Panel Holds Forth on Broadband-driven Home Entertainment

If companies who are trying to profit from what is a nascent home digital entertainment have anything to say about it, home is where the network will be.

That was the meat of the matter at TECHXNY Wednesday for three panelists — representatives of a company that makes computer displays and two chipmaking firms — discussed the importance of making broadband-fueled home networks a success for lovers of new wave home entertainment. And as great a technology as it is, we’re not just talking Tivo here.

While the three men threw out gaudy numbers about how many U.S. homes will have multiple TVs by 2005 (31 million), interactive television (iTV — 45 million by 2005) and digital video recorders (DVRs — 42 million by 2005), all agreed that video-on-demand (VoD) seems to be the clear winner of choice for consumers. Current numbers from the Yankee Group bear this out: the research firm believes VoD will generate revenues of $1.98 billion by 2005.

Why? What is the stimulus behind the numbers? Brian Heuckroth, vice president of marketing for Stream Machine, which aims to put chips in set-top boxes and other entertainment devices, put it best when he said he was fed up with going to Blockbuster to rent movies. Is he lazy? One could argue that. But Heuckroth made his case by pointing out that he was “offended by the idea that 60 percent of Blockbuster’s revenues come from late rental fees.” That principle aside, who is going to want to stand in line on Saturday morning in the hope that they can snag a copy of the hottest new rental when the can call it up from home?

But what does this have to do with home networking? Well, a lot, considering that the current technological wave is heading toward delivering entertainment media via broadband.

Shareware’s Vice President of Business Development Don Appruzzese said his company specializes in making chips that will make multimedia-capable wireless networking possible. As of now, Appruzzese said Shareware has managed to deliver MPEG 2, or DVD- quality video and CD-quality sound over the popular 11 megabytes-per-second 80211.b, or Wi-Fi standard. While some analysts have expressed doubt as to whether people would watch video via a monitor when they have TVs, Appruzzese said he firmly believes people don’t care about the gateway through which they view things as long as the quality and sound are strong.

He talked about the importance of the wireless area networks (WANs), local area networks (LAN), and finally, the all-too-important, but very infantile personal area network (PAN) stage, which consists of what he called “islands” of devices — PDAs, monitors, iTVs — that may be powered by such standards as Firewire, Bluetooth, or USB 2.0. The only thing missing was a demonstration as to how this could work; one could be so lucky. Appruzzese acknowledged that most people aren’t yet open to the idea of hooking up islands of devices, even if wires are kept at a minimum. No, there are other issues.

“The home is a harsh environment for wireless networks right now,” Appruzzese told the modest audience. “There is so much interference between the microwaves and every other electronic device.”

So, how do you hook the consumer then, with all of the cons?

Appruzzese said the burden rests firmly on the broadband service providers.

“It’s not a retail thing,” he said. “You can’t just put these things on the shelves and expect people to run out and buy them.” Appruzzese concluded that aggressive marketing tactics are necessary to cultivate interest.

And what of new viewing platform technology? Gene Orstead, vice president of business development for display maker Viewsonic Corp., noted that his company is looking to make display screens that test the limit of the current standard of 2 million megapixels-per-second (Mpps). While notables such as Sony Corp. employ polysilicon technology and Texas Instruments relies on the DLP standard, Viewsonic works on digital light modulators in what is called liquid crystal display technology. Viewsonic relies on the oft-used Moore’s Law to boost processing power 40-45 percent. Sticking to this law, Orstead predicts that his firm will up the ante to 5 million Mpps in its monitors by 2004. With its monitors, Viewsonic is looking to bring high-definition television display quality to power Internet-enabled devices that will carry broadband content to the home.

In summation, the resounding note was that while the panelists talked with passion about the products they have, or the products currently in development, they pointed toward the future as the place where the home will be networked for digital entertainment purposes.

The question is: how long? Five years? 10? 15? No one is clear on this.

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