BY STEVE POND
Illustration by Harry Campbell
It is, to borrow the words that Humphrey Bogart once used to describe a presumably priceless bird statuette, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” In this case, the dreams are of a future in which home entertainment is truly interactive; in which music travels effortlessly from computer or iPod to a home entertainment center; in which downloaded or streamed content can be viewed as easily on a big-screen TV monitor as on a computer screen or portable device; in which an endless variety of high-definition entertainment is but a mouse click or remote button away, depending on the device used to call it up.
But as Bogie learned in John Huston’s 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, the stuff dreams are made of can be illusory—or at least problematic. Such is the case with the home-technology dream of “solving the last 10 feet.” In the narrowest sense, the phrase refers to simply connecting a computer to a TV monitor—but that step is just part of the richer, more complex goal of assembling an interactive entertainment system in which content can be acquired from a variety of sources and played back on a variety of devices and screens. The result has the potential to transform the home entertainment business, moving billions of dollars in revenue from traditional home-video sources to broadband.
“The home needs to become a highly interactive, multi-media, almost immersive space,” says Rich Green, who runs a Silicon Valley-based company that installs high-end home systems, and also chairs the technology council at CEDIA, a trade organization of companies that install home networking, automation and entertainment systems. “The core of it is taking Internet values to the TV set, and teenagers are the ones who are leading their parents down that path.”
But aside from the area of music, the path can be a rocky, confusing one. Copyright issues can make interactivity difficult, while consumers who left their teen years behind them some time ago aren’t always sure of what’s already out there, how it works, how costly the conversion will be, and how reliable the new technology may be.
“There’s interesting stuff out there, but it can be expensive and it’s not yet easy to use,” says Tom Wolzien, a media and communications analyst who runs Wolzien LLC and is a consultant to the DGA. “Before most people are going to want to hook up their TVs to their computers, it has to be cheap, it has to be easy to hook up, and it has to be easy to use once it’s hooked up. And we’re kind of missing so far on all three of those things. It’s like we’ve got 99 percent of the pieces, and none of the glue to hold those pieces together.”
Another key obstacle to bridging the last 10 feet is broadband penetration. Even though 50 percent of U.S. households now have a broadband connection, a bandwidth of at least 6 megabits per second (Mbps) is required to download a standard-definition, DVD-quality movie in less than two hours, or a television-quality movie (not HD) in 30 minutes. But, in fact, only five percent of households currently have speeds of 6 Mbps or greater. Estimates are that even by the end of 2011, only 46 percent of households will have these high broadband speeds. In addition, no significant breakthrough in compression technology is expected in the next six years and current viewing trends are toward high-definition, which requires even larger file sizes.
But certainly, some devices do exist now to link computers and entertainment centers, to jump that last 10 feet and put an entire house on a network. Partial solutions include the Xbox and PS3 video game consoles, which plug in to the Internet and allow users to download game and video content and show it on the TV screen; TiVo’s Series3 digital video recorder, which connects to the Internet for limited uses; and Apple’s ballyhooed but underperforming Apple TV box, which uses the iTunes interface to sync computer content to a TV monitor.
“One of the big issues is consumers’ knowledge of even being able to do these things,” says Joyce Putscher, principal analyst at the research and consulting firm In-Stat. “A lot of the next-generation stuff, you don’t see on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Best Buy or Circuit City.”
The more tech-savvy consumers, the typical early adapters, are the ones who’ve explored the field so far. Some of the high-end clients that Rich Green sees in Northern California, for example, have the means ($10,000 installations are not uncommon, $100,000 jobs not unheard-of) and the desire to own systems that are state-of-the-art, and sometimes beyond. The two “killer aps [applications]” his biggest clients all want, he says, are TiVo-style, digital video recorders that can download video-on-demand and play it back on any monitor, and mammoth hard drives that can store entire DVD libraries. The first killer ap is difficult to achieve, at best; the second is illegal under anti-piracy laws that largely prohibit copyrighted material from being ripped to a hard drive, though the very exclusive and very expensive Kaleidescape and AMX systems have found a way around some restrictions.
Another trouble with even high-end systems, Green acknowledges, is that many of the top products simply don’t interface with each other, particularly when Digital Rights Management (DRM) safeguards restricted copyrighted content to a single platform. “I’ve got installations where I’ll set up a VUDU [Internet-based movies-on-demand] box, an Apple TV, a Comcast DVR, and a Windows Media Center PC in the same system,” says Green. “They all have completely different user interfaces, different user experiences, and content which can’t be shared between them. This is not a happy situation. It’s like living in four different homes at the same time.”
Compatibility and copyright restrictions are “a very hot topic,” says Scott Smyers, president of the Digital Living Network Alliance, an organization of electronics, computer and mobile technology companies devoted to establishing industry-wide standards that will make home-based devices compatible and interoperable, meaning different manufacturers’ units will be able to be used together in the same entertainment system. “We need to create a model whereby the consumer can experience interoperability, even for content that’s protected by these different DRM packages. It’s complicated, but it’s getting a lot of attention from all the right players. When multiple manufacturers, majors such as Sony, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Toshiba and a bevy of others are implementing and shipping network products all designed to the same set of guidelines, that will represent a real milestone, a real turning point.” Smyers looks to the Christmas 2008 buying season for a possible watershed. “Different companies have different opinions about whether they need to do it this year or next year or in three years or five years. But everyone is taking for granted that sooner or later, if you’re building a consumer product that uses audio and video content, it’s moving to the network.”
Tom Wolzien has heard these kinds of predictions before—in fact, he’s delivered them himself. “I expect it’ll keep getting easier over the next couple of years,” he says. “But I’ve been saying it’s two years away for about 31/2 or four years now. Until it becomes easy, or until there’s something so incredibly compelling on the Web that people just have to see it on their big TVs, I’m afraid it’s going to take awhile.”