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The June 19, 2006 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Media Networking 3--How Did We Live Without DigitalDeck?

Ever since we installed our first DVR almost five years ago, we have been looking for a good way to distribute video around our house. We have TVs in five rooms; three of the TVs have cable boxes, two of these have DVRs and one has a DVD player. Several of our PCs have video content we've created ourselves or downloaded over the Internet.

More often than not, the screen we want to use is different from the one connected to the device where the video is stored. For example, we frequently turn on the TV while we're eating dinner in the kitchen, but the cable box is the only source connected to that TV. We'd love to watch a program recorded on one of our PVRs, but couldn't find a way to get it to the kitchen TV. We've explored many potential solutions and until recently hadn't found one we wanted to install in our house.

We have been looking for a system that has the following attributes:

  • Providing access from any TV screen to all our video sources: cable boxes, DVRs, DVD players, and PCs;
  • Providing the same control functionality in a distant room that a device provides when used locally;
  • Taking advantage of the Category 5 cables we long ago ran to all the rooms with video equipment;
  • Being "affordable" (less than $1000 for screens in three rooms with the potential for much lower cost), as opposed to some high-end solutions targeted to a niche market;
  • Having a user interface that doesn't require a PhD to use; and
  • Using the same remote control in any room to control any video source in the house.

We heard about DigitalDeck about two and a half years ago and visited their Silicon Valley headquarters to see a demo of the product, which was very impressive. DigitalDeck started shipping the system to customers a few weeks ago. We have been testing it in our house for the past two months, using it for all of our TV viewing.

While the current version has some flaws, the DigitalDeck system does what it promises and what we wanted -- interconnecting the video equipment in our house so we can watch any video source when and where we want. It also does many more things--we'll try out and report on its advanced features and services in a future issue.

Set Up and Viewing

The DigitalDeck system includes software, hardware, and services.

To install the system, you first install DigitalDeck's software system (the Media Connector Software or MCS) on a Windows XP PC. The PC should have an Ethernet network and a broadband connection. Once installed, MCS runs as a "service" in the background.

DigitalDeck in our kitchen --> Click for larger pictureYou then install a small box called a Media Connector (MC) at each TV; the system supports up to four boxes and we have installed three.

Back panel of Media Connector --> Click for larger picture

The MC provides audio/video inputs and outputs. You can connect up to four video source devices (cable and satellite boxes, DVRs, DVD players) to the analog A/V inputs (one can use S-video), and connect the A/V output to a TV (there are component video and digital audio outputs for home theater systems). The MC box has an Ethernet connection to communicate with the Media Connector Software on the remote PC, and infrared cables to control up to six A/V devices.

DigitalDeck remote control --> Click for larger pictureEach Media Connector box comes with a remote control, which contains most of the buttons used on DVRs, DVD players and cable boxes.

Setup screen --> Click for larger pictureWhen you first connect power to the MC, you go through a short set-up sequence to identify the A/V devices and select the proper IR codes to control them through the IR cables. Once they are set up, the A/V devices connected to each MC are visible to the other MCs through the DigitalDeck network.

Channel Guide --> Click for larger pictureThe DigitalDeck system has its own channel guide; it's displayed on the TV when you push the "Guide" button on the remote control. You can select a channel by navigating through the guide or by entering the channel number. To watch a program you highlight the desired program and push the "Select" button.

Personal Video Recorder (PVR) Function

The DigitalDeck system includes a complete PVR function for recording and viewing shows.

Selecting a program to record --> Click for larger pictureTo record a show for future viewing, you select it through the channel guide and push the "Record" button. The MC software records the program on the PC hard drive and a red circle on the program guide shows that you've scheduled the show for recording. The picture on the left shows that we have selected to record "Weekend Weather Center" on TWC (The Weather Channel).

Selecting the Video Guide --> Click for larger pictureTo watch the program, you push the "Menu" button on the DigitalDeck remote, and you see the main menu. You use the "Up" and "Down" buttons to highlight the Video Guide, and push the "Select" button.

Selecting a previously recorded program --> Click for larger pictureThe Video Guide shows all recorded programs stored on the PC hard drive, including videos you have saved, recently viewed programs, and programs you've selected to record. When you highlight one of the programs and push "Select", the DigitalDeck system starts playing the program back from the PC hard drive.

Fast Forward --> Click for larger pictureThe DigitalDeck system gives you a full set of playback controls when you are viewing a recorded program. The picture shows fast forwarding during a previously-recorded program; as with other PVRs, there are several forward and reverse speeds. The top of the screen shows the time of the recording.

In addition to recording programs you have selected, the DigitalDeck system automatically records the program you are watching, so you can pause it and come back later. It starts recording each new program on the channel you were watching, so if you turn on the TV in the middle of a program and want to watch the same channel, you can start at the beginning of the show.

Using Interactive Video Devices

The MC provides a "manual control mode" to control interactive video devices such as interactive cable and satellite boxes, DVRs and DVD players. To play back a program recorded on a TiVo, you use the Channel Guide to select the TiVo "pseudo channel" -- in our house it's called "Bedroom PVR on 1" since the TiVo is in our bedroom and connected to Input 1 on the DigitalDeck MC there.

Selecting the TiVo PVR --> Click for larger pictureThe pseudo channels are located between the last and first channels in the channel guide; you get to them by navigating to the first or last program channel. To select the TiVo, you click up or down until you highlight the current "program" in the "Bedroom PVR on 1" channel. The picture shows the screen on the DigitalDeck MC in our kitchen navigating to the TiVo in our bedroom.

Entering Manual Control Mode --> Click for larger pictureYou push "Select" to "tune" to that "channel" and push the "Mode" button on the remote to put the DigitalDeck box into "manual control mode for PVR".

"TiVo Central" screen --> Click for larger pictureOnce you have entered manual control mode, you can control the TiVo with the DigitalDeck remote control from any screen connected to a DigitalDeck MC. When you push the "Menu" button on the DD remote, you see the TiVo Central menu, as shown in the picture.

Navigating on the TiVo Central screen --> Click for larger pictureEach of the buttons on the TiVo remote is "mapped" to an equivalent button on the DigitalDeck remote. When you push the "Down" button, the MC in the kitchen controls the TiVo through the MC in the bedroom.

Leaving manual control mode --> Click for larger pictureWhen you're done using the TiVo, you push the "Mode" button once or twice to exit from manual control mode and go back into normal DigitalDeck mode.

A Few Quibbles

We like the DigitalDeck system, but we think it has several problems.

Video Quality

The video and audio quality of the DigitalDeck system seems reasonably good for devices connected with S-Video. But the MC box does not support the highest-quality video input. None of the inputs supports component video, and only input 1 includes S-Video. Inputs 2 to 4 are composite only, and video quality is not as good for video sources connected to these inputs.

This would not be a problem for some video sources, but early buyers are likely to be using DVRs, DVD players and cable and satellite boxes with interactive program guides. All of these devices put text on the screen in interactive modes, and the text is noticeably less readable from a composite input than from an S-video input.

IR Conflict

In our bedroom, an IR remote controls the DigitalDeck MC, which uses an IR cable to control the TiVo, which in turn uses an IR cable to control the cable box. The DigitalDeck, TiVo and cable box are stacked up together and all can "see" the DigitalDeck remote control. There appears to be a conflict between the codes used for the DigitalDeck MC and those used for the TiVo, since some of the buttons on the DigitalDeck remote don't work properly when trying to control the TiVo in manual control mode. We can't use the DigitalDeck remote to control the TiVo when we're in the bedroom; we have to use the TiVo remote instead. (There is no problem using the DigitalDeck remote to control the TiVo from a remote MC box, since the TiVo can't "see" the remotes outside the bedroom.)

This is not just a DigitalDeck problem, but a common problem when using several IR devices in the same room: they all "see" and respond to the IR from the same remote control at the same time. A quick Google search finds many posts related to TiVo IR conflicts. We're told that covering the IR window on the TiVo--so it "sees" only the IR from the DigitalDeck MC--would fix the conflict, and we're going to try it.

Playback Delay

When interacting with a controlled interactive device such as our TiVo, there is a noticeable delay--typically a second or more--between pushing a button on the DigitalDeck remote and seeing the response on the screen; the same delay is visible when using the TiVo remote. We believe this is caused by the automatic recording and playback of channels. Since interactive devices are treated as "pseudo channels," the DigitalDeck software records them on the PC disk drive the same way it records real channels; the apparent delay in responding to buttons is caused by the delay between recording and playback.

This delay becomes especially maddening if you have paused a program while viewing. Hitting the pause button and then hitting play is no problem--until the next time you try to interact. Now the delay between pushing a button and seeing a response on the screen can last several seconds--or several minutes if the pause lasted that long. Even a short delay makes it difficult to program the TiVo, and a long delay makes it impossible.

After some discussion with DigitalDeck, we found that we could eliminate the long delay by pushing "Live TV" whenever the interactive delay seems longer than usual; this removes the pause time and reverts to the normal record/playback delay.

Fighting For Control

The DigitalDeck system is very clever in its use of video sources. The PC can record from any connected cable or satellite box; any MC can use any connected cable or satellite box as a tuner to receive and display video content.

Since it is not obvious which video source is being used, this can sometimes result in conflicts. One morning last week, Dave started watching the Weather Channel while making coffee in the kitchen, and suddenly saw the screen go blank. He thought perhaps the DigitalDeck system had crashed and went to the PC to restart it. He found that Sandy was trying to watch a program at the same time while getting dressed in the bedroom, and the MC in the bedroom had "stolen" the cable box in the kitchen while Dave was watching.

When Dave went back to the kitchen, he still couldn't get a picture on the screen. It took a while for him to notice that the cable box was in "Standby" mode. Sandy had pushed the "Power" button on the remote, trying to turn off the TV in the bedroom--but she had apparently selected "manual mode for Cable". Since she now "owned" the kitchen cable box, she had turned it off by pushing the "Power" button!

Although we've both had lots of experience working with software-based systems, we keep find ourselves getting confused about the state of the system. We spent a while discussing the state machine diagram of manual mode--which differs according to whether you're watching regular channels or a "pseudo channel" like a PVR. We concluded that when using manual mode, it's best to keep the state machine in mind to understand what will happen when you push a button on the remote control, but suspect this is not something most people are used to thinking about.

It's Mostly Software

The DigitalDeck system is based on software running on the Windows XP PC, and most of the problems we have encountered could be fixed by software changes.

In particular, DigitalDeck should rethink the user interface for interactive video sources. The current "pseudo channel" mechanism may have been a simple way to support these sources, but it seems to be the root cause of many of the problems we encountered.

The support and control of existing interactive video sources is the key differentiating feature of DigitalDeck, and the DigitalDeck system should provide a separate selection screen for these sources. Once one of them has been selected, the remote control should automatically switch to the proper mode--and it shouldn't be called "manual control mode" but "Cable mode" or "PVR mode" or "DVD mode".

To eliminate the command/response delay when interacting with one of these sources, the recording/playback mechanism should be switched off--or at least be an option that defaults to being switched off.

Finally, the current mode should be obvious on the screen and on the remote control, so the user doesn't have to be conscious of the state machine.

Final Thoughts

The DigitalDeck system has a few problems, but it comes closer to meeting the requirements we set out years ago than anything else we've come across. We try not to generalize from our own experience, but we suspect that many families with DVRs would like to watch recorded programs on screens in another room. Having DigitalDeck in the house is similar to having a DVR for the first time--you don't understand how much you need it until you have one, then you don't know how you lived without it.

The DigitalDeck system is not only about connecting the existing video in the house, but about integrating all the new digital media as well. There's much more to the system than we've discussed in this article--there's a long list of additional features we're playing with and will report on later.

We recently interviewed the top executives at DigitalDeck, and they shared with us some of their ambitious plans for the future. Their objective is to integrate all the media you have--legacy and emerging, analog and digital, offline and online--into a single system. We'll discuss this more in a future issue.

In next month's issue, this series on media networking will continue with several articles on the role of the PC in media networking. We'll cover the evolving mechanisms for getting digital television content into and out of PCs, and the media networking features in Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system and Intel's Viiv initiative.

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