February 25, 2004 4:00 AM PST

TiVo-like devices to get booster shot

Having proved their popularity with American couch potatoes, digital video recorders are about to get a boost in features that will allow them to zap several video streams throughout networked homes.

Engineers in the consumer electronics lab of hard-drive maker Maxtor, for example, are working on DVR-type devices that can record or broadcast at least six media streams at a time. That compares to three streams in current DVRs, which are hard-drive-based machines that can record video and temporarily pause live broadcasts. Three-stream machines can simultaneously record two live channels while playing a previously recorded program.

News.context

What's new:
Tomorrow's digital video recorders will be able to record two live shows and shuttle recorded content to several televisions at once in networked homes.

Bottom line:
The strategy of making the DVR more powerful and comprehensive could cement their place in the household electronics pantheon, setting up a battle with PC makers.

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DVRs in development not only will be able to serve up video in multiple rooms at the same time, but also handle data from a home video security system, said Jasbir Sidhu, director of engineering for consumer electronics products at Maxtor. The coming DVRs may hit the market sometime in the next 18 months, he said.

The strategy of making DVRs more powerful and comprehensive could help cement their place in the household electronics pantheon and hold off competition from PC makers that have unfurled plans to put modified desktops on top of televisions.

"The beauty of the DVR is it can do so much more" than just record video, said Bob Van Orden, vice president of product management for subscriber networks at set-top box maker Scientific-Atlanta.

Scientific-Atlanta is testing a six-stream DVR due out this summer. The company's "Multi-Room" DVR product is designed to record two live broadcasts even as it sends pre-recorded programs to up to four different televisions scattered throughout a house. A set-top box would be needed for each of those televisions, though the Multi-Room machine acts as a set-top for one television. Van Orden said the company envisions a number of other features in the future, including voice-over-Internet Protocol phone capabilities and allowing consumers to move digital photos from PCs to televisions.

Convergence in the living room
Advanced DVRs are part of a growing convergence of computer and entertainment technologies. Stephen Baker, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group, said DVRs in the future could even manage information from so-called smart appliances, such as Internet-connected refrigerators that are communicating about their repair needs.

The DVR machine, in effect, would act like a data traffic cop. The home "needs a central authority to direct where all these streams of content go," Baker said. "You don't want the information that your refrigerator is sending regarding its compressor over the Net to interfere with your cable TV signal."

DVRs, also known as personal video recorders, have been relatively rare in homes thus far, but are taking off quickly. According to market research firm In-Stat/MDR, the number of DVRs shipped worldwide grew from 1.3 million in 2002 to 3.7 million last year. Shipments will reach 8.3 million this year, according to the research firm, partly due to a push by satellite broadcasters to promote the devices.

DVRs can be provided along with satellite or cable TV service, and the products also are sold on a standalone basis. Hard drives embedded in DVRs store data from broadcasts, letting viewers pause live television temporarily and to review a scene or event. This feature was used by many TiVo users during the Super Bowl after Janet Jackson's infamous breast-baring incident. TiVo sells DVRs and a subscription service that allows consumers to do such things as find and record movies by a favorite director. TiVo's ability to track viewer actions during the Super Bowl raised privacy concerns about DVRs' interactive abilities.

Hard drives up to the task
Despite a doubling in the number of media streams DVRs can handle in the future, a single hard drive is still sufficient for the task, Maxtor's Sidhu said. That's because the hard drive can transfer data at a rate of up to 60 megabytes per second (MBps), while TV signals--even high-definition TV streams--require much less bandwidth. Standard television consumes up to 10 megabits per second (mbps) and HDTV needs up to about 20mbps, according to Sidhu.

Still, he said, you've got to tune DVR systems so they write and send out data efficiently. Otherwise, you can't handle even three streams concurrently. For example, it can be wiser to snag data in larger chunks than is usual for hard drives, so the drive actuator arm jumps around less, Sidhu said.

Already, DVR systems on the market are taking on new features. It's possible to buy a DVR with a built-in DVD writer, which facilitates archiving old recorded shows and freeing up space on the hard drive.

That's a feature Scientific-Atlanta is looking into, Van Orden said. The company also is interested in the possibility of adding an external hard drive to boost storage capacity.

Although the DVR is growing more powerful, Van Orden stops short of predicting its victory over the PC in the "battle of the living room."

"I think they'll kind of coexist," he said. "I can see the two worlds linked over a home network."

 

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