The same problem can occur with wireless Ethernet, which is sometimes called WiFi or 802.11. In addition, WiFi’s bandwidth (the amount of data it can carry) is usually half the normally stated figure due to technical concerns, and it can drop even more if there’s any interference from devices such as cordless phones or microwave ovens that operate in the same frequency range. As a result, it’s not a very reliable means of streaming A/V content.
Even so, wireless media streaming around the house is the Holy Grail of the new digital home; after all, who wants to string a bunch of new wires around the house? Among the most promising alternatives is UWB (ultra wideband), which, unlike WiFi, spreads its energy over a wide band of frequencies, greatly reducing any chance of interference from other RF devices. Other advantages include prioritization of A/V content (WiFi has no prioritization) and more robust operation, especially if a device on the network fails. Finally, UWB exhibits a higher bandwidth than WiFi, at least over distances of 100 feet or less, allowing it to carry more data.
Others are looking into using the existing wiring infrastructure within the home to carry media signals. MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) advocates the use of coax cabling, which is already installed in many homes for cable television. HomePNA (Home Phoneline Networking Alliance) uses the existing phone lines, and HomePlug Powerline Alliance is targeting the home’s AC wiring to carry data, including media content.
So when will this type of entertainment system become available to consumers? In some respects, it’s available now. Several computer companies, such as HP, Gateway, and Dell, have been marketing Media Center PCs for several years. And there are many smaller companies that offer the software necessary to turn an ordinary PC into a media server. A number of other companies also offer dedicated units.
Still, we have a way to go before these systems are really ready for prime time, and Intel and Microsoft are working hard to ensure that we get there. At the recent Intel Developers Forum, the company announced new initiatives in this direction, including a platform called Viiv (rhymes with “five”). This suite of technologies is designed from the ground up for home-entertainment applications and incorporates Intel’s new dual-core processors, advanced software, and networking with a simple user interface, 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, and DVR functionality.
In an effort to encourage industry-wide interoperability standards for products from different manufacturers, many companies have joined together in the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, Thomson, Toshiba, and many others are jointly developing products that will work together in the digital home.
With cooperation like that among competitors, consumers should be well prepared to ride the seismic waves that are just now starting to shake their neighborhoods. As these tremors subside in the next few years, the home-entertainment landscape will shift, forming a brave new digital world where any content will be readily available in any room. That’s one earthquake I’ll be happy to endure.