Warning Will Robinson !!!

Okay so the Lost in Space TV series and movie left a lot to be desired. The robot was certainly more benevolent than those in Will Smith?s new I Robot and it really did try to protect the family. But just like all of the robot?s warnings we realize this one will probably fall on deaf ears?but like the hapless robot we tried!

Despite the fact that more than 14 million households have implemented wireless networks, we still have a half-hearted home network ? wires strung along baseboards connecting everything. Our rationale was that we would wait for wireless to really be PnP. We?ve toyed with the idea of using our PC to time-shift TV shows for the family but we weren?t quite ready to move the system into the living room. But a small news item prompted us to action.

The news?

Jack Valenti, the almost retired DC head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), had won another battle to protect us from ourselves. Valenti?s (sorry ? FCC?s) mandated broadcast flag would be embedded into your HD TV programs starting the first of the year. However, anything you had in place by the end of the year would continue to work allowing you to archive and copy TV programs just as you did with the aging VCR boxes (www.eff.org).

While you?ve always been able to capture, time-shift TV programs when the new HDTV ready screens ship next year they will have an added ?feature.? The new sets will look for Valenti?s little ?flag? that says you can?t burn the program to a DVD, save it to your hard drive or send it across your existing home network to another system or set.

Anything you have in your home before the first of the year will continue to work ?as advertised.?

So we felt it was time to act before the FCC and MPAA put the padlock on our content enjoyment. The problem is we were like most families. We had islands of content and data that were ?sort of? working together (Figure A). What we wanted was the wireless and seamless dream that Intel/Cisco?s Digital Home Working Group (DHWG) was weaving for us.

Figure A

We believe in the long-term goal but it is still a ?work in progress.?

Where to Start?

We started out a little ahead on the wireless entertainment PC/CE solution. Three of the four PCs in the house already had decent speed, decent power and more than adequate memory/storage. The big screen TV we had was ?HD ready? so all we had to add was a conversion box. After that?it?s open season.

Receiving HD and displaying HD it turns out are two different things but once you?ve seen the crisp, clean images it?s tough to go back. Rather like going from VHS to DVD.

There?s one little problem the TV set sales person won?t tell you?there isn?t that much HD content! Most is standard def. All of the DVD movies you watch are standard def. All of the videos you produce are standard def.

To overcome this obstacle we took the advice of recent magazine reviews and installed ADS Tech?s HD UpConverter. BAM!!! Our content was HD quality or near HD quality (in the case of VHS tapes that had been converted to DVD so they didn?t stand a chance of getting ?that? good).

Entertainment-Enabled PC

To turn our PC into an entertainment device we looked at Microsoft?s Media Center technology but first it was just a set of entertainment apps forced into the Windows environment. In addition, their solution is to simply go out and buy a whole new system which from the manufacturer?s perspective makes ?perfect? sense but certainly not for people who have to earn their money.

We decided to go with a solution that was from a video company that just happened to run on a PC. Then it would be an equal part CE and PC device. Cyberlink?s PowerCinema is an all-in-one home entertainment center package that lets you enjoy movies, videos, photos and music with a remote control.

While the DNWG weaves a beautiful tale that has one central entertainment center system that other systems on the network tap into or get music and video distributed to, it doesn?t quite work that way in our household. Everyone likes the idea and the results, don?t get us wrong. But they want to be the control tower.

The big problem with the DHWG approach is that it is based on technical logic rather than what the consumer wants. So everyone in the house has his/her entertainment control system and DVD burner for archiving their music and their TV shows (Figure B).

Figure B

We did only install one Instant TV solution though. Any system in the house can tap in and have a specific program sent to their hard drive or written direct to DVD for later viewing or for archiving. This will help us avoid Valenti?s Digital Rights Management (DRM) flag next year.

We weren?t keen on the TiVo approach because you pay for their service forever. And the idea of their tracking what we watch/record and when we do it is a little more Big Brotherism than we think people want to sign up for. This just seemed like a less expensive, more logical and less intrusive solution.

Media Linkage

Connecting the digital content hardware to the main EC/PC was sublimely simple. Digital media adapters (Figure C) can be connected with the TV set, stereo and Internet radio. Surprisingly it really is universally plug and play for the wireless network we ultimately would install.

Figure C

Suddenly everyone in the family can continue to multi-task and do it on their own terms.

I can listen to Carlos Santana in the background in our home office while I work and even run a window of the football game while we catch up on email correspondence or business projects. The kids can catch up on the soap operas they missed while at school and listen to their music while chatting with friends on-line. The wife can go through the digital photo album and listen to Andrea Bocelli.

Anything they can capture to their hard drive they can archive on CD or DVD. Everything is shared but everything is customized to each member of the household.

The Wireless Network

Before we tore out our Ethernet wires we installed and tested our wireless hub from Linksys.

We?re always amazed that things work as advertised (Figure D).

Figure D

Now everyone can share the printers, access the TV, stereo and video/music libraries even if that content is located on one of the other family member?s PC (assuming it isn?t password protected). Since all but the ?base station? in the home office are notebooks the family and data seems to move around more smoothly.

We?ve often marveled at how teenagers can sit in front of the TV to ?watch? a program and still do their homework

As for the rest of the DHWG dream we believe the market will disappoint the industry forecasters just as the DVD burner rocket ship turned out to be less robust than they projected. Almost every analyst said we were going to adopt DVD writing almost immediately and when it didn?t happen they blamed the shortfalls on the ?standards wars.?

Problem was consumers didn?t know there was a war. They knew they had a CDR burner in their system that worked for 99.9% of their archiving needs. Only people who produced 2-hour movies needed the 4.7GB capacity. If something works why replace it just because something insanely better is available?

You don?t!

Now the research prophets are saying we are going to quickly connect everything to our home network. Our refrigerator will tell us when we are out of milk or when the milk has gone bad. Our lawn and plants will tell our sprinkler when they need to be watered. While we are still in the office we can turn the heat up or turn on the AC at home.

It?s great but?and that is a very big BUT!

To achieve this you have to replace the refrigerator, get new sprinkler controls, get new AC/heat controls, rewire the lighting and so on.

Only people with more money than brains will ?converge? their home. The automated products are already available but they are significantly more expensive than the ?manual? alternatives. In addition, it is still going to take a few years for the various factions to fight out the standards (royalties) issues.

Home entertainment solutions work. Wireless home networks work.

Let?s not push our luck!!!