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All About Convergence: 2006 Edition Print E-mail
Friday, 01 September 2006
Article Index
All About Convergence: 2006 Edition
Page 2
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One Is the Easiest Number
The products above handle specific convergence tasks. You could certainly mix and match them to your heart’s delight to accommodate all of your audio and video needs, or you could buy one device that performs many of the tasks described above … and does so through one user interface that makes the whole experience a bit less overwhelming. It’s called the Media Center PC. At its core, it’s a Windows-based computer with all of the functionality contained therein. However, it also comes pre-bundled with every program you need to watch and record standard- and high-definition television, rip and burn CDs and DVDs, view photos, make and edit digital movies and access the Internet to find and download video, among other things. All of these functions are united through a standard user interface, the Windows Media Center Edition software platform. You have your choice of control options: wireless mouse, wireless keyboard, or remote control.

Hewlett-Packard, Niveus Media, and Alienware sell horizontally-oriented, living-room Media Center PCs meant to sit in your gear rack and work with your A/V system, sporting home-theater-friendly connections like DVI, component video and optical digital audio. Tower-shaped PC models are also available from Sony, Gateway, Dell, ViewSonic and HP. You will need to buy an indoor or outdoor HDTV antenna to tune in and record HDTV, as these devices don’t have the necessary inputs to accept an HDTV signal from your cable or satellite box. Those who want to stream audio and video around the house will also need some form of digital media player.

If you’re a Mac person, Apple now includes the Front Row media application on their new Macs. Like Media Center Edition, Front Row unites music, video, DVD and photo functions under one user interface and comes with a remote control that frees you from the keyboard and mouse. Front Row lacks a TV-tuning option to use your computer like a DVR; you can add the Elgato software, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of the all-in-one interface. Front Row will automatically detect other Macs on your home network and let you send content around your home.

Feeling Whole Again
iPod control isn’t the only way that convergence is affecting the worlds of whole house entertainment and home automation. Computer technologies are altering the way established names in the business conduct their business and opening the door for new computer-minded companies to gain a foothold in this industry.

Custom installers have long used computers to aid in the installation process, usually in the form of software programs that help them to configure a universal remote control system or calculate a room’s acoustic model. Now, that functionality is finding its way to the end user. Big names in home control, like Crestron and AMX, offer touch panels that run on a Windows operating system or include Ethernet/WiFi capability for more control at your fingertip. Nowadays, these companies are expected to offer a way for you to monitor, control and troubleshoot your home systems remotely, via a computer or PDA.

Convergence isn’t merely affecting the user experience. It’s changing the fundamental architecture of the whole house system, as companies like Netstreams and ZON Audio embrace digital technology and Internet Protocol as the primary manner in which different components communicate, essentially turning your whole house system into one big home network, which gives it the flexibility and expandability that many existing set-ups lack.

Perhaps no product better embodies the convergence concept than Exceptional Innovation’s Life/ware home control system. This software-based solution lets you control your lighting, blinds, thermostats, security, and whole house A/V systems through your Media Center PC, using the same remote control. Within a device designed to converge all your forms of entertainment lies a software system designed to converge all of your home’s automation systems. That’s a whole lot of convergence.

What’s especially compelling about Life/ware, compared with other control systems, is that its open architecture allows it to support hardware from many different manufacturers, in much the same way a computer is able to work with a wide variety of printer models. We’ve come to expect this interoperability in the computer world, but that hasn’t been the case elsewhere in the home. The Life/ware system supports both Ethernet and RS-232 connection methods to meld past and future whole house products. Exception Innovation’s partner list already includes companies like Russound, Centralite, Vantage, and Insteon, but their primary partner is Hewlett-Packard. The Life/ware software is currently sold through authorized dealers as part of the HP z556 and z558 Media Center PCs. However, the software works with any Media Center PC and can also run on a digital entertainment center, Media Center extender, or one of EI’s Life/touch high-definition touch panels. The company doesn’t plan to limit compatibility to Windows, either, which means the sky’s the limit in how this product – and product category – might evolve.

Keep It Simple, Stupid
Convergence is a cool concept, one that techie geeks like me can get excited about. I love it when I come across a product that unites A/V and PC technologies in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. The problem is, most people aren’t techie geeks. For all that convergence can bring to the table, it’s not a table that the vast majority of people are ready to sit at just yet. The reason the iPod is so popular, and such a driving force in convergence, is because it melds technologies in a way that doesn’t feel technical. As more product designers figure this out, you can expect the genre to finally take off. In the meantime, we techie geeks get to have all the fun.

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