Drafting Blueprints for the Digital Home - Page 2

By Michael Singer

May 14, 2004


In a word, the home automation world is a mess. Greengart points to two tiers. The first is a standalone system that the consumer jury-rigs such as a dimmer control that does only one thing. The solution is piecemeal and ends up with several remote controllers that need a specific sequence to operate.

"And then you have a huge gap until you come to custom installations that can run you into the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "I've seen some systems that react to a cell call that then goes to server in the house and turns the lights on, starts the hot-tub . . . very much for lifestyles of the rich and famous."

Greengart said there are many companies trying to fill in the gap. What has been telling in the last week is Microsoft' decision to cease its production of Wi-Fi networking hardware such as access points. Despite success with wireless keyboards and mice, the company said it would instead redouble its efforts into putting Wi-Fi in other future hardware devices.

Digital Rights Management

Concerns about copyright protection have been heightened as the Hollywood studios insist on improved digital rights capabilities as we move beyond DVD to the next level of resolution.

"The studios are concerned because the technology is close enough now to the mastered D5 copy which lets you do other things to it," Greengart said.

Microsoft is pitching standards like High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) to make sure that the technologies don't complicate things and users can move data between devices, understand the breadth of their rights and we keep it simple.

Besides HDMI, other rights languages being considered, include High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, Extensible Rights Markup Language (XRML) and Digital Property Rights Language (DPRL). But the furthest ahead and the one with the best chance at winning is MPEG-21.

"The people behind XMCL thought that it would be merged into something else but never really went anywhere," DHWG member and Content Guard CEO Michael Miron told internetnews.com. "There is also Open Digital Rights Language -- or ODRL -- from Australia. Head to head, its the only competition with MPEG that had a choice, but they lost head to head."

MPEG-21 is based on two essential concepts: the definition of a fundamental unit of distribution and transaction (the Digital Item) and the concept of Users interacting with Digital Items. The Digital Items can be considered the "what" of the Multimedia Framework (e.g., a video collection, a music album) and the Users can be considered the "who" of the Multimedia Framework.

Miron says the mathematical breakdown of DRM/CP leaves itself wide open for ambiguities.

"If I say you have the right to play this song once, you know what I mean," Miron said. "But when you give that instruction to a machine, does it mean it gets to play it only one time, or does it mean one time on only this machine, or does it mean one time on several machines?"

The group behind MPEG-21 says it makes things clearer by defining the syntax and semantics of their characteristics, such as interfaces to the elements, "in an efficient, transparent and interoperable way."

The technology is showing such advanced promise, that at its Annual Meeting in Montreal last month, the MPEG-4 Industry Forum (M4IF) unanimously approved expanding its scope to include the promotion of the MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 standards. The group has also changed its name to the "MPEG Industry Forum."

DHWG says any format it chooses must be an open standard that has been formally ratified by an internationally recognized standards organization, and IP must be licensed under reasonable, non-discriminatory terms.

Given that, Miron says MPEG-21 may have the best chance. For consumers and IT firms, the best chance for reaping the benefits of the digital home in the future, is to agree on standards now.

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