The Digital Media Dilemma

Where should digital entertainment reside?

Home computers are usually relegated to the home office. But digital media is making computer technology a desirable quality in consumer devices, too. In an effort to combine computer technology and digital media, vendors are starting to produce products that I call digital entertainment appliances. These products bring the computer media experience out of the computer room and into the living room. In the first generation of entertainment appliances, vendors attempt to abandon the roots of the business—the computer-savvy technical user, who can appreciate what these companies are trying to do—in favor of the broad consumer market, where these devices will have difficulty getting traction because of cost, complexity, and a difficult-to-explain benefit to the average consumer.

A Media Organizer


Hewlett-Packard (HP) introduced the Digital Entertainment Center de100c in 2001 (you can read a review of this product, "HP Digital Entertainment Center de100c," at http://www.connectedhomemag.com/audio/articles/index.cfm?articleid=24111). HP designed this stereo-rack component to do for the home entertainment center what your computer does for your digital media experience—collect, create, and organize digital media. The HP de100c uses your TV set as its display device and lets you play CDs, rip thousands of tracks to a local hard disk, burn your own CD mixes—both as audio CDs and MP3 data CDs—and access Internet radio. It provides built-in networking capabilities for buyers who already have networks set up and an internal 56Kbps modem to connect to the Internet.

Despite having built-in networking, the HP de100c doesn't make sharing or using your existing digital media easy because it can't directly play media stored elsewhere on your network. You first need to push content to the de100c's local hard disk from network-connected computers. The HP de100c is HP's attempt to branch out of the computer and peripherals market into consumer electronics.

All-in-One Control


The AIVA Home Entertainment Library from Interact-TV (http://www.interact-tv.com), scheduled for release in June, takes home entertainment in a different direction. Combining features from products such as TiVo, Microsoft UltimateTV, and the HP de100c, the AIVA lets you control all digital media options, including TV, Internet radio, and MP3 playback.

Like TiVo, SONICblue's ReplayTV, and UltimateTV, the AIVA system will serve as your personal video recorder (PVR). AIVA can pause live TV broadcasts, has a picture-in-picture feature, and lets you record one channel while watching another (if you have multiple tuners). You'll be able to customize your viewing experience with personal favorites and channel-surfing options. Beyond what the other PVR products can do, AIVA will let you stream media to CD- or DVD- recordable media, so your lifetime goal of a complete collection of episodes of The Simpsons on CD is now attainable. You can use the AIVA—as you can the HP de100c—to store and play back your CD collection, ripping the music to AIVA's local hard drive, which the company reports (at press time) will be no smaller than 60GB. Unlike the HP de100c, the AIVA lets you play back that ripped content from other audio devices connected to your home network. And, like MSN TV, the AIVA will let you surf the Web and read and compose email from the comfort of your couch by using a wireless keyboard and mouse and by using your TV set as the display.

The goal of the AIVA is to replace your VCR, your DVD player, your CD audio, and your PC music-ripping tools. It can do this because it's a PC. Interact-TV built the original models on HP Pavilion PCs that ran Linux and used off-the-shelf hardware components with Interact-TV's custom software—optimized for the underlying commodity hardware—to run the whole shebang. (The final shipping product probably won't use HP computers.)

AIVA's target is the high-end audio/video (A/V) installers who would bundle the AIVA as another component in their A/V offerings. The prerelease price in the $2000 range reflects that goal. (Interact-TV expects the price will come down depending on which PC hardware provider the company chooses.)

Despite the AIVA's computer ancestry and the unit's ability to share its content with other network systems, at press time Interact-TV representatives weren't sure whether the final product would be able to access other digital media on a home network. The company did consider allowing access to NFS mounts on other computers and using Samba (an open source software—OSS—suite that provides file and print services) to access shares on Windows-based computers, but at press time, Interact-TV hadn't yet made the final call.

The first generation of the product will use standard NTSC tuner hardware, which means no High-Definition Television (HDTV), no built-in satellite, and no digital cable support. AIVA can receive an analog signal from any of the aforementioned devices or from set-top devices. But it can't receive a digital signal, so the first-generation product won't allow digital-to-digital media copying and storing (beyond CD-ripping abilities).

Given AIVA's target market, the product is more an evolutionary product than a dramatic change to the home entertainment business. It's a PC with custom software that does some cool things. But Interact-TV designed the AIVA so that installers could hide its PC-ness, burying it among the other A/V devices the customer wants and making the TV the interface.

One downfall that both the HP and Interact-TV approaches share is their failure to use all the work early adopters have done to produce and organize digital media files. Companies that assume the average consumer doesn't have any digital media yet are ignoring the huge number of gadget-oriented technical folks who would embrace either device if the design let them enhance their digital media experience rather than recreate it from scratch. These companies are trying to appeal to the broad consumer market, but their most likely customers are the technically savvy people who can appreciate the technology.

Music Everywhere


Voyetra Turtle Beach has taken a different approach with its AudioTron Digital Music Player. Rather than build a device that moves content creation and production tasks from your computer to your home entertainment center, Turtle Beach designed the AudioTron to serve as the interface between existing home entertainment and computer technologies. The product provides regular A/V connections to your stereo and a network connection for access to your computer media. It connects to your computer network, scans your computers for existing music, builds a list of the titles it finds, and provides a built-in Web browser so that you can configure the product from your computer. The AudioTron lets you play back any music it finds on your network through your home stereo system, use existing playlists, and play Internet radio stations. (For information about using AudioTron, see "Digital Music Player Might Be Music to Your Ears," http://www.connectedhomemag.com, InstantDoc ID 22602.)

This approach lets early adopters take advantage of the new home entertainment products without requiring that they start building a digital media library from scratch. The AudioTron is simple enough to use that any computer user in the household can add digital audio files to it, and even computer novices can use it as a simple entertainment device. At under $300, the AudioTron costs much less than either of the previously mentioned alternative devices (at prices from $1000 to $3000).

Set-Top on Steroids


You could categorize Moxi Digital's Moxi Media Center (Moxi MC) as a set-top device on steroids. Moxi plans to offer the product through cable and satellite TV providers, automatically placing it at the center of your home entertainment system.

Moxi takes a serious shot at integrating new and existing digital media. The product starts with a digital receiver that can handle normal or HDTV transmissions and adds a DVD player—a logical combination because your cable box is in the same spot as your TV set. Moxi then goes a step further by adding a PVR and even addresses the perennial complaint of PVR users—limited internal storage—by letting users add external storage through an IEEE 1394 bus.

Like the Interact-TV device, the Moxi MC runs a flavor of Linux. Moxi representatives have no plans to let users enhance the box (users won't be able to access the Linux OS), however, and it's not built with off-the-shelf components. Moxi MC is an end-user device, not targeted at the high-end A/V installer.

Moxi MC becomes an integral piece of your home network by also becoming your Internet gateway, offering support for cable modem or a DSL connection. The product has MSN TV—like functionality that lets you send email and browse the Web through your TV set (which isn't too surprising because Moxi's founder came from MSN TV). Announced at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Moxi MC will be available only from your cable or satellite provider, which can choose which Moxi capabilities to implement. The Moxi MC promises a lot, and if the device can become part of your home network as well as your home entertainment center, it could be the crossover device that makes the computer/home entertainment device concept work.

Freestyle


All the previously mentioned technologies take the computer out of the picture. A computer might be involved in these technologies, but the vendors have disguised it so that the consumer doesn't have to deal with a computer interface. Leave it to Microsoft to take the opposite approach and make your computer the centerpiece of your home entertainment center.

That's the message that Microsoft brings with its Windows XP—based Freestyle technology (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ehome/default.asp). Freestyle is a user-friendly XP UI that you can access through a PC (although it can use a TV as the display device); you use a mouse or a remote control to navigate menus and options that let your PC control audio and video playback. Because this approach connects your PC to your TV set, Freestyle brings the PC out of the computer room and smack into the middle of the home entertainment experience. Freestyle is a computer, and proud of it. Microsoft's plan is to make Freestyle so simple and compelling that every family member can use it.

But Freestyle is just the proverbial camel's nose; the next step is incorporating the announced Mira technology. Mira is a smart display device—a touch-pad-style monitor that communicates with your Freestyle PC, giving you the ultimate in remote control. Mira devices include an embedded Windows CE .NET—based OS that uses wireless technology. Because Mira can use the Remote Assistance feature in XP to serve as a remote terminal back to the PC, any function available to the Freestyle PC will be available to the remote user. Microsoft plans to release Freestyle and Mira with XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) in fall 2002.

What's Best?


None of these technologies have sufficient market penetration for anyone to know whether their disparate paths are all viable alternatives or whether just a few of these products will still be around in 6 months. I think that attempting to disassociate the digital media environment from the computer is a course that's bound to fail. The early adopters of any of these technologies are computer-savvy gadget fiends who aren't scared to get their hands dirty with the latest bleeding-edge technologies. Make it too hard for them to do so, or make them repeat all the work they've done, and you won't have a successful product. Vendors that try to reach only consumers who are intimidated by computers face a catch-22 because those users aren't likely to care about digital media management or use anyway.

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