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Spreading Digital Joy

At the start of a new year it is a compelling challenge to predict the digital products and solutions that will have the greatest impact over the next year in our homes. Working as a residential electronic architect and integrator in the San Francisco Bay Area throughout the first half of this decade has given my company valuable insight into what digital solutions add real value to our clients lifestyles and how these solutions are likely to develop in the near future. As we look into the 2005 digital crystal ball we see:

Pervasive Audio and Video Entertainment. There is no question that most of our entertainment content is becoming digitized, encoded and stored on hard drives. Whether its saved on a TiVO box in the living room or an Apple iPod in the car glove compartment, audio and video content is moving from discrete CD/DVD disks and satellite or cable feeds to hard drive platforms. To date, most of this content is consumed in one locationthe TiVO is viewed only in a family room setting, and the iPod plays to one pair of ears. All of that is now changing. Storing entertainment content on hard drive platforms permits multiple users to simultaneously share content to multiple locations throughout the home.

Microsofts new Media Center 2005 platform is a good example of a distributed entertainment software/hardware solution. Placing this platform in your homes family room media cabinet gives the homeowner a central computer on which to store all of the familys music, photos and personally recorded video shows and display this content on any television throughout the home via Microsoft Media Center Extenders (these are set-top boxes that sit alongside each home television). HP announced at the end of last year that it will be shipping Media Center-ready plasma screens that will have these media center extenders built into their plasma screen. I would expect more television manufacturers to do the same as it becomes as important to display home network and Internet-based media streams as it is to display content delivered via satellite or cable service to the home.

The homes entertainment content doesnt need to stop at the walls of the house. Portable media players such as those developed by Creative Labs and Samsung will enable homeowners to take their content wherever they gowatching a favorite recorded Seinfeld episode on the plane, showing family pictures to distant relatives and listening to their favorite music in the car. All of this mobile content will automatically synchronize with the entertainment content of the home computer server. This is already a feature built into Windows Media Player 10, a component of Microsofts Media Center software.

Home Control from your TV Remote. In a well-integrated home one can easily control the television, cable or satellite receiver, CD/DVD player and VCR from a single universal remote control. The next logical step is to use the same control to operate the homes lighting, thermostat and security systems. Over the course of the next year I would expect to see more of these home control systems connected to one another to offer this kind of unified remote control. The homeowner should be able to interface with their security panel, thermostat and lighting scenes from a handheld remote (or in-wall touch display) as easy as it is to now change TV channels or adjust volume.

HAI (Home Automation Inc.) announced at the end of last year a Microsoft Media Center extension to its home control platform of products that will provide this level of integration. In 2005, we expect to see more third-party companies like HAI offer these integrated home control solutions to the Media Center platform as well as other companies that will offer complete home control solutions on Linux platforms (see my Control4 column in the September 2004 issue.)

As the homes various subsystems (lighting, security, HVAC) become more integrated into the audio/video systems we will be able to take advantage of the beautiful, large screens throughout the home as the graphical interface to use for the control of these subsystems. No longer will we be restricted to the single line of text at the top of our security keypads or thermostat controls; we will have the richness of a millions and colors at high resolution to display intuitive control and programming of these systems.

Entertainment Over Internet Broadband Connections. Audio- and video-on-demand solutions over broadband will become much more viable. With a broadband-connected media server in the home, the gateway product for the distribution of Internet entertainment content is in place. Audio and video consumed over the Internet at a desktop PC is a very limiting experience that engages only one person in one place. Audio and video streamed from the Internet in a living room computer that can be seen on a large screen in that room (or any other networked connected room in the home) greatly enhances the value of the entertainment. It can be enjoyed my many family members via dedicated audio/video products that are superior to the stand-alone PC for rendering great images and high-fidelity sound.

Broadband-enabled movie services, like CinemaNow and MovieLink, and audio services, like Napster and Live365, will become more popular as entertainment content as on-demand becomes easier for the homeowner to manage and control.

With more than 50 million broadband connected households in the United States, the Internet has become ubiquitous and indispensable for the majority of Americans. Tapping into the wealth of entertainment content on the Internet, coupled with the homeowners purchased or created content onto a single, easily manageable and reliable server, will be the significant new experience enjoyed by digital homeowners over the balance of this decade. Its an integration opportunity that you wont want to miss.