Wireless Home Entertainment

By Gerry Blackwell

August 22, 2002

In this first in a series on the role of Wi-Fi in home entertainment, we look at what's available now in terms of products, what's on the near horizon and early indicators of consumer interest.

Everybody, it seems, is roughly in agreement about what the multimedia networked home of the future should look like. And most are agreed that 802.11 wireless LAN technology can play a pivotal role in making it happen.

So why does the horizon for home entertainment networking look so far away?

Michael Greeson, senior analyst and director of broadband research at Dallas-based market research and consulting firm Parks Associates, says the wireless home of the future is at least three years off. "Only after that point do I see home entertainment networking becoming more prominent," Greeson says.

Julie Schwerin, chairman and CEO of InfoTech, Incorporated of Norwich, VT, a research firm that studies the "digital leisure economy," puts the horizon even further off.

"I can't give any hard forecast today," Schwerin admits. "But I don't see a big demand for [wireless home entertainment networking] in the short term. We see penetration staying below the 10-percent range in the next three to five years."

Why are they so pessimistic? One short answer: the wheels of the consumer electronics gods grind slowly -- especially in an economic downturn. Put another way: We're not in PC Land anymore, Dorothy. But there are other factors, too.

The Fat Pipe

The classic vision of the networked home of the future starts with a big broadband pipe coming into the home, delivering digital entertainment services -- digital cable TV, video on demand (VOD), digital audio channels, gaming -- plus high-speed Internet connectivity.

The pipe plugs into some kind of gateway/server device -- usually seen as a TV set-top box -- that does all or some of the following:

  • decodes digital signals
  • provides navigation services (eg. an onscreen Guide).
  • functions as a personal video recorder (PVR)
  • stores media content -- recorded TV programs, audio tracks, etc. -- on a big hard drive
  • distributes stored or real-time media content to other devices around the house -- TVs, stereo systems, PCs, PDAs, etc. -- over a network.

The last piece is key to our discussion. Each of the remote devices in the home has either an integrated or outboard thin client device that allows it to communicate over the home LAN and decode signals from the gateway/server.

There may be other contenders for the transport layer of that home LAN, but 802.11-based wireless appears to be the front runner. This is largely because most home owners will balk at rewiring, and power line and phone line networking technologies remain problematic and/or lower bandwidth.

"Wireless will necessarily be the way to go," Schwerin believes. "I certainly don't see any impediments in wireless technology in so far as its ability to carry that much signal and capacity around a home."

Greeson notes that HomeRF could have been a contender. In fact, he believes HomeRF may be superior to today's Wi-Fi for entertainment networking, but ruined its chances through poor -- or no -- marketing.

"It's much like VHS versus Beta," Greeson says. "The argument then was that Beta was a superior technology for video, but VHS had the marketing. It won out not because it was better but because it was smarter."

802.11 will, in all likelihood, be the home entertainment networking technology of choice, but much has to happen before this becomes a mass market proposition.

Several key groups of players -- besides consumers themselves, of course -- will decide the future of home entertainment networking: cable and satellite service providers, set-top box and consumer electronics manufacturers and wireless chipset suppliers.

Much of the vision of the home entertainment network is coming from manufacturers who want to sell all-in-one gateway products to cable and satellite service providers. Some are just beginning to ship first-generation wireless-ready products.

In the meantime, though, there are consumer products available today that -- as a starting point -- can plug into an Ethernet network and move high-quality multimedia content between existing PCs and consumer electronics devices.

Most are audio products. One of the earliest was Audiotron from Turtle Beach. You plug it into your stereo system and it lets you play Internet radio or MP3s from PC hard drives. Audiotron has an Ethernet port so you can access networked PCs and share a broadband Internet connection.

RioCentral, a similar device from SonicBlue, can plug into an Ethernet network via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter -- and possibly via a USB-to-Wi-Fi adapter.

I tested first-generation versions of both products 18 months ago and, notwithstanding a few annoying version-one glitches, they worked very impressively over my wired home network.

There have also been pure consumer electronics wireless solutions such as proprietary point-to-point video senders that have been around for years. They work on either 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz bands and let you view a video signal coming into a TV, or out of a playback device, on another TV in a different room.

Now Sharp Electronics is introducing a line of LCD TVs that use a video sender system that employs Wi-Fi for the network transport. Sony has sold an LCD tablet-style TV-PC combo in Japan that uses 802.11b to get video feeds from a set-top box. Sony also has a robot dog toy that sends low-bandwidth digital video over an 802.11b network to a PC screen.

There is some evidence that high-end consumers who already have home LANs mainly for data applications are beginning to see entertainment possibilities.

A recent in-depth survey of 10,500 Internet households by Parks Associates found that a surprising number had home LANs -- 3,800. Perhaps even more surprising, 10.7 percent of home LAN users in the study have a television set connected to the network and 11.8 percent have a digital audio receiver.

The real breakthroughs will likely come, though, with the emergence of the first "media center" or home gateway products. A few that at least "support" wireless networking have already hit the market.

Motorola, for example, has the Broadband Media Center (BMC) 9000. Scientific Atlanta has the Explorer 4200 Home Gateway. Both are set-top box products designed to be sold by cable and/or satellite service providers. Pioneer is reported to have a home media center product that includes a built-in 802.11 residential gateway.

They are not alone, though. All set-top-box and consumer electronics manufacturers have wireless home networking on their radars. Most have prototypes, Schwerin says. Some are trialing them with service providers.

That doesn't necessarily mean the wonders of home entertainment networking will be available anytime soon, though -- as we'll see next time.

Got a comment or question? Discuss it in the 802.11 Planet Forums with moderator Jim Geier.

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