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Mid-Year Product Report

Technology Developments Affecting CI Professionals

The calendar is a strange taskmaster. You cant do anything to stop itit just keeps rolling along. Unfortunately, the custom installation industrys calendar has been a strange beast this year. Many line shows have been scheduled for later than usual, while the E3 event is being overhauled to become the E3 Media & Business Summit, a smaller show now slated for mid-July. This leaves the calendar with a hole, but as we are almost at both the mid-point of the year and the end of spring, this is a good time for a status update on key products and technologies.

Video Game Consoles
Since its launch in November, PlayStation3 has seen a number of upgrades, with the most recent 1.8 version issued in May. This is the most important PS3 update yet, and it should be added to any installation where a PS3 is installed, including those in a second room.

Sony has also added upscaling capability to 1080p for standard DVD disc playback on the PS3, which was one of the most requested upgrades from the home theater Sony’s Playstation3systems segment. The PS3 is now fully able to compete with not only Blu-ray Disc players, but also with the less expensive red-laser-only models that offered 1080p upscaling at a price considerably less than that of a PS3. Even better, the upscaling is engaged when using legacy games from PlayStation 2 and the original Playstation console. For hard-core PlayStation and PS2 gamers, the new upgrade also allows saved data from the PS3 to memory cards used with the earlier consoles so that a game started on one platform may be continued on another.

For systems integrators, the new feature that allows the editing of photos stored on the units hard drive or a memory card, provides a great value add by allowing the editing of vacation photos. And, photos can be print on select USB printers (from Epson, to start) connected to the PS3. This upgrade also allows the playback of content stored on a personal computer or digital video recorder on the same network as the PS3 via Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) connectivity.

A final piece of this software upgrade is a remote play feature that allows users with a PSP to access still images, music or motion video content stored on the PS3s hard drive using the PSPs WiFi connectivity. This last feature, an upgrade to the latest (Version 3.50) firmware for the PSP that give out of house access to the console, will help system integrators service clients units.

Playstation’s EyeToy CameraOn the hardware side, the EyeToy, originally part of the PS2, is about to make waves in the PS3 world as well. When Eye of Judgment for PS3 hits the market this fall, it will include the Playstation Eye camera, but you can anticipate that by outfitting any PS3 system with either the existing EyeToy or any standard USB camera. If you wait for the official Eye release later this summer, your clients will be able to use a set of new editing tools that will let them save compiled photos, video and audio clips to the PS3s hard drive.

Another surefire popular PS3 release this fall will be the SingStar karaoke-style game. It, too, will take advantage of a generic or PS3 specific USB camera to capture audio and video clips of people trying their best to sing along with the music. As has long been the case, the integration of cameras with video game consoles in a big screen home theater environment is one of the most impressive ways to show off how your design and installation skills can make a home theater a true family environment, with additional value added billing for you.

Unlike PS3, Xbox upgrades are not billboarded, so this should be added to the to-do list during any check or visit of an installation. A key benefit of the new version is the ability to communicate with the more than 260 million Windows Live Messenger users across Windows-based PCs and Windows Mobile powered handheld devices.

On the hardware side, it is worth noting that video chat is part of the Xbox 360s suite of communication options. If an Xbox 360 is part of a clients system, be sure to introduce an USB web cam into the mix.
Nintendo Wiis upgrade has delivered enhanced Web browsing and other features. It is worth insuring that customer units are using these new features.

DTV Transition
One item that the calendar did not change this year was the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. With a great deal of attention focused on the end game for the digital television transition, slated for February 17, 2009, there wasn’t much to report for the custom installation world this year. While there was much noise in and around the convention about various standards for mobile reception of digital television, it is likely the market will remain fragmented for some time.

At NAB, there was also much talk about IPTV, which has program content delivered via the Internet rather than via terrestrial broadcast or conventional cable or satellite transmissions. However, it quickly becomes either carrier or provider specific with specialized set top and dedicated paths (such as Verizons FIOS or AT&Ts U-Verse) or it involves specialized media players and/or transactionalization schemes. Make no mistake about it, IPTV is a technology you will have to deal with in time, but at this point you will only have to accommodate a clients request for the IPTV system available in their area. For now, this is simply another set top.

HD Radio
There was also interesting news on the radio front at (and after) NAB. HD Radio is still working to build its visibility with consumers as a free service offering digital quality audio that can compete with the subscription-based satellite providers. As the cost of HD Radio products comes down at the same time as the number of HD Radio-equipped stations goes up, this could be the year that HD Radio truly begins to break through.

Particularly in multi-zone systems, HD Radio tunerssuch as those available from ADA, Sangean, and the pro gear provider, DaySequerrahave the ability to tune into the main program service of the host broadcaster as well as additional sub-channels. These multicast channels are being put to a variety of interesting uses. Some stations are using the extra channels for commercial-free broadcasts, news services such as the BBC or NOAA weather, or to offer a format such as jazz, classical, or other services that are not represented in the standard radio broadcast formats in that area. Use of the HD 2 and HD 2 channels is growing, particularly among NPR stations, but also with commercial broadcasters. This is one you definitely should check out as the year moves forward.

Also breaking at NAB was the news that HD Radio has agreed to incorporate NDSs RadioGuard conditional access solution into their equipment on the broadcasters side as well as in future HD Radio products. Combining RadioGuard with HD Radio will, to some extent, remove HD Radios pitch of being a free service, but at the same time it will enable the deliver of subscription, opt-in, and pay-per-listen services (not all of which may necessarily have a charge attached to them). By making it possible to offer concerts, advertiser or restricted access, special interest content, and other services, this move may help propel HD Radio even further into the market, at the same time making it possible for broadcasters and custom installers to provide additional program content to listeners.

Satellite Radio
As the industry waits to see if the merger between XM and Sirius will be approved, the satellite radio industry is going through an interesting period. The one sure thing for all of those concerned is that, should the merger go through, the current hardware (for either service) would be supported.

If XM and Sirius were to merge, the current hardware for either service will be supported.One intriguing note about XM that might help tilt skeptical clients into signing on for satellite radio is that it will launch a commercial-free channel called POTUS 08 (channel 130) which is devoted to full-time coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Created in conjunction with C-SPAN and named for the Secret Services code name for the U.S. President, this will be a political junkies dream come true with speeches, debate coverage, the obligatory call-in shows, and archival audio of historic moments from past campaigns. POTUS 08 can be free when XM is a pay service, because the channel will operate in the same way as the XM preview and barker channelscontent can be heard when an antenna module is connected to an XM Ready product even if a subscription is not activated.

Wireless Systems
Although advanced products designed for the forthcoming 802.11n standard have been available for some time, the word forthcoming is key. With the actual standard not yet finalized and ratified by the IEEE, which is expected within the year, the availability of products labeled as pre-N has created uncertainty as to whether or not anything installed now will be compliant with the final standard. More important, in the absence of a standard there is the possibility that these early-adopter products may not be compatible with one another, as different manufacturers use different chips and may implement the draft standard slightly differently. As was the valid fear when a similar situation arose in the pre-G time frame, many of the products talk to one another without interoperability issues, but some do not.

Until the final standard is set, the Wi-Fi Alliance has developed a testing program for 802.11n draft 2.0 products that guarantees interoperability. All the major chip suppliers are participating, and products that make it through the certification program will bear a logo that shows their certification as well as the current suite of wireless standards (802.11 a/b/g) they are backwards compatible with. This is a major step forward for a standard that isnt even really here yet, and it allows you and clients to easily spot which new products will work in an otherwise Wi-Fi Certified product mix. Now, you can take advantage of the 2x increase in range and 5x increase in throughput promised for n products without worrying if it will work with pre-existing products.

As manufacturers begin to roll out HDMI 1.3 equipped products in the second half of the year you will undoubtedly see spec sheets and consumer ads proclaiming them as HDMI 1.3a, and the natural question is what are the benefits of the new 1.3a standard over plain old ordinary 1.3.

The answer is an easy one. The labeling of a product as 1.3a simply designates that the product was tested to that version of HDMIs compliance standards. As with all such standards, HDMI is a work in progress with revisions taking place to the way in which things are certified. Lessons learned are incorporated deep inside the product design so that the high level of interoperability promised by the over-arching standard is improved as time moves on. Backward compatibility is there, while nothing has been added.

If anything, the fact that many of the wide variety of features and capabilities for HDMI 1.3, including Deep Color, xvYCC Color, Lip Sync Correction and more, are optional at the discretion of the manufacturer means that you should to see if a specific needed or desired feature is implemented, and as with the case of Deep Color, to what level. Again, there is always backwards compatibility, but in the going forward more you do need to have end-to-end feature co-ordination to take advantage of some items in the HDMI feature palette.

With this months industry news update, we have hopefully put the calendar in sync with the custom installation world. There will be lots more to report in the coming months, including display technologies showcased at the recent Society for Information Display convention, game console developments unveiled at the forthcoming E3 show in Santa Monica, CA, the continuing HD DVD vs. Blu-ray battle which has a new nemesis in TotalHD, and evolutions in satellite radio and video services.

Michael Heiss (capnvide[email protected]) is an industry consultant in Los Angeles, California.