Digital Convergence

Digital convergence generally means the integration of consumer electronic devices with intelligent information management devices. When you combine digital media with the ability to manipulate audio, video, text, and binary data of all types, you can create new types of applications, new types of devices all networked together.

It’s an area that you as a consumer should not take lightly because this technology will become a pervasive component of your everyday life. An entertainment network should offer you the following capabilities:

  • Simple connectivity for your devices (strive for device interoperability)
  • A software framework built on standard methods for device discovery, configuration, and management (such as SNMP, the Simple Network Management Protocol)
  • Standard media formats and transport or streaming protocols.
  • A standard way of managing your media within your framework.
  • A digital rights mechanism that protects intellectual copyrights so that everything is nice and legal.

That’s a tall order to fill (particularly on the software side), but the industry can achieve it in time.

You should do all you can to strive for maintaining these characteristics in any home entertainment network that you choose to build; these are the elements you should look for when you purchase and install new components that will be part of your entertainment network.

The consumer electronics market dwarfs the computer market in scale. At the Comdex and Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that difference is very obvious.

Consumer applications of computer technology have been a bright spot over the past three or four years in the computer industry, and computer vendors have been rushing to position themselves for what they see as an essential emerging new industry based around a home network.

The new products being introduced seek to take advantage of developments like HDTV, surround sound, digital cameras, the Personal Video Recorder (PVR), the Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) and other new storage devices, and home automation by integrating those technologies into their products. For example:

  • Microsoft offers the Windows Media Center edition operating system for the home market and both Microsoft and Intel have connected home initiatives.
  • Gateway has a best-selling plasma monitor to complement one of the better Media Center PCs (the Gateway Media Center FMC-901X) on the market, which is a natural extension of the company’s pioneering efforts from its Destination PCTV series.
  • Apple dominates the MP3 jukebox market with its iPod series.
  • Epson offers the Livingstation HDTV projection TV, which comes with a dye sublimation printer and smart media support built in allowing you to print high-definition images on demand.
  • Any number of companies including HP, Sony, Netgear, D-Link, SMC, and others sell wireless streaming media hubs or receivers.

The list of computer-related products coming from the traditional consumer electronics market is also actively growing, as evidenced by the fact that:

  • Comcast can offer you both high-speed broadband Internet access as well as on-demand video services.
  • LG Electronics is offering a networked/Internet refrigerator (something that Motorola demo’ed as a concept in 1999).
  • Westinghouse has a line of connected home appliances that use the Windows CE .NET operating system. Its line includes a microwave oven, coffee maker, and bread maker, along with a home hub with a CD/FM/clock and Internet access and the iCEBOX kitchen PC with an LCD screen and wireless keyboard.
  • Omnifi’s DMP2 car audio/video player synchronizes content with either a USB or 802.11g connection with your home media servers so that you can play it in your car.

The problem with digital convergence and with the marketplace in general at the moment is there are few industry standards in place, and what standards do exist are in a flux.

This goes beyond the simple things that come to mind such as file formats and media types to the entire philosophy of how to wirelessly network your entertainment system. Ask different vendors to describe their ideal entertainment network and you have a situation similar to the parable of the blind men describing an elephant.

Each different vendor views digital convergence with a unique perspective, and sees it for something different. Thus:

  • To a PC vendor, the central control is exercised by a multimedia PC as part of a network operating system.
  • To a cable provider, the focus is on the set-top box, a centralized computer system, and very fast signal transmission.
  • To an AV house or to a custom hi-fi system integrator, convergence is when they program a remote control (RC) with some intelligence such as the original standard setter, the programmable Philips Pronto remote, more recent entries like the Home TheaterMaster MX- 300, to the new embedded software solution from Universal Electronics called Nevo.
  • To the audiophile, the focus is a surround sound receiver, and to the movie buff it’s an HDTV-based home theater.

These different viewpoints have direct consequences for you, as each industry tries to tie together the different devices used in a home entertainment network using different types of network connections.

A PC might use Ethernet or the 802.11x family of wireless radio frequency networks; a cable company’s transmission is over a coaxial line or is a downlink from a satellite feed; an HDTV might connect to a video source using a DVI cable; a video camera uses FireWire; handheld remotes use infrared or radio frequencies; and stereo and surround sound setups make direct high-quality component connections between devices using component video and audio cables.

What a mess. From your viewpoint, however, none of this should really matter much. It simply makes sense to use the best current technology that you can find to get the job done and hope that over time the industry will create better interoperating products. There’s a strong incentive for vendors to do just that.

Any wireless vendor with a product that conflicts with other wireless devices is just asking for trouble. If you wander about your house using a 900 MHz Sennheiser R85s wireless headphone, your primary consideration is the connected range.

A frequency of 2.4 GHz on a wireless headphone might be better for hi-fi sound, but not if it conflicts with an 802.11x wireless network or your microwave oven—something the Amphony 2000 headphones apparently did.

You can live with the momentary loss of your headphones, but you undoubtedly will be sending a component back if it never works. Wi-Fi products that don’t interoperate well will also get replaced.

To make home products interoperate, a number of computer and electronics vendors have assembled a working group that hopes to drive standards and test interoperability. Originally called the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG), it is now called the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).

The goal of the alliance is to define what a digital home should include, and how to make products compatible with one another. Although wireless networking is only a part of it, some studies have been published by the alliance detailing wireless usage.

The number of home entertainment network connected devices is predicted to double every year through 2007. The study shows the 35 connections in 2003 on average per network rising to 183 in 2007. The DLNA sees the overall market as focused on three converging areas of technology:

  • Consumer Electronics (CE)
  • Mobile.
  • Computers and Computer Networks.