All About Convergence: 2006 Edition 
Home Theater Feature Articles Other
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Friday, 01 September 2006

All About Convergence: 2006 Edition
By Adrienne Maxwell
September 2006

What is convergence? In a world that’s growing ever more connected, perhaps the better question is, what isn’t convergence? The simplest definition I found for the word “convergence” at is: “The process of coming together or the state of having come together toward a common point.” Of course, the site goes on to provide definitions of the word’s specific meaning in mathematics, physiology, biology and even commodities trading.

Try to narrow down to the word’s meaning to consumer electronics circles, and you’d still have to wade through myriad possibilities, from telecommunications companies that are merging voice, data and video services to the portable-electronics trend of housing a cell phone, camera, MP3 player and PDA in one handheld device. Okay, what if we narrow it down even further, from consumer electronics to home entertainment? You’ll soon see that even this encompasses a whole lot of stuff, but we’re essentially talking about the way that computer and audio/video technologies have come together toward a common point: our entertainment.

In the evolution of this convergence, there have been several important milestones. The day when first we unleashed the CD from its five-inch circular shell and changed it into something our computer could play with, permanently linking what were formerly separate home and office entities. The day we first we digitized our photos. The day companies like Replay and TiVo decided that computer-based hard drive technology might come in handy for TV watching. And especially the day that we welcomed the Internet into our homes.

For the past few years, we’ve been waiting to see how all of these different developments would, well, converge. There’s been a lot of buzz about convergence’s ability to utterly transform our home entertainment experience, but the product offerings have really been limited to specific audio or video functions. Only now are we beginning to see solutions that truly meld every aspect of home entertainment and control.

The question you must ask is, how much convergence do you really need in your life? Maybe you only need an audio product that makes it easier to play your iPod through your entertainment system, or maybe you want to surf the Net, watch a movie, do a spreadsheet, or adjust your home’s thermostat without having to move from the couch. The trick is to know what you’re looking for, so here’s an overview of some of the products and technologies designed to unite A/V and PC.

The i Factor
Right now, the most popular type of convergence product is one that lets you access your computer’s digital music files through a higher-end home entertainment system. After you’ve invested countless hours ripping your CDs onto your hard drive, editing track and album titles, and creating playlists in a music manager like iTunes or Windows Media Manager, you’ll probably want to play that content in as many places around the house as possible. Sure, you could just carry your digital audio player from room to room and plug it into an auxiliary input on whatever audio device you’re using, but that’s so twentieth century.

Digital music players, such as the Roku SoundBridge or Sonos ZonePlayer, link your computer and audio system over a home network, so you can access your digital music and Internet radio stations from other locations. If you have a home network and a TiVo Series2 DVR, you can do the same thing through your TiVo. The catch with these types of products is that your computer must be on for them to work.

Companies like Escient, Philips, and Yamaha have embraced this networking concept, but they’ve adapted it for music lovers who may not want to rely on a computer to get their music. These companies sell central music servers that you use for ripping and storing your music collection, as well as clients that can access the server’s music from remote areas of the home. These clients may be complete audio systems in themselves, or you may need to connect them to a receiver or speaker system. Some of the products work through your network, while others establish a closed network of their own.

There’s no denying that the insane popularity of the iPod has pushed this convergence category to the forefront. “iPod peripherals” is now its own consumer electronics genre, and a ton of traditional A/V companies have entered the mix. Pioneer, Denon and Harman/Kardon are just a few manufacturers that sell receivers with matching iPod docks or iPod inputs that let you control the device from an onscreen menu. Even high-end whole-house audio companies, some of which sell multi-thousand-dollar audio servers of their own, have decided to cash in on the craze with iPod-friendly in-wall docking stations and keypads that let you access your iPod’s music in any room in the house from one central location. ADA, Russound, SpeakerCraft and Xantech are just a few of companies that come to mind.

V for Video
In just the past year, spurred by yet another iPod product – the iPod with video – the popularity and accessibility of digital video has exploded, prompting more people to seek out devices that further blur the line between the living room and the workstation. This convergence actually goes both ways: we want to use our computers to find and watch high-quality video and we want an easy way to send that video from our computer back to our TV or home entertainment system.

There are a host of online channels to access video content that was once reserved for your television and/or DVD player: iTunes, Google, CinemaNow, MovieLink and Guba (to name a few) let you stream or download movies, sporting events and TV shows, usually for a fee to rent or purchase. If you don’t want to pay for those TV shows, companies like ATI and Elgato sell systems that add NTSC and ATSC tuning to your computer, transforming your hard drive into a DVR and your video monitor into an HDTV (if it has the resolution).

As for packaged media, you can pop practically any store-bought DVD into your computer’s DVD drive and watch a movie, provided you have the right software. But PC users have actually been ahead of the curve when it comes to HD-quality software content. Artisan and Image Entertainment were the first to exploit the Windows Media Video (WMV) HD format to include HD-quality versions of movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Step Into Liquid, exclusively for viewing on your computer, as part of the DVD package. Of course, with the arrival of high-definition DVD formats comes HD DVD and Blu-ray disc drives for the computer, so you’ll be able to watch high-def movies and burn to disc all of that recorded high-def content taking up space on your drive.

Few of us really want to watch movies on the computer, though. The trick is to get the content back to the comfort of your living room or home theater. For this we look, once again, to the digital media player. Roku, TiVo, D-Link and Elgato are a few of the companies selling devices that let you stream video and photos (and music, of course) from your computer to your video system over a home network. Some A/V manufacturers are wising up to the fact that they can build this functionality into their own devices. GoVideo sells a “networked” DVD player that will go get the content from your computer to play back through the player, and Hewlett-Packard is about to release a WiFi-enabled LCD HDTV that can do the same thing. Remember those iPod-friendly products I mentioned earlier? Some of them include S-video or composite video connections, so you can exploit the full potential of your video iPod through your A/V receiver or whole house system.

Companies like Akimbo and MovieBeam are bypassing the computer altogether, offering set-top boxes that connect directly to your TV or receiver. For a fee, you can order and download video content. The MovieBeam service even allows you to order high-definition content for playback through the HDMI or component video connections on your HDTV.

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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