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issue: April 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Home Entertainment Appliances
The Digital Lifestyle


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by Tina Grady, Managing Editor

Home entertainment systems and their components are part of the digital, on-the-go lifestyle, which is now moving home entertainment outside the home.

In today's fast-paced environment, there is a demand for immediate satisfaction. People expect to be able to get what they want, when they want, and they want the process for achieving this to be seamless, convenient, and entertaining. All of these factors are transforming the home entertainment industry.

 


In keeping with the digital lifestyle, Sharp has released a new 15-in Wireless AQUOS LCD TV. The standalone unit uses the company's SmartLink wireless digital audio video transmission system to allow users to connect the transmitter to a video source, such as a DVD player in any room of the house, and to carry around the TV or take it out by the pool. The remote control may also be used when the TV is being moved around by pointing it directly at the TV, instead of having to point it at a set-top box. The TV operates up to 3 hr on a rechargeable battery, and the network operates on the 802.11b wireless standard.

There are continuously new innovations, from the once-unique and now commonplace cellular phones and laptop computers, to personal digital assistants (PDAs), pocket-size drives that enable storage of the entire content of a desktop computer, and devices that allow users to wirelessly control appliances while on the go. Consumer electronics (CE), which include digital devices and their accessories, have become what some would say are the "it" items. Several new innovations that may reach this status were unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held Jan. 8-11 in Las Vegas, NV, U.S, and more will continue to be developed. In fact, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which sponsors CES, 2004 sales of CE items are expected to surpass the U.S. $100-billion mark—a 5-percent increase from 2003.

The momentum is expected to continue. CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro says that consumer electronics continue to "win over Americans" and play an important role in their lives "by providing the tools to educate, entertain, and connect."

With this in mind, it seems that functionality, entertainment, and convenience have now crossed paths, and it appears that this will continue to be the trend. Not only does this put the onus on OEMs and design engineers to perpetually come up with new innovations, but this may also be an indicator that what has traditionally been deemed as "home entertainment" is no longer just in the home.

Bringing Entertainment Outside

Many aspects of entertainment are now being brought outside the home. There have long been Walkmans and portable CD players, but now with the digital era, MP3 players, PDAs, portable DVD players, and mobile phones with endless functionalities and connectivity possibilities have moved to the forefront.

In keeping with this trend, Archos SA, a Paris, France-based company run by French oil engineer Henri Crocha, makes a small hand-held device that has been compared to a bulky Palm Pilot. The device is capable of recording and then playing back the scores of movies, TV shows, and digital photos on its own screen or a TV set. Recorded TV programs and digital music files can also be transferred to the device.

The GMINI Series devices use the MPEG-4 video compression system to put about 300 hr of video at near-DVD quality onto its hard drive. The company, which just introduced the GMINI series in November, has already sold 100,000 units and plans to not only be a part of the home entertainment industry, but to be at the forefront of mobile entertainment as well. Archos President and COO Hyder Rabbani says that the company wants to give customers the option to take all of their personal content "with them, wherever they go."

Archos is not the only company that is integrating home entertainment with mobile entertainment capabilities. MP3 players may be used on the go, but are also doubling as practical business tools as well. The new MP3 players from iRiver (Milpitas, CA, U.S.) are doing more than just playing music. They are also serving as portable media centers and personal voice recorders. The IFP 500 has an optical output and can connect to a port on a home entertainment system to upload music files and computer files. Additionally, the user is able to download a PowerPoint® presentation or Microsoft® Word files to the MP3 player and then upload it back to a computer. Voice notes taken on the MP3 player with the personal recorder function can also be transferred to a computer as well. "It makes entertainment mobile," says Zack Hill, iRiver spokesman.

To take this a step further, Mr. Hill says, iRiver is partnering with Microsoft to make a Windows®-based MP3 player device. Mr. Hill says iRiver expects to release the device this summer. The player will have an 3.5-in LCD color screen with a TV "line out" that will allow users to connect the device to a TV and watch content from the MP3 player on the TV. "We're getting to a point where you don't even have to go to the movie theater or even to your TV—you can have [entertainment] with you wherever you are," Mr. Hill notes.

Cornice Co. is working with iRiver and other big players such as Philips, Rio, and RCA to develop the storage drives for many of these mobile entertainment devices. Using its driver, digital camera photos will eventually be able to be downloaded to USB storage, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies will be integrated into devices.

DVD players and portable DVD players, although not new, have also become part of the mobile entertainment trend as the technology contained within them continues to get more sophisticated. Panasonic's DVD-RAM 2X device combines the functionalities of a VCR and a DVD player into one device by using the VR Format (DVD-Video Recording Format) to allow the recording, rewriting, and storage of digital data. The data on a DVD-RAM are read by a non-contact optical pick-up. Now, information—or a favorite TV show—may be recorded and brought with a person wherever he or she goes. Additionally, show segments can be skipped to immediately as well as instantly erased.

LCD vs. Plasma

Home theater systems, high-definition television (HDTV), and flat-panel, liquid crystal display (LCD), and plasma TVs—many of which are now using wireless technology—also have become entertainment appliance buzzwords. "Recordability and flat displays are definitely two of the biggest trends in the CE industry right now," Maria Repole, senior public relations manager for Toshiba, points out.

Although both are buzzwords, a distinct division and market remains between the LCD and plasma TVs: LCD is said to be geared toward quality and plasma is geared at size, although quality is still an important factor, agree many industry players. (See sidebar, "LCD and Plasma: What's the Difference?" for more information.)

Despite the differences and the distinctions, both technologies remain an important focus for many CE OEMs as the traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs begin to wane. Some of the companies that have been in the CE marketplace for some time are still putting some efforts into their "legacy" CRT TVs, while focusing on both plasma and LCDs.

Sony and Samsung, for example, still make CRT models and have both plasma and LCD products. Nonetheless, many companies are forging ahead into the LCD arena and leaving behind both CRT and plasma technologies. "We're only working with LCD in flat-panel TVs because we feel it is a superior technology," says Robin Feldman, speaking on behalf of Sharp Electronics Corporation (Mahwah, NJ, U.S.). To bolster the company's efforts, Sharp recently opened a new factory in Japan that is capable of producing a 1,500- x 1,800-mm LCD piece of "motherglass," Ms. Feldman reveals. "That means it will be able to make six 37-in panels, eight 32-in panels, and 12 36-in panels. This will make more LCD TVs available and is a direct hit on plasma." By 2005, Ms. Feldman adds, Japan will no longer make CRT TVs, although a CRT production stop date has not yet been announced for the U.S. She adds, "We see Sharp going in that direction."

Westinghouse Digital Electronics is another company skipping the plasma step and moving straight into LCD. While Westinghouse is not a new name—it has been around for more than 100 years—it is a new player in the digital entertainment marketplace. The company entered the CE marketplace in 2003. Jeff Greenberg, the company's marketing manager, sees its new-player status in the CE market as advantageous. "There is a large shift away from CRT to flat-panel displays—CRT is going away rapidly," he says. "We want to move the world to LCD as quickly as possible. Our objective is to bring LCD to the mainstream right away. Now, it's just a high-end product." Currently, Mr. Greenberg says, the cost of a LCD TV is three to five times the cost of a CRT. "We think prices for LCD should be moving to the point where they are less than double, but this is not yet quite achievable in all categories," Mr. Greenberg notes.

With costs so high for LCDs, why is Westinghouse, like Sharp, not working on plasmas as well? John Araki, product manager for Westinghouse, says the reason is all part of its very focused plan, which includes running the company with tighter margins and extremely strong vertical relationships. "We aren't competing against plasma," Mr. Araki says. "We are focusing in on the CRT, or the traditional TV-tube market. LCD is coming, and we all need to prepare for it from the manufacturers to the consumers."

Home Theaters: Bringing the Outside In

Although LCD and plasma seem to dominate the talk of home entertainment systems, home theaters overall are increasing as a home entertainment system. According to the APPLIANCE's 52nd Annual Appliance Industry Forecast, home theaters in-a-box have been continually rising. The 2004 outlook forecasts that there will be a 13.8-percent increase in these devices, and this number is also expected to continue to rise in 2005 and 2006.

Many consumers are building their own home theaters. In addition to the TV, the home theaters are also seeing devices such as Toshiba's RD-XS32 Multi-Drive DVD Recorder, which features an 80-gigabyte built-in hard disk drive (HDD) that can compile personal video libraries and transfer them from the HDD to a recordable disk.

Blu-ray devices will also become a common addition to home entertainment systems by 2005, says Mr. DeManss of Samsung. The Blu-ray format uses a blue laser, which operates at a shorter wavelength than a DVD player, meaning that smaller bits and more information will be able to fit on a disk—nearly 23 gigabytes. Samsung's Blu-ray Disc Recorder, the BD-R10000, combines the features of digital and analog recording, DVD and CD playback, and home theater functionality in a set-top box form. At press time, the Blu-ray optical disc devices in operation were made by Sony and were being used only in Japan, Mr. DeManss says.

Audio generators, storage devices, and speakers are also playing an important role in driving the sound of the "entertainment hub"—and doing so wirelessly. Yamaha (Buena Park, CA, U.S.) already has audio wireless technology on the market, and others are not too far behind. Yamaha's SoundBeam, a digital signal processing (DSP) technology, acts as an acoustic projector to bounce the sound off the wall. This also allows for directional sound so that a TV with split screens would allow two people to be on either side of the screen, but neither would hear the sound from the others' program—despite the fact that they would be sitting next to each other. Individually, the users would each be able to hear their own programs in stereo sound. The system will produce surround sound with a single audio track, and stereo when two different sound tracks are being listened to.

The technology works by using 56 2-in drivers inside a panel above the screen in a home theater system that stretches the same size as the screen. The small drivers, which are controlled by DSP, activate each individual speaker in such a way as to direct its output in a specific location. Multiple speakers can also localize the sound to a great extent, and even use the walls to bounce audio around the room and emulate a surround sound speaker setup. "It gives surround sound with a small footprint," says Phil Shea, Yamaha's product national training manager.

He predicts that this technology will add a lot to home entertainment because most homes do not have enough room for 56 speakers, and this will essentially allow consumers in confined spaces to benefit from the technology. "You don't need separate speakers, an amp, or separate processor…because it is all in one," Mr. Shea says. "As a manufacturer, this opens up a whole new market."

Sound technology from Dolby Laboratories Inc., used for several years now in theaters, is also being used in home theaters. The San Francisco, CA, U.S.-based company has introduced ProLogic IIx (PLIIx), a new decoding system that uses a sophisticated matrix decoder to take sound in a 2.0 channel direction (stereo) or 5.1 channel and automatically decode it to a 7.1-channel sound.

Dolby also licenses its Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) technology for use in many home theater components. This Lossless compression system for DVD audio that provides a "bit-for-bit playback" of what took place in the studio by putting the audio through a matrix decoder, says Craig Eggers, senior manager of Consumer Electronics Technology for Dolby Laboratories. "The sound is put through a matrix decoder, and the ‘common elements,' are separated from it," he says. This reduces the data requirements by a factor of nearly one-half. The process leaves the discrete elements, he says, which help achieve a purer sound.

England-based New Transducers Limited's NXT sound technology is yet another growing technology being used in home theaters—as well as in mobile phones, computers, and televisions. The London, England-based company's technologies allow for the creation of distributed mode loudspeakers (DML) from panels. NXT does not manufacture products itself, but instead licenses its technology to companies such as NEC, TDK, and Siemens.

The SurfaceSound technology, used in some flat panels, uses the panel itself as a speaker so a separate one is not necessary. The panels are able to radiate sound all around via harnessing complex "bending waves" by using two small exciters attached to each panel instead of trying to achieve pistonic motion of the diaphragm over the lower portion of the operating range. Instead, a quasi-random vibration is used so the diaphragm vibrates randomly across a surface to radiate sound evenly in all directions. At low frequencies, the wavelength in the air is large compared with the diaphragm dimensions. The real part of the diaphragm's radiation resistance, into which the driver dissipates acoustic power, increases with frequency at exactly the same range as the diaphragm's displacement decreases, with the result being constant acoustic power output.

As the frequency continues to rise and the wavelength in the air decreases to the point where it becomes comparable to the diaphragm dimensions, a major change occurs. Instead of continuing to rise, the real part of the radiation impedance reaches a limiting value and essentially becomes a constant for higher frequencies.

What's Next?

Another coming trend is home networking, notes Karl DeManss, new business development manager for Samsung. He says that Samsung's entertainment appliances are now being integrated with white goods.

"Appliances and entertainment are together now," Mr. DeManss points out. "They have pretty much become one—and now the trend is ‘any content, anywhere, at any time, with multiple solutions.' There is almost no area of the home that is untouched by this." The company's refrigerator HomePad is one such example. The system is a removable LCD screen that is designed to be the center of the home network. "It links to the phone, computer, etc.," Mr. DeManss says. "On the fridge would be a touch sensor screen—you could watch TV, browse the Internet, and connect with everything else." The system is currently in the experimental stage.

The question as to what is the future of entertainment with the current digital lifestyle may be hard to predict. The industry is one of constant change with consistent research and development. According to research and predictions from OEM sources, wireless networks, device interconnectivity, and convergence—all of which have already arrived—seem to be important parts of the future.

According to research firm Allied Business Intelligence (ABI), device consolidation is imminent. "By 2008, ‘all-in-one' boxes with DVD, PVR, home theater-in-a-box, and gaming capabilities—or combinations thereof—will outsell each of these respective devices," predicts Vamsi Sistla, senior analyst at ABI. "This centripetal force of gadget consolidation will pave the way for a whole new set of all-in-one devices and platforms, further blurring the lines of functionality consumers are familiar with when evaluating, purchasing, and using multiple entertainment devices." In addition, Wi-Fi (802.11b/a/g and UWB) and Powerline (HomePlug 1.0 and others) "should get simple, robust, and affordable to the average electronics consumer by 2006," according to ABI. LCD technology and HDTV will also take center stage, the firm predicts.

Further down the road, a completely digital and wireless lifestyle may be in the works. "In the foreseeable future, you'll sit on a bus, pull your TiVO show off your hard drive, and watch it when it is most convenient for you," Mr. DeManss of Samsung says. When it comes to entertainment in the home, "There will be a one-touch buttons," he says. "There will be no more programmable remotes. The information will all be imbedded in the TV itself. There will be also user modes through wireless networks, for example, where a person on his or her way home will be able to press one button on a cell phone and turn on the hall light at home as well as turn on CNN, control the oven, and keep tabs on everything at home—all wirelessly. Everything will be networked."

 

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