Inexpensive (Wireless) Toys for Big Boys
Are you looking for last minute Christmas gifts for your big boy? A wide variety of wireless speakers, digital cameras, and audio and video transmitters add value to entertainment systems with little effort. A sample of what is available in retails stores and online is shown below.
Even homes wired for whole-house audio distribution can benefit from wireless speakers. Advent AW-810 Wireless SpeakerMusic from your entertainment center can be transmitted over radio waves to the bedroom because you didn’t think to run speaker wires ahead of time, to the bathroom so you can listen to music while getting ready for work, to the patio when entertaining outside, to the garage while working on the car, and even to the attic so the semi-annual clean-up is less of a chore. Most wireless speakers include 900 MHz radio receivers and their own amplifier and operate on either batteries or AC power.
Pictured here is the 15-watt AudioMax from Advent, which sells for about $75. For Featured Producttrue portability, it runs for up to 100 hours on 8 “C” batteries but also comes with an AC adapter for when there’s easy access to a power plug. Its water-resistant design is great for use outdoors or in bathrooms.
Wireless headphones like these from Jensen let you listen to music as you move around the house and yard up to 150 feet from the transmitter. They sell for $60 at BestBuy.
Wireless audio transmitters are usually used to connect a PC to the entertainment system. A transmitter unit plugs into the PC’s sound card, and a matching receiver plugs into the stereo system so it can access digital music and Internet radiobroadcasts from the PC. Like most wireless speakers, audio transmitters use analog radio technology at 900 MHz to deliver acceptable sound quality as long as there’s no radio interference. These simple devices simply replace wire. Since they lack a means of controlling the music, you may have to go to the PC in order to select a different song.
next2.jpg – 29432 BytesI bought a Jensen Matrix™ unit for $76 to use during a surprise birthday party for my wife, Yvonne, who had just turned 50. The party was at a friend’s house, and the wireless transmitter let me connect my notebook PC to their stereo system and control everything from another room. At the beginning of the party, I played about an hour of funeral music, which was downloaded from Napster. As the party gained momentum, the funeral music evolved into dance music.
The Matrix connects to the PC sound card and transmits up to 150 feet using analog RF technology at 900 MHz. Some of the other products use FM radio technology so you can tune an FM radio to the “PC channel.”
My teenage son has been a big user of Napster and other Internet music services to share drum and bugle corps marching music. We also used the Internet to find dance music for Adrian’s band banquet millennium theme: “Time.” For my wife’s party, Napster was an invaluable resource since I don’t know how I would have been able to buy funeral music.
The transceiver that I bought was the $76 Jenson Matrix.
While most wireless speakers and audio transmitters use 900 MHz radio technology, video requires more bandwidth, and most manufacturers use 2.4 GHz.
While early video transmitters were used to connect a VCR or DVD player to a second TV set so you could continue watching in the bedroom, the costs of these players falling to less than $100, and it’s now more practical to just buy anther VCR or DVD player. Besides, the least expensive models use simple analog technology, and video quality can suffer. It’s now possible to buy more advanced digital models based on the same kind of technology used to connect PCs in wireless LANs, but new applications are needed besides just connecting a VCR and TV.
A popular use of video transmitters is to combine them with inexpensive digital cameras for surveillance purposes. The $80 Xcam2 from X-10 Technologies combines a color camera, microphone, and 2.4 GHz video transmitter that can send a wireless signal up to 100 feet. You can add additional cameras and select which one to look at as easily as changing the channel on your TV. Some models even provide the remote ability to zoom and pan.
Applications for wireless cameras include seeing who is at the front door, security monitoring, and supervising children. It’s even possible to remotely monitor your home over the Internet using any Web browser.
Interference and Quality-of-Service
The products discussed so far provide adequate performance under ideal conditions, but there are many things that emit radio interference that can impact performance. These include stadium lights, cordless phones, microwave ovens, wireless LANs, and anything else that operates in the unlicensed 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz frequency band. For surveillance and most music applications, the impact is often acceptable, but for more demanding audio and home theater applications, you would be better off buying more advanced technology based on the proprietary technology from Cirrus Logic or the open HomeRF specification.
Radio interference can result in static or, worse yet, no signal at all. But fortunately new technologies are able to address interference issues. One of these is HomeRF. For more understanding of “Interference Immunity of 2.4 GHz Wireless LANs,” visit https://www.hometoys.com/htinews/aug01/articles/immunity/immunity.htm.
Quality-of-Service is a new issue that arises when wireless LANs are used for multimedia and devices must contend for network services based on Ethernet-like CSMA (carrier sense, multiple access) protocols. Q-o-S is a method of reserving bandwidth that requires each networked device to be controlled by a central controller. For more information on “Quality of Service in the Home Networking Model, visit https://www.hometoys.com/htinews/aug01/articles/qos/qos.htm.
In October 2001, Cirrus Logic announced the acquisition of ShareWare and its Q-o-S technology, which is a proprietary extension of the IEEE 802.11 standard called Whitecap™. As long as all networked devices are based on Whitecap technology, they can reserve bandwidth for multimedia applications so music and video transmissions get the highest priority and don’t have to wait for large file transfers to complete.
Whitecap also provides improved immunity from interference. When interference is noticed, Whitecap causes the network to shift to a different frequency channel. Even though there’s some delay in making this shift, the impact is minimal when cache memory is used. The use of cache, however, can increase costs.
Panasonic is the first consumer electronics company to introduce products based Whitecap technology.
My son has hundreds of MP3 files, either ripped from CDs or downloaded from the Internet, and I have maybe 50 of my own MP3s. These are all grouped into long playlists â€“ for the band banquet, the over-the-hill birthday party, the various marching bands, etc. You may have an entirely different collection of music on your PC, but it probably trapped there.
Rather than listening to digital music on tinny PC speakers, Motorola’s SimpleFi wireless receiver attaches to your stereo system and gives it access a HomeRF network, those digital music files once stuck in your PC, and Internet resources such as digital radio.
There’s only one classical music station in Austin, Texas, and the reception is poor on my home stereo, but with Internet radio, I can access great radio stations from Montreal and other cities around the world. These Internet broadcasts include metadata describing the artist, title and track. SimpleFi exploits this metadata with an orange Tagit!™ button on the dockable remote control, which you use to bookmark your favorite songs so you can later order them from your PC. Because SimpleFi includes an FM radio receiver, you can even tag FM music that does not include metadata. In that case, the PC remembers the station and time so it can visit the station’s Web site and access its online playlist to see what was playing at the time.
SimpleFi will be available early in 2002 with a low price â€“ somewhere in between $150 and $250 â€“ that is possible because of its reliance on the PC’s processor and storage and its use of HomeRF, which offers high-quality media streaming even with severe interference. HomeRF eliminates the need for adding cache memory to compensate for retries of missed packet transmissions.
Editors Note: We will be giving away a SimpleFi in the January 2002 Gadget Giveaway.
Motorola, the largest cable modem and TV set-top box manufacturer, and SimpleDevices Inc. have also demonstrated a similar audio product for the car, which also includes the Tagit! feature. When you pull into the garage or driveway, SimpleAuto synchronizes with the PC, telling it of any songs you tagged and downloading any new music.
SimpleAuto’s 10 GB hard disk can store over 180 hours of MP3 music, audio books, syndicated programming, or time-shifted Internet radiobroadcasts. The PC’s hard disk is used to time-shift Internet radio just like TiVo is used to time-shift TV broadcasts so you can listen to your favorite stations during your drive to work, even though the program was broadcast earlier. And during longer drives, you can listen to audio books, also downloaded from the Internet.
You can browse the SimpleDevices.com portal to build custom playlists for music, sports and news. Content preferences set on the portal let the SimpleServe™ software application cache favorite fresh content on a home PC for playback on a home stereo at leisure.
Available in early 2002 from major consumer electronics retailers, SimpleAuto will sell for about $500.
uniView offers an advanced digital set top box solution that uses HomeRF wireless technology to enable video-on-demand (MPEG-2 and MPEG-4), broadband connectivity, personal video recording, advanced Internet functionality, interactive television, and telephony. Two models are offered: a basic uniView 310 VOD digital Set Top Box and the uniView 310 DVD Digital Media Device, which adds a DVD drive. Both units include a large hard disk for storing downloaded videos and performing PVR functions.
The significance of uniView is its support of Internet-based video-on-demand, which gives TV sets broadband access to the Internet and tens of thousands of video programs, even though the broadband connection is in another room. To offer authorized access to first run movies while protecting the copyrights of content owners, uniView includes digital rights management technology.
By supporting MPEG-4 compression technology, near-VCR quality videos require only 250 Kbps and can be easily delivered over DSL connections and cable modem. Near-DVD quality videos require 750 Kbps but can still be offered over many DSL connections. MPEG-4 works well using HomeRF 1.2 wireless home networking technology at 1.6 Mbps.
MPEG-2 videos require more bandwidth, typically 4 Mbps and sometimes as much as 8 Mbps. To stream MPEG-2 video would require the use of HomeRF 2.0, but most broadband connections are not fast enough to stream at this speed in real-time. So, the hard disk can be used to download the video at slower speeds and then played later with no worry about bandwidth limitations.
HomeRF 2.0 â€“ the Monster Cable of Wireless
HomeRF 2.0 can be described as wireless home networking on steroids – ideal for broadband and optimized for homes and small businesses. It blends several technologies to extend beyond data-oriented wireless LAN solutions such as 802.11, since phone and entertainment devices can benefit from networks too.
HomeRF 2.0 supports up to 8 toll-quality voice connections, 8 prioritized streaming media sessions and multiple Internet and network resource connections at Broadband speeds. What amazes me is that HomeRF accomplishes this with excellent comparative ratings for low cost, small size, low power consumption, interference immunity, security, and support for high network density environments such as apartments and small businesses with nearby neighbors.
High Definition TV and Surround Sound
The difference between high definition programming and standard definition is most noticeable on large screen TVs. Few people receive HDTV programs today, usually in their home theater or entertainment center where the large screen TV set is. Front projection models require special rooms or window treatments that eliminate all ambient light from hitting the screen. Rear projection models are large and deep. Both are rarely found in bedrooms, so there is almost no demand for distributing HDTV. This will change, however, when flat, wall-mountable screens reach consumer price points of less than $3,000.
I expect flat plasma screens to drive demand for both surround sound systems and HDTV video distribution (but probably still over coax). Once we replace the bedroom TV that sits on the dresser with a plasma unit that has a larger screen, delivers better picture quality, and fits better into the dÃ©cor, we will next want to replicate the home theater experience by adding surround sound.
Dolby Labs became a contributing member of HomeRF because it is the only wireless technology that can provide high quality, whole-house audio without wires. With Dolby’s help, HomeRF 2.0 supports Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, and we can expect to see HomeRF-based wireless speakers that make it easy to retrofit full home theater systems. When you think about it, that’s really quite a feat â€“ six speakers, each receiving unique content with close timing tolerances, and a home theater experience that is not impacted by heating pizza in a microwave oven or a neighbor using a 2.4 GHz cordless phone.
No wireless home networking technology can yet support HDTV streaming since it requires up to 19 Mbps even when compressed. But wireless technology is evolving rapidly, and it will soon be possible to stream high-definition video â€“ say within 12-24 months. The HomeRF Working Group is already working on a future version that will be able to stream high-definition TV content.
At least for the next several years, standard-definition video, whole-house audio, and surround sound wireless speakers will drive the wireless market more than HDTV. Within the home theater, in-wall speakers will likely be connected with thick Monster Cable™. But elsewhere, wireless speakers will be connected with HomeRF.
Adding Cordless Voice and Data to Entertainment
HomeRF is unique in its ability to integrate voice, data and entertainment on the same network, thus enabling new convergence applications such as caller ID on TV and TV video conferencing, etc.
Siemens and Proxim have been demonstrating a prototype cordless phone that Siemens will introduce into selected retail channels in 1H 2002. It will enable applications such as voice dialing from the Microsoft Outlook contacts list from the PC in the home office and voice access to PC and Internet applications, including home automation. The same technology will enable caller ID information and matching content from Outlook to be overlaid on a TV screen so you don’t have to get up to read the caller ID box before deciding to answer the phone. For a previous HomeToys article describing the use of this phone, visit https://www.hometoys.com/htinews/aug01/articles/caswell/caswell.htm .
Sorensen Technologies plans to use HomeRF to tie the TV to a broadband connection for family video conferencing. This makes sense since the most expensive part of a screen phone is the screen.
With HomeRF, many other convergence applications will emerge, most of which have yet to be imagined.