September 16, 2002 4:00 AM PDT

Making connections for a digital home

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Attendees at a recent industry confab got a glimpse of prototypes that could help create what computing and consumer-electronics companies have long sought: a connected digital home.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Oak Technology demonstrated at the Intel Developer Forum last week a prototype that uses a recently approved communications specification to transform a commercially available DVD player into a connected part of a home network. The setup lets the DVD player access digital media files, such as digital video, images and audio, that are stored on a PC.

Intel recently announced its own gadget based on the Universal Plug and Play specification for audio and video products, which was approved in June. The company's "digital media adapter" lets stereos and TVs access files stored on a computer. The adapter and the Oak Technology prototype are the first devices to put the audio-video specification into play.

Intel and others are trying to sell consumers on the concept of a networked home, wherein all devices--from PCs to phones to TVs to microwave ovens to as-yet-undeveloped gadgets and gizmos--would be able to easily communicate with one another.

Picture this: A networked homeowner could, for example, use a PDA (personal digital assistant) or a phone keypad to tell a microwave to cook a chicken for 10 more minutes. At the same time, that PDA could tell the PC to zap some digital photos to a relative, while asking the printer to roll out a copy of a news article. Then, while eating the chicken, the homeowner could chat on that same PDA or phone device with the relative who, by then, would be looking at the photos. The industry sees such networks opening up a whole new range of product and profit possibilities.

Though such a sci-fi scenario may be a long way off, some say mainstream acceptance of the concept of home networks could be helped along if consumer-electronics manufacturers, and not just computer companies, start integrating networking technologies into products.

"Moving the home network market beyond the computing world to the point where consumer-electronics companies embrace networking for entertainment applications is critical for the next stage in growth," said Kurt Scherf, an analyst with research firm Parks Associates.

Connecting consumer audio and video appliances to PCs is also meant to build off the popularity of digital content, such as photos and MP3 music files, and allow that content to be viewed and played anywhere in the home, on common devices.

About 40 percent of U.S. households with Internet access have downloaded and stored music files on their computers, according to Parks Associates data. The average number of files stored per household is much more than 300.

Oak Technologies said its prototype could lead to a finished device that would give appliance makers a cheap and easy way to incorporate networking abilities into their products. The prototype consists of a board that was added to the DVD player and software used by the PC, which is connected to the player with an Ethernet cable.

Oak representatives said the board could be added to any type of device--such as a set-top box, a digital video recorder or a game console--with a low-end processor. The company spent less than $10 to make the prototype, representatives said.

The company is set to approach consumer-electronics manufacturers about adding the technology to products and is aiming to have something on the market next year.

Oak's prototype is compliant with the Universal Plug and Play specification, developed by members of the UPnP Forum. The Forum consists of 500 member companies, including the likes of Microsoft, Philips, Sony, Intel, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The companies help promote the specification, and they work on its development so that new devices can use it. The audio-video committee within the UPnP Forum, headed by representatives from Intel and Philips, approved a specification tailored toward audio and video products in June.

Without such a standard that allows devices to interoperate--play the same files on different types of devices--it's very possible that the momentum behind digital content will slow, Scherf said.

The goal of the UPnP Forum is to keep that growth going by helping to connect new and existing devices within the home and make them easy to use, said Andrew Liu, Intel business development manager and chairman of the UPnP Forum. But though MP3 music tracks and similar digital files are definitely in the limelight at the moment, microwave ovens and high-tech chicken dinners are still on the agenda.

"We recognize that consumer-electronics devices and computers are the biggest draw in terms of interest in UPnP, but ultimately we want all devices in the home to talk and share with one another," Liu said.

 

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