Making a One-Wire World

Industry group works to radically expand the power of the remote control
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Since the launch of high-definition television in the late 1990s, consumer electronics manufacturers, cable and DBS operators, and content providers have wrestled with ways to connect HD television sets to set-top receivers and other devices without jeopardizing the content displayed on those sets.

Now tech-savvy consumers want it all, and they'll probably get it. They want to be able to easily connect their personal computers to their audio-video devices to repurpose content for new functions, such as downloading programming from a digital video recorder (DVR) to a mobile video device. They'd like to be able to display pictures from a PC or digital camera on an HDTV set. And they want a way to allow content to be easily transported from DVR to multiple TV sets.

There is a solution that will be talked about at this week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While 130,000 attendees crowd the convention hall, a powerful cross-industry group called the High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance, or HANA, will demonstrate how the digital interface standard owned by Apple Computer known as FireWire (officially IEEE 1394) can be used as a networking solution across multiple devices in the high-def home.

HANA, founded just last month, has heavy-duty corporate backing. Members include NBC Universal; cable operator Charter Communications; computer giant Sun Microsystems; and consumer electronics manufacturers JVC, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America and Samsung. Contributing members are computer-chip manufacturers ARM and Freescale Semiconductor and networking supplier Pulse~LINK.

JUST ONE REMOTE, FOR EVERYTHING

HANA members have some goals. They want to develop technology that will allow consumers to view, pause and record five HD channels simultaneously without compromising picture quality. They want consumers to be able to view, pause and record HD anywhere in the home with one set-top. They want to find efficient ways to migrate personal content from PCs to audio-video devices while keeping the content secure.

And they want to do all of those things with just one remote per room.

“The connection between devices is a single 1394 cable, with 'hot plug and play' capability,” says HANA President and Samsung Executive VP Dr. Heemin Kwon. “There will also be a single remote control and a simple graphical user interface on the TV.”

The HANA effort represents a resurrection of sorts for FireWire, which is one of the three major digital interfaces that can be used to connect HD set-tops to HDTV sets. Many now think the newer High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is a better technology. But FireWire was the original digital-interface standard the FCC mandated to be built into HD set-tops. Today the majority of HDTV sets in the marketplace have HDMI inputs, too. HANA devices can still be made compatible with HDMI-equipped sets by using a compatible set-top box, says Glenn Reitmeier, VP of technology standards, policy and strategy, NBC Universal. “That will serve as a gateway to that screen,” he adds.

Whether HANA will gain widespread support from the CE industry remains unclear. While Mitsubishi has been a longtime supporter of FireWire, and Samsung and Hitachi also invested in FireWire products, other major TV manufacturers such as Sony and LG Electronics lean heavily toward HDMI inputs.

LOOKING FOR CONVERTS

“We see everything moving to HDMI,” says LG Electronics spokesman John Taylor. He admits that “the complexity of installation and the jumble of wires that can come out of an HD display is a consideration.” He says LG Electronics also shares HANA's belief that pre-existing coaxial cable can be incorporated into a home-networking solution. But LG is taking a different approach to the HD networking problem, and will be demonstrating some new technology at CES.

The group says it expects to announce additional coalition members at the CES show and unveil HANA-enabled devices in the second half of 2006. But some consumer-electronics manufacturers are skeptical.

Others are even more negative about HANA's technology of choice. “I think the ship has already sailed on [FireWire],” says Thomson Electronics VP of Marketing Dave Arland. “But those are some pretty powerful players [in HANA].”

The group's initial mission is to make installing HDTV equipment a less daunting prospect for consumers. In addition to making HD sets easier to install, HANA should make HD a more cost-effective proposition for service providers like Charter, says Samsung's Kwon. By providing easy connections between devices, set-top functions such as MPEG decoding and digital video recording will move into the TV sets themselves—or other standalone disk devices—leaving the cable operator to only provide a single network interface unit (NIU) in the home for access to cable services. That has the potential to reduce cable's capital expenditures dramatically. CE manufacturers should profit by selling the new devices.

One of HANA's unique benefits for cable is that it will leverage the existing coaxial cable within subscriber homes to connect devices in different rooms. At the event in New York last month, HANA members demonstrated a prototype home HD network that linked two HD sets, a hard-disk recorder, and a digital VHS (D-VHS) recorder through a mix of 1394 cable and coax connections, with the video feed entering the home through a single NIU. A simple user interface on the HD sets provided control of all the HANA devices through a single remote.

And what's better than a simple solution? At the press conference, Kwon, who holds a Ph.D in physics and has worked in research and product-development roles for over 25 years, recounted the difficulties he faced when a technician came to his home in Korea to install a new HDTV satellite set-top.

Against Kwon's directions, the installer unplugged the vast jumble of cables that Kwon had already set up to link his HD set with his DVD player and stereo system.

Wonder how long it took a pro like Kwon to fix it? One whole week.

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