Is A New Era In Home Entertainment At Hand?

By Cheryl Ajluni

The way that consumers access entertainment is being driven by two factors: the global reach and on-demand nature of the Internet and the tens of millions of broadband-ready PCs that exist worldwide. Consumers are more aware of home-networking options than ever before. Now, those options are being broadly integrated into entertainment devices. As a new generation of network-aware consumer electronics begins to emerge, consumers will find themselves more in control of the digital-entertainment experience. They also will enjoy access to a much richer level of content.

For the savvy high-tech company, this emerging trend represents a financial opportunity. According to the market research firm, iSuppli, the U.S. consumer-electronics market is roughly $130 billion today. That market encompasses an assortment of electronic gear including televisions, MP3 players, and stereos. Yet its current size doesn’t even begin to factor in the emerging market opportunities in places like China and India. Nor does it take into consideration the dollars that are spent every month by Americans, who increasingly turn to the web for their entertainment. In other words, the digital-entertainment market has the potential to be quite large. It will be enabled by technologies like the web, which will act as the key distribution point for a wide array of digital-media content and programming.

How exactly will companies work to address this trend? The 2006 Consumer Electronics Show provided a prime opportunity to respond to that question while looking head-on into the future of digital home entertainment. The answer lies at the heart of a fiery battle that’s now underway between traditional consumer-electronics companies--like Panasonic, Sony, and Sharp--and PC-makers like Intel.

During CES, Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini used the appeal of Tom Hanks, Danny DeVito, and Morgan Freeman to tout Intel’s new standard of digital home entertainment, called ViiV (see the Figure). The concept of using Hollywood’s heaviest hitters has long been a marketing approach employed by consumer-electronics companies. They use star power to help promote their latest lineup of consumer- electronics gear.

This tactic marks uncharted territory for a PC-maker like Intel, however. In fact, this move signals a dramatic change in the way that this industry segment sees itself in relation to long-standing consumer-electronics leaders. Microprocessor- based solutions now feature advanced computing power, Internet connectivity, and software that’s capable of preventing illegal copying or downloads. As a result, PC-makers are asserting that their solutions are better suited to the needs of next-generation, digital-content-rich consumer electronics.

Emerging Technology
ViiV is a standardized set of hardware technologies aimed at providing Digital Video Recorder (DVR)/home-media-center functionality. This entertainment PC platform targets mainstream consumers. It is specifically designed to enrich the consumer’s enjoyment of digital entertainment.

ViiV PCs feature the following: a dual-core CPU, Intel Express chip set, Quick Resume Technology Drivers for instant on/off capabilities, and digital-rights management. The ViiV PC is designed to act as the center of the digital-home-entertainment environment. It can manage the consumer’s music, photos, TV programs, and downloads--which may include the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Its digital content can be accessed in every room of the home.

The ViiV PC runs the Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) operating system. The MCE standard was first introduced back in 2002. It is a software application designed around a user-friendly remote control, which turns a Media Center PC like ViiV into the entertainment hub of the future. MCE is considered a multimedia convergence platform. Its true potential lies in its ability to help realize the newest technological advances in multimedia-based consumer electronics. In one box, it brings together everything from the personal video recorder (PVR) to networking multiple display devices throughout the household. It also allows access to features on PC-enhanced DVDs right from the living-room sofa.

The Future Of Entertainment
Not surprisingly, Intel and Microsoft are using ViiV and the MCE standard, respectively, to spearhead the PC-makers’ move into the traditional consumer-electronics space. Their efforts may just be paying off. The ViiV entertainment PC platform has already been adopted by more than 100 PC vendors. And the MCE software, which is now in about 6.5 million PCs worldwide, has quickly become a de-facto standard for accessing technologies like ViiV.

The Intel and Microsoft approach to home entertainment may not sit well with traditional consumer-electronics companies, which have long dominated the entertainment arena. But computing companies seem ready for the battle ahead as they try to forge new ground in the digital-content-delivery market. As the war for the digital home heats up, the computing and consumer-electronics heavyweights will have to carefully expand into new territory to avoid giving up marketshare on their existing products or services.

Of course, separating today’s savvy consumers from their money will require a certain degree of finesse. Consumers are demanding ever-increasing access to a range of digital content. Traditionally, PC companies fell short in this area. They have overcome that issue, however. Intel is a prime example. The company’s partnerships with Yahoo! and Time Warner’s AOL are enabling content to be made available for download to ViiV-branded PCs. It also has forged agreements with companies like ESPN, Movielink, T-Mobile, TiVo, Napster, Virgin Records, Gametap, Adobe, Google, DirectTV, and Pinnacle.

All of these content providers supply either programming or tools that can be used with ViiV. They may even optimize some of their current products for the ViiV user. ESPN, for example, will provide high-definition streams and over 300 March Madness games. MTV will offer ViiV-protected versions of its content. High-definition material and other content from DirecTV also will be made available on ViiV PCs.

This level of digital content is now enabling PC-makers like Intel to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. With an entertainment platform like ViiV and its powerful dual-core, 64-bit processing and multitasking capabilities, the battle for the hearts and dollars of consumers everywhere is sure to be an interesting one. Regardless of who ends up victorious, these technologies promise to usher in a new era of entertainment choices. Ultimately, consumers will be the winners.

Cheryl Ajluni is the owner of Custom Media Solutions, specializing in technol- ogy-based content for publications and tradeshows. She has over 10 years experi-ence covering the high-tech industry for such publications as Electronic Design and Embedded Systems Development. Ajluni served as Editor-in-Chief of Wireless Systems Design. She has also worked in various engineering roles and holds a patent for the development of a solar-cell detec-tion system. Ajluni has a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics from the University of California, Davis.