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CES: Connecting the home with HD, Part 1

Wirelesshd_2The consumer electronics industry may know where it's headed, but it doesn't seem to know how to get there. That was my takeaway from this week's International Consumer Electronics Show, where once again there was more talk than action around the topic of the connected home. Clearly, manufacturers are focused on creating devices that link seamlessly to each other to share audio, video and images. And they had plenty of prototypes and demos showing how two or three items could feed the same screen and respond to the same remote control. But if you were hoping for a standard way to bring together every piece of your personal entertainment gear, from TV and stereo to camcorder and cell phone, regardless of the brand, you were out of luck. It's not for lack of trying. There are several inter-industry groups working on various aspects of the problem. It's just that seemingly every year a new set of pieces get thrown into the puzzle.

Dlna_certified_logo One such consortium is the Digital Living Network Alliance, whose logo (at left) appeared on an impressive range of TVs, receivers and other devices at CES this year. DLNA has a standard set of protocols for devices to connect, share content, and come under the control of a single remote. What's missing is a standard content-protection scheme that can work with the various websites offering downloadable or streamed movies, TV shows and music -- the legal sites, that is. Finding such a scheme may be an impossible task, given that the DRM technologies that dominate the marketplace -- Apple's and Microsoft's -- aren't interoperable, and their creators show little or no interest in making them play nice.

One of the more impressive displays of networking came during the keynote speech by Panasonic Toshihiro Sakamoto, who unveiled a product called HomeBase. Sakamoto used HomeBase to beam a high-definition picture from a Blu-ray player to a flat-screen TV across the stage. Then he set a high-definition camcorder down on HomeBase, and it automatically recognized the videos on the device and beamed them to the screen as well -- all at the direction of the TV's remote control. The wireless technology for HomeBase was developed by SiBEAM, a Sunnyvale start-up that Panasonic is backing. More significantly, the technology has also been embraced by LG, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, as well as Intel and NEC, who've formed a group called WirelessHD. The group is promoting a common approach to wireless networking that it hopes will become a standard for consumer-electronics products.

Welcome to the club. WirelessHD is a year or more behind such competing approaches as Ultra-Wideband and IEEE 1394, which another inter-industry coalition, the High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance, is backing. On the other hand, WirelessHD can transmit a boatload of data -- 4 Gbps, or about 33% more than what's needed to deliver a video encoded in 1080P without having to compress it further. The absence of re-compression is important to set makers, who are understandably concerned about pictures being degraded before they reach your expensive new 50" plasma screen. At any rate, the proliferation of competing groups is another sign of an industry committed to going somewhere but still looking for the right path.

-- Jon Healey


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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