October 19, 2004 10:00 AM PDT

Digital home entertainment hits the road

DETROIT--Your digital home entertainment system is about to take a road trip.

Consumer electronics makers are racing to find new offerings, from wireless music downloads at gas stations to digital TV, to entertain American families when they're stuck in traffic, driving home for the holidays, or just out for a ride.

Some of the efforts to transplant digital media technology from PCs and home entertainment centers are still on the drawing board, companies said at a technology conference here Monday. But other changes are likely to start appearing in new cars and SUVs as early as next year.

Prospective buyers of new vehicles should expect to see larger LCDs, up 2 inches from the current standard size of 5 inches, that will appear in more places around a vehicle's interior. In a few years, manufacturers hope to switch to organic LEDs because of their improved color quality, response times and viewing angles.

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Consumer electronics makers are racing to find new ways to entertain American motorists and passengers, like offering wireless music downloads at gas stations, and building more and better LCDs into sport utility vehicles.

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Among possible stumbling blocks: How do you bring three-dimensional, movie-theater-type sound to a car? And what about upgrades--do you have to rip out the interior of your SUV every couple of years? Still, some changes are likely to start appearing in new autos as early as next year.

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"The car is an extension of your home network," said Kumar Ramaswamy, an engineer at Thomson, one of the largest manufacturers of electronic components. "It's like having another room. The car can get (video) from your computer. It can get it from a TiVo device that's sitting next to your television set."

Even with average U.S. gas prices topping $2 a gallon, Americans seem unwilling to break off their long love affair with the open road. Federal government statistics show that the number of miles driven in passenger vehicles has zoomed from 1.97 trillion in 1970 to 2.5 trillion in 1980, 3.3 trillion in 1990, and 4.3 trillion as of 2002.

Digital video may be perfect for those long road trips, but it's still unclear what the best mechanism will be for transporting hefty video files into a dashboard hard drive. A full-length movie can be many gigabytes, a stretch for all but the speediest home wireless networks. And running Ethernet cables along the driveway may not be entirely practical.

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