commercial alliances need to be made if they are to maximize the value of TV and video equipment in the homes of today and the future.

- Tim Lu
VP of Sales
Wolfson Microelectronics plc

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