Field Trip to CEDIA
by Leslie Ellis // September 25 2006
If the people who transform living rooms into elaborate home theaters trailblaze for the early adopters of consumer electronics gadgetry, watch for an onslaught of gadgetry that wirelessly links the stuff in your home — your stereo, PC, TV, lights, sprinkler system, heating/cooling.
That, plus row after row of dazzling flat-screen and projector HDTVs, were the main attractions at this year’s Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association show, held in Denver.
At the invitation of a prominent cable technologist and home electronics enthusiast, I drove over to wander the floor last Sunday afternoon. We traveled incognito. My badge said “Nancy London,” his said “John Smith” — especially amusing, because he is visibly Asian.
My intent was to see if the new stuff being made for the home theater people had any overlap with day-to-day cable operations and strategy. John’s intent was that, plus window-shopping for his own (formidable!) home theater setup. (Part of the fun of hanging out with tech people is to witness what gizmos really get them fired up. More on that later.)
This week’s translation will serve a sort of “columnist’s notebook” on CEDIA (pronounced “SEE-dee-yah.”)
Let’s start in the “Same As It Ever Was” department: A lead story in the show daily (produced by Residential Systems and System Contractor News) ran under this headline: “All Roads Lead to IP” — and by “IP” they meant “Internet Protocol.”
Sound familiar? The not-so-shocking conclusion: The road to the IP-connected home “is not fully paved.” Potholes include security and fidelity, wrote Margot Douaihy, who noted that many of the new wireless audio distribution systems play on unlicensed spectrum. Fine, so long as you’re not running the microwave.
The show floor, which we covered at a careful pace in three hours, held the usual mixture of the weird and the interesting.
Weird first: A central vacuum system that doubles as a food storage system. That’s right. It works like this: A narrow suction arm fits into a vacuum port in the kitchen. (When not in use, the arm “pivots neatly away.”) When you’re ready to freeze the leftover chili, you pull a double-zipper Ziploc freezer bag out of the box, pivot that suction arm, remove all the air, and voila — “sealed-in freshness.”
Then there was the combination mirror/flat panel TV display, complete with heavy gold leaf frame. When it’s not a TV, it’s a mirror. Kinky.
Oh, and for all the flat-panel TVs heading into homes, there are nearly as many options for fixed and “swing out” display mounts. One had cantilevers, to attach flat-panel speakers. Another boasted the ability to hold up to a 660-pound display. (The small print: “Wall must be strong enough.” Makes you wonder if they learned that the hard way.)
And, for the serious future-proofer: Forget fiber to the home. The new new thing, according to Franklin, Tenn.-based Tenvera Inc., is fiber in the home. (Makes for a more pronounceable acronym, too: FITH.) Granted, if you don’t have fiber to the home, it’s not going to do you much good to put fiber in your home. But, for bragging rights, optical fiber in your walls is right up there with the indoor driving range.
As far as general trends go, silence and visual grace were prominent at CEDIA. High-end home theater components tend to generate heat; the antidote is fans. Fans are noisy. Noisy makes audiophiles crazy. Silent fans are nirvana.
Several companies showed ceiling and wall-mount speakers, designed to be visually unobtrusive. One company even showed an in-wall speaker that can be painted over with as many as four coats of latex paint.
In all, the big trends that could intersect with day-to-day cable operations and strategy appeared to be touch screen control systems, and wireless linkages of in-home electronics, from stereos to PCs to TVs.
At the end of the three-hour CEDIA wander, notably, John didn’t find what he was looking for: A wireless link to an HDMI (High Definition Media Interface) connector. Application: He has a flat panel display, but the receiver it needs to connect to is too far away for a wire. (HDMI wires tend to top out at 15 feet, because they’re carrying so much stuff.)
He did find an all-in-one surround sound system (the Yamaha Digital Sound Projector) that produced considerable muttering. (“I want one of these,” “I have just the place for this in my house,” etc.) It works by putting 42 tiny speakers ($1,500) or 23 tiny speakers ($800) in a flat-panel wall-mount directly under the display. A microphone analyzes the acoustics of the room, sets the best beam angles, and optimizes the sound for the room.
To tell the truth, it sounded so good, I think I want one, too. Either that or a pair of running shoes that is nice to my feet.
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.
On Gumbo and Four Letter Acronyms (like “OCUR”)
by Leslie Ellis // September 11 2006
To mark the beginning of the back-to-school season, this week’s column starts with a bit of “guess that translation.”
The clues: It’s an awkward, four-lettered acronym, which sounds like a gumbo ingredient when spoken. It isn’t news, but will be new to cable system operations within four months. Every time you type it, your spell checker immediately (and maddeningly) changes it to “occur.”
If you guessed “OCUR,” for “OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver,” then you probably don’t need this week’s translation.
If you didn’t, here’s the basics. It’s pronounced “oh-kurr,” which is why the okra quips are never far away. It was first announced in November of ’05, when CableLabs ordained Microsoft Corp. to include premium digital and high definition video in its Media Center Edition software. In May of this year, Real Networks also became an OCUR signatory.
Here’s what OCUR means, at a consumer level: Starting in January ’07, a stroll through the PC aisle at the electronics store could inspire the purchase of a machine loaded with Microsoft’s “Vista” series Media Center Edition (“MCE” for short).
Vista supports OCUR, which means Vista PCs will be able to accept a one way (“unidirectional”) CableCard — just like the one-way CableCards that currently decrypt premium digital channels in some TVs and HDTVs.
Ultimately, it means that starting in a few months, people will be able to buy a PC, subscribe to a broadband connection, and order premium video channels from their cable operator that will display on the PC screen — and anything connected to it (HD displays, for instance.)
Here’s how it works, technically: Say you get a PC with the Vista version of Microsoft Media Center Edition. Say that machine came with an external “OCUR” CableCard reader (embedded versions are coming). You plug a coaxial cable into the front of it, slide in the CableCard, and connect into the back of the PC with a USB cable.
The OCUR box takes the encrypted digital video from the CableCard, and re-encrypts it — either with Microsoft’s digital rights management, or with Real’s “Helix.” That way, the protected stream stays protected.
What’s the Same, What’s Different?
Even though the CableCards used in OCUR are the same as the CableCards used for one-way HDTVs, there are some differences in getting a subscribing home set up for OCUR, compared to getting an HDTV set-up to decrypt premium channels over a CableCard.
Generally speaking, the CableCards are provisioned the same for one-way TVs as they are in OCUR devices, involved technologists say. The same headend units are involved, the same billing linkages work.
What’s different is the installation. Instead of going to a known and specific area of an operator’s existing TV navigation system, for instance, installers will need to locate the correct setup screens within the Vista MCE operating system. Not a huge barrier, but, a difference nonetheless.
“And While You’re Here, Couldja…”
Plus, the consumer who buys the service may very well expect and desire some help on the home networking front. Installers will very likely be asked to help connect a PC to an HDTV display, perhaps in a different room than the PC. Installers savvy in both “traditional digital video” as well as broadband data systems will be at a premium.
Also, customer care employees will need to know that there is such a thing as a PC that can subscribe to premium HD video channels, and that those customers will require a CableCard dispatch.
For the marketing community, it’s notable that this whole OCUR thing serves as the industry’s first real foray into “IP video,” outside of Time Warner Cable’s work last year in San Diego, Calif. (It also desperately needs a cooler name than “OCUR.” To get things started, I’ll throw out “cable IP video adapter.”)
Notably, those customers who decide to get premium cable channels via their Media Center Edition PC won’t be using the same navigational system used in digital cable boxes. They’ll find stuff using the navigation system that comes with Media Center. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of considerable debate.
It’s anybody’s guess how many people will be inspired to buy a PC that contains the Vista version of Media Center Edition, and from there opt to order premium HD channels for it from their cable operator. In May, Microsoft officials put sales of overall Media Center Edition software (non-Vista) at 10 million copies, at a rate of about a million per month.
Vista premiers in January. If forewarned is forearmed, it’s probably not a bad idea to find a beta copy of Vista, get an installation team ready, and make sure relevant staffers have all the information they need.
This column originally ran in the Technology section of Multichannel News.