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The December 14, 2003 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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DigitalDeck -- Another Piece of the "Whole Home Networking" Puzzle

We've written several times about "whole home networking": a unified network carrying all data, voice, audio and video around the house. While we're confident that such networks will emerge to replace the crazy-quilt of different technologies now in use--Category 5 UTP, RG-6 coaxial cable, speaker wiring, phone wiring--it's not clear just what technologies will play a part. Right now, it looks like a big jigsaw with some key pieces still missing.

Last month, we wrote about several emerging technologies for high-speed communications -- both wireless What's Next for Wireless Networking and over coax "Whole Home" Networking over Coax -- An Interview with Entropic.

Now we're beginning to see some how some other pieces of the puzzle might fit into place. DigitalDeck, a Silcon Valley startup, is developing the DigitalDeck Entertainment Network "to bridge the gap between your PC and TV, and allow your household DVDs, VCRs, PVRs and computers to share and play video on any television anywhere in the home."

During a visit to Silicon Valley last month, we met with Marty Levine, Vice President of Strategic Development at DigitalDeck to learn more about the system and to see a demonstration. The DigitalDeck Entertainment Network is not another home networking technology. Instead, it rides on top of any and all of these technologies providing the mechanisms to share video, audio and image content between all of the PCs and all of the TVs in the home. They aim to "aggregate and manage content distribution in the home."

Media Adapter and Remote Control

DigitalDeck Box --> Click for larger pictureThe system is based on a Media Adapter connected to each grouping of audio/video equipment. The media adapter has an Ethernet connection to the home network (later models will incorporate other networking technologies) and a set of standard video and audio connections to VCRs, DVD players and TV sets. An IR receiver is placed near the equipment, and a remote control is provided to control the system and the existing components.

The other major component is the Media Manager software, installed on one or more networked PCs. It leverages the PC's power and manages the networking system. This permits the Media Adapters to focus on moving media content while the Media Manager provides the user interface and network control.

Unlike any other system we have seen so far, the Media Adapter includes both analog audio and video inputs as well as outputs, and is capable of moving audio and video content from any place in the house to any other as long as both are equipped with Media Adapters. It also integrates room-to-room remote control: "For example, make a simple one-click request to watch video from a remote DVD." The IR system "will translate that click into the necessary infrared signals to turn on the DVD player, commence the video and route it to the TV of your choice for viewing."

Although these devices will be packaged to look simple and consumer friendly, they make use of very sophisticated underlying technology. The mechanism for moving analog video from one room to another is based on a low-cost real-time MPEG-2 encoder/decoder chip from Broadcom. Only a few years ago, MPEG video encoding could not be done "on the fly" but required $50,000 computers running for many hours to produce a half-hour video. Now it's on a chip in a consumer-priced box.

Marty told us that the system is based on UPnP and will incorporate emerging networking standards such as DENi and DHWG as they are implemented by consumer electronics vendors.

Media Applications

Running on one or more PCs, the Media Manager provides a user interface on each networked TV, and incorporates several applications for media management. These include:

  • A Program Guide for tuning the TV and selecting programs for recording and later playback. It also organizes prerecorded videos and photos.
  • A PVR function - a personal video recorder which stores video programming on any PC hard drive for playback on any TV.
  • Pictures, Channels and Music applications for organizing photos, videos and MP3 music on PC hard drives and selecting them for playback.

Back-office Platform

In addition to what is visible in the home, DigitalDeck has a back-office platform that provides programming lineups for the electronic program guide (EPG), IR codes for controlling consumer devices, billing interfaces and content protection.

The Demo

DigitalDeck has a showroom with several stacks of TVs and audio equipment--labelled "Living Room" "Bedroom" and "Den"--each with a media adapter, IR receiver and remote control. The Den has a PC running the Media Manager and applications, plus a cable set-top box and a cable or DSL modem for connection to the outside world.

Digital Deck's guide --> Click for larger pictureWe were very impressed by the demonstration of the DigitalDeck Entertainment Network. We saw how the PVR could start recording a program from the cable set-top box in the Den while we were watching a different program in the Living Room. When the program we were watching was over, we started watching the PVR playback on the Living Room TV. Then we paused the playback and moved to the Bedroom, and used the remote control to turn on the TV there. The on-screen display from the Media Manager asked us if we wanted to continue watching the paused program, and as soon as we said "yes" the program continued playing without missing a beat.

We have been looking for this kind of functionality for a long time. The ability to watch TV when and where we want to fits very well into our hectic schedule. A single central view of all the media content would be a lot better than a different user interface and different available content on each separate PVR and digital media adapter.

Marty said that DigitalDeck will show their system at CES next month and will start shipping it to beta testers "soon after." We're hoping to test this system in our home and report how it works in the "real world". We're particularly interested in how easy it is to set up and what compromises it makes from stand-alone devices already offering some of these content management functions.

( www.digitaldeck.com )