This is an exciting time to be in our industry. Consumer electronics are advancing in ways that people never expected them to. When you bought your first DVD player, you never thought to yourself that one day I can watch a DVD while downloading and burning a movie from the Internet, let alone burn that entire movie onto a single 700MB CD at better than VHS quality. But thanks to advances in codecs and silicon technology, entertainment enthusiasts will finally have a way to enjoy Internet video in the living room without the PC.

HomeToys Interview

John O'Donnell | Equator Technologies Inc.

HomeToys Interview

This is an exciting time to be in our industry. Consumer electronics are advancing in ways that people never expected them to. When you bought your first DVD player, you never thought to yourself that one day I can watch a DVD while downloading and burning a movie from the Internet, let alone burn that entire movie onto a single 700MB CD at better than VHS quality. But thanks to advances in codecs and silicon technology, entertainment enthusiasts will finally have a way to enjoy Internet video in the living room without the PC.

John O'Donnell
CTO and co-founder
Equator Technologies Inc.

Question #1: Equator recently announced a new chip that could deliver some exciting changes to the consumer electronics market, tell us about it, and what kind of products will we see in the near future that use it?

Network delivery of media is beginning to change our expectations and expand our choices in entertainment, in much the same way that the Internet changed our expectations and access to information. Home networks are beginning to connect together not just PCs, but portable digital media players, stereos, TVs, and home theaters. Broadband access - cable modem and DSL - which was initially purposed for web access is beginning to carry music and video at the highest quality, and make a world of choices available. As this revolution rolls out, access to network- carried content will become as easy as flipping channels on your TV; the distinction between what's broadcast and what's personally delivered over broadband will become blurred.

Equator's Broadband Signal Processor devices allow every device in the home to support all the popular music and video formats at the highest quality. We just announced the BSP-16, which supports high-definition MPEG-2 and Windows Media 9 Series video, as well as standard-definition video in formats including DivX, RealNetworks, and MPEG-4 (H.264). Our BSP products provide the highest DSP processing power available in the industry, and move the entire media processing system into software, so that TV sets, video recorders, and other devices based on our chips are extensible and upgradable to the latest standards.

Question #2: There has been a lot of speculation as to what codec will become the new high-definition (HD) standard for DVDs, Microsoft's Windows Media 9 (WM9) or H.264 (MPEG4 - part 10), what is your opinion on this?

We've seen speculation, studies, and intense politics as teams with different agendas strive for dominance in what will be the mainstream of digital media. The advanced codecs allow HD media to fit in the bandwidth and storage capacities used today by standard definition (SD), and allow SD media distribution over today's DSL and cable modem networks, so the stakes are huge. Your question implies that the game is down to two players; there are other advanced codecs as well, but none with the mass of support that H.264 and Windows Media 9 Series have.

We have customers shipping both H.264 and Windows Media products using our chips today. It's pretty clear that both standards are a big enough leap beyond MPEG-2 that great new products and services can be built on either infrastructure.

In terms of adoption, Windows Media 9 certainly has the early lead; our BSP-15 volume production device today supports WM9 high def, and there are of course many tens of millions of PCs which support the format, and WM9 HD DVD titles on the street today. Production products including HD WM9 are launching this year. It appears that H.264 is one or two years behind.

Question #3: During CES this year there was a lot of talk about a new Polaroid DVD player that was being built based on Equator's reference design for a multi-format player/recorder, can you tell us more about that product?

There's a lot of interest in bringing the cost of digital video disc recording down to the lowest possible point. Polaroid announced the first combination DVD player / digital video recorder which harnesses Windows Media 9 to deliver excellent video quality recording. The Polaroid device uses WM9 to put 2 hours of high-quality video on low-cost CD media.

The device includes live video streaming and network media delivery and recording, for movies on demand from various providers, as well as off-air recording and playback.

Question #4: What's are your thought on downloaded content versus streaming content? Are certain codecs better than others for different functions?

The first wave of media delivery over broadband is happening now; look at Movielink, iTunes, CinemaNow. These services use a download model, rather than a live-streaming model, because they want to deliver consistent high-quality consumer experience over any network link. Your time-to-view or time-to-play may vary based on the performance of your network link, but you won't suffer interruptions or other annoying problems while you're watching/listening. This clearly is the model for much of the US. However, broadband providers are beginning to recognize that media delivery is the Next Big Thing in consumer adoption of their services, and are beginning to make special arrangements for reliable streaming services.

The Polaroid box we discussed earlier supports both approaches, so-called "progressive download" and live streaming using Microsoft's most current media streaming protocols, which adapt nicely to available bandwidth and changing network conditions. I think we'll see that flexibility in other devices as we go forward.

You asked about whether certain codecs are better for these different functions. The codec choice determines what total bandwidth is necessary to deliver a given picture and sound quality; the better the codec, the lower the bandwidth necessary to achieve a given quality. For example, consider the satellite-TV image and sound quality point. MPEG-2 and AC-3 deliver this at an average of 3 Mbits per second. Windows Media 9 Series delivers this quality at approximately 0.7Mbits (700Kbps). If your network were high enough bandwidth, either codec could be streamed or downloaded; however, in most real-world homes, the WLAN technology can deliver only about 2Mbits consistently and the broadband link around 1Mbps or less.

Question #5: What is the difference in Internet bandwidth use with downloaded versus streaming content? It seems to me that streaming movies would cause huge bandwidth demand during prime time hours in large cities whereas downloading could be managed and spread out over time.

This is certainly true to some degree, but it's primarily a service provider problem, rather than an Internet problem as a whole. That is, the video servers delivering media need to be scaled to handle peak hour capacity; however, when there is large deployment of streaming network media, the servers are replicated, with copies placed strategically near network end-points. Multiple systems in Asia are now developing experience with live streaming on a massive scale; network video service is being offered to millions of homes in Japan and Korea by major providers now.

Question #6: We have the technology for music and now movie downloading and streaming but the entertainment industry is still not on board. Besides the technology and the devices ... what do you think it's going to take to make home entertainment via Internet a reality for the average consumer?

I disagree that the entertainment industry is not on board. Those who aren't already on board are getting there rapidly. Properly designed network delivery is inherently more secure than packaged media (CD and DVD). The huge success of Apple's iTunes initiative has shown the recording industry a path to steer for a future where consumers have the choice and flexibility they want and providers are assured of being paid for their content. I think we passed a key milestone this month with the release of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen soundtrack exclusively on iTunes - no CD version will be released.

As you say, the digital rights management technology is there, and the devices are showing up. What we're going to see now is a drop in device costs, a move to universally compatible devices (so that multiple providers can serve your digital device, just as your CD player let you buy and play CDs from multiple vendors), and most importantly new user interfaces which make the experience easy and simple.

Most consumers don't yet know how easy or fun it is to use a personal video recorder (PVR); once they see them they're hooked. I think we'll see that same level of sophistication develop in home network video devices to make it easy to access a broad range of content. It will be as easy to select an on-demand movie, or an on-demand episode from season 2 of Gilligan's Island, as it is to pick an episode of Leno that I saved yesterday.

Question #7: How long do you think it will take for devices that use your technology to reach a price point where average consumers will be able to get on board assuming they will be competing with DVDs and stand alone DVD players?

This year and next year you'll see devices that are at the price point. Polaroid already announced a price point of $299 for their upcoming DVR-700 that is based on Equator's chip. We're excited about that.

Question #8: If the Internet-connected consumer electronics trend continues, where do you see home networking going tomorrow, and how is Equator helping make those products affordable?

With the plunging price of displays and home networking and the ease of install of wireless networks, we see tremendous innovation underway in devices which live on the network and deliver the PC information experience to multiple screens around the home; which deliver entertainment from all sources to multiple devices, from devices you wear to wall-size. With ongoing broadband rollout, we'll see the robust content offerings over IP and ubiquitous two-way video services (videotelephony).

Equator's processor platform provides enough processing power to enable all these screen/media/camera devices to deliver their core media services from software, making the appliance flexible and upgradable for new services and formats as they arise. Just as the rise of the DSP made modems and cell phones rapidly improve and evolve, we expect to see our BSPs powering a rapid product evolution in consumer video devices. Stay tuned for the fun!

John Setel O'Donnell is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Equator Technologies Inc., leading provider of comprehensive broadband digital communications and media engines for the consumer technology market. With more than 20 years of experience in VLIW and Trace Scheduling technologies, O'Donnell focuses on bringing together leaders in media coding and delivery, digital rights management, and content owners, and in driving next-generation architectures for Equator to continue to serve as the premier provider of multi-service platforms. Before founding Equator Technologies Inc., O'Donnell co-founded Multiflow Computer, Inc, where he led the development of the world's first VLIW computers. O'Donnell has earned a B.S. in Computer Science from Yale University.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of HomeToys

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