In keeping with the “Rising Stars” theme of this month’s issue, it makes sense to offer an analysis of a number of technologies and the way that they may be put to use in products that are in your peripheral vision. On closer examination you may just find that they merit closer attention for your business.
Examining the stars in our constellation this month, it is appropriate to break things up into two different groupings, the basic technologies that are powering these rising stars and the concepts and products that they make possible.
In a high-tech world, the advancing pace of technology is what delivers new products to the market. These products not only create consumer demand, but also make it easier for you to sell, install, and configure systems. Here are some snapshots of key technologies whose stars are on the rise:
VoIP, or “Voice Over Internet Protocol”: To many, VoIP may be the “killer app” for broadband and home networking that many pundits have been waiting for. The notion of a fixed-price per month charge for local and long-distance calling is an attractive lure to any consumer who has not yet installed “always-on” broadband services and a home network. Yes, VoIP could be considered an easy-to-install product, but when you get involved with multiple phone lines and numbers and connection to the sophisticated phone systems in many installations, this is definitely not a job for the do it yourselfer.
If you don’t already have the facts about VoIP, learn them and learn how to effectively market the product to clients and prospects. Know the up sides, such as the ability to chose the line’s area code regardless of your location, perhaps enabling Grandma in Florida to call Junior in LA without a toll charge. At the same time, remember that while VoIP is appealing and potentially a big cost saver, it is dependant on the Internet, and when the cable, DSL, or satellite provider for a client’s broadband connection goes down, the VoIP lines go with it. Remind clients that a standard, “POTS” line should always be available. This is not only for backup, but for secure services such as alarm monitoring, system diagnostic repair links, and anything that has life/safety implications such as medical devices.
HDMI, or High Definition Multimedia Interface. To many, HDMI is the connection technology for which they have long been waiting. It will connect digital audio/video sources to surround processors and control centers, and then onward to video displays. No more multiple analog video components, no more separate digital audio cables, no more complex device configuration while high-resolution audio and video is delivered without any signal degradation. The connector is also half the width and height of the DVI connections that it arguably replaces. What more could you ask for? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps not much.
HDMI will simplify system installation, but it, too, has some potential pitfalls. First, it is important to understand how devices connected via HDMI handle signals. Some simply switch signals, selecting from available inputs and routing one to a sink device (your display). Other products, though at the moment these are a distinct minority, not only switch signals, but have the ability to look at data streams and “peel off” the audio signal for processing before reconstituting the signal and then sending it on its way. This is what you will need when the high-resolution DVD format battle is settled one way or the other and playback decks are available (not anytime soon, by the way) that output full signals, including PCM data and the Dolby Digital + and DTS-HD encoded data that has the high-resolution audio content. Without this capability, you will have to make other accommodations to transport the audio from the optical player to the processor or receiver.
Even as we wait for more complete details on high-resolution video discs, there are high-resolution audio discs to deal with: DVD-Audio and SACD. For an HDMI-equipped receiver to handle DVD-A signals, it must be compliant with the 1.1 version of the HDMI standard. SACD will require yet a newer standard that is in the final stages of approval. Thinking of using this Rising Star to connect parts of a system? Check first to make sure that any receiver is actually handling data from the HDMI path, not merely switching it. Then, make sure that the version of the HDMI embedded in the unit is compatible with the task at hand, or at the very least upgradeable to the needed revision level.
The requirements for secure transport of high-resolution digital audio and video assures HDMI’s place in the universe as a Rising Star, but be careful when touching that red-hot star right now that you do not get burned!
USB. USB as a Rising Star? “That’s old hat,” you might say. Perhaps, but the incredible growth of digital still cameras, the explosion of products such as “Smart Phones” that use USB as their data input/output connection and the seemingly free-fall drop in the price of USB “thumb drives” has breathed new life into USB. For that reason, it is worth mention here as a Rising Star not for its use in connecting computer peripherals, but more for its ability to serve as a convenient conduit for transferring data files, sound files, and images. As important, it is also a convenient lingua franca for power connections. Imagine, rather than dealing with the annoyance of a drawer full of different (and expensive) power adapters, a simply powered USB hub can charge most (though not all) USB-equipped portable devices that are part of the systems that you install. As an example, in my own system, a single USB charger can re-charge my PDA and cell phone, without having to carry the different chargers for each.
USB also enables the use of thumb drives, networking adaptors for wireless or powerline connectivity, and memory card readers. Today, however, that requires special care to make certain that the USB capabilities of a product match your expectations. The full USB host feature set that you are accustomed to on a computer will likely not be available on a consumer electronics product with a USB connection. Riding to the rescue, however, is a new version of the USB format, “USB OTG”, with the OTG standing for “On The Go.” This new scheme will enable peer-to-peer connection between all USB-OTG certified devices without the need for a host computer somewhere in the system. With this, USB will become even more prevalent and it will enable more flexibility in where images and sound are played back and stored. This is one Rising Star worth watching.
IPTV, or Internet Protocol Television. Much as VoIP is a potential killer app that will use broadband data links to deliver telephone service, IPTV uses that same broadband connectivity to deliver video programming. At first glance this might cause you to stop and think: don’t many people use cable, ostensibly a video service, to get their broadband data? That answer is yes, but this is like one of those Russian matryoshka nesting doll sets. Cable is a way to deliver broadband using signals modulated over cable channels. Inside of the broadband you will then go to a web site for downloadable or streaming video delivery. Of course cable isn’t the only way to deliver broadband, there is DSL, satellite, WiFi hot spots, and soon, WiMax distribution. The point is that IPTV, regardless of how the broadband connection is enabled, will make it possible to deliver full-motion video in a variety of quality options based on the available bandwidth and the device’s capability.
For the residential systems designer, this means more demand for home networks with sufficient speed and throughput to handle multiple high-rate streams. It will also give rise to new capabilities for existing devices such as mobile phones and portable media players, while at the same time creating new products for you to sell, configure, install, and maintain. No matter how you look at it, IPTV may well give cable, satellite, and terrestrial video distribution a run for the money, even as the broadband signals it requires actually piggybacks on those other services. This one is going to be interesting.
DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting for Handheld devices). A fixture in the digital broadcasting infrastructure in most of the world outside of North America and parts of Asia, the DVB set of standards sets the foundation for how most of the world accesses digital TV. The selection of ATSC/VSB rather than DVB/COFDM for over-the-air DTV/HDTV not withstanding, DVB may finally secure a beachhead here as portable device manufacturers consider using the DVB-H standard for delivery and display of full-motion video. Related in some ways to IPTV, DVB-H is an enabling technology that will extend the range of devices that you will need to include in systems. No pun intended, but keep an eye on this Rising Star.
Concepts & Products:
With some, or all of the technologies mentioned above slated to make their mark as Rising Stars, how will they actually reach the market? Here are some of the ways that one or two technological Rising Stars will become concept and product stars.
Location Shift. Back when the late, legendary Akio Morita was the driving force behind Sony and the proliferation of home video recorders, his concept was grounded more on “time shift” than on the playback of prerecorded programming. While many consumers took advantage of that concept, just as many or more remain forever baffled by the “flashing 12:00” that late night comedians loved to poke fun of. As VCRs, and more recently DVDs became more a means to “play movies and videos,” DVRs such as TiVo and hard-drive-equipped cable and satellite set-top boxes have begun to make good on Mr. Morita’s concept, helped by technologies that were simply not available to consumers when he was in charge.
Taking things to the next level, time shift’s ability to record a program and to play it at a later time is now about to become location shift. This is helped, in no small part, by some of the technological Rising Stars. Location shift not only allows you to record a program, but to transfer it to another media or device so that you can watch it on another authorized machine in a place removed from the unit where the original recording was made. The “TiVo to Go” concept is one actualization of this. With the arrival of new digital rights management schemes that allow programming to be moved, but not copied or pirated, it is perhaps the best way to describe location shift. This is more than simply accessing programming within the home from thin clients connected to networked server, it is a way to literally take the programming with you.
It is a great concept, and the initial offerings are either here or about to make it to market. Where this rising star intersects with the home systems integrator is that the initial configuration and on-going operation of location shift products is still not as intuitive and easy as some might like. As with all such products, the essential “value add” that you provide is not just the sale and installation, but the way in which units are customized so that clients are able to actually operate the darn things. Location shift has great potential, but it is up to you to make certain that your clients don’t put it in the same category as flashing “12:00” displays on VCRs.
Mesh Networks. Wireless networks, regardless of the type of technology or standard involved are a great thing, making it possible to deliver high-speed connections to places where wires simply can’t reach. Sometimes, however, a room or location is simply too far away to be reached by even the most powerful signal and with the highest gain antenna. Alternatively, with some of the lower powered wireless systems such as ZigBee, devices need a way to connect to the host beyond the range of their power. That’s where mesh networking comes in.
In a true, “industrial strength” enterprise mesh network, the typical goal is redundancy, so that any node in a network can reach any other node if one goes down. In consumer and residential systems, however, a mesh network means something else. Here, each node in the system is not only able to talk to the main access point, presuming it can “reach” or “hear” it, but it can also talk to other nodes that may be too far away from the main access point to communicate directly with the system. To solve the “out-of-range” problem the nodes talk to each other so that far-away points communicate with those that are closer in, which, in turn, relay data and streams to and through the server and network.
Mesh networks change the layout for wireless networks, and at the same time they will make it possible for you to use lower power sensors or control points such as lighting controls and have them work in a cohesive system even when every node cannot reach the main hub directly. This type of topology is also coming into play in distributed audio systems to create long-range, “no-new-wires” networks. Some of the products that you will see it in are aimed more at the “do-it-yourself” consumer while other applications are in very custom-centric products. That could swing the use of mesh networks as something that is a skill that you apply, one you compete against, or both. Regardless, it is a Rising Star that you should be aware of.
There you have it, our technology Rising Stars. Be ready to buy into the ones that make sense for you, and keep a lookout on those that don’t seem to fit your needs. Remember that you need to stay ahead of these trends. Keep them in the rear view mirror, not out ahead of you, but always keep that caution in mind that like that car that pops up in your mirror in the lane to the right of, they may be closer than they appear. If you aren’t careful, they may overtake you.
Michael Heiss is a technology consultant in Los Angeles, California.