There was a continuing theme of convergence this year at CES. The press was talking about it, the vendors were pushing it, and I even started to believe it might happen. One big questions is, "What is convergence?" In consumer electronics, it basically means putting as many features in one small device as possible. For instance, convergence of PDA, cell phones, and MP3 players was a common theme, or set-top-boxes which doubled as digital cable systems, personal video recorders (PVR), music archiving solutions, and DVD player/recorders were ever recurring product lines. Even bringing home automation to the entertainment system was a continual theme as we saw vendors control blinds and light, view security monitors, and even turn up and down the heat from the same display and remote used for watching TV.
Due to the amount of convergence emerging this year, VCRs seem to have made a comeback. Large electronic companies like Toshiba and Samsung were showing off DVD-player and recorders with integrated VHS decks. My hope is that they plan is to get the content off your VHS tapes onto some form of writable DVD format. If we are lucky, this is a passing fad.
It was obvious that networking is going to play a large part in the convergence of devices. Every device must be connected to the network at some point to make it useful. In some cases, networking is required for the distribution of media or to download metadata on whatever you are watching or listening to. Many devices are making use of high-speed Internet to reach beyond to wall of our home and bring us content like Internet Radio or other forms of streaming media. Many new DVD players shown at CES 2005 contained the ability to share music stored on computers in your house.
While there was a lot of buzz about convergence, and some very innovative products were announced, we were continually reminded of legal issues and digital right management (DRM) limiting the feature sets these products support. For instance, there were a large number of media servers on the show floor. These devices excel at archiving, sorting, playback, and distribution of media like music, photos, and video around the home. While almost every device supported archiving of CDs, the question of archiving and storage of DVDs raised uncertainty. As one vendor quoted, "We can archive DVDs, but legally we are not allowed to." In the back corners of the CES Trade Floor, we discovered a couple of venders who were supporting the archival playback and distribution of DVDs, but even those vendors were aware that someone will probably be after them from a legal perspective in the short term.
On the other hand buying music on-line and sharing between devices seems to have overcome some of its legal battles. Many of the media servers and even some receivers from Denon and Onkyo showed support for streaming Internet Radio or links to purchase music online. I find this somewhat amusing since just about every DRM put in place to protect the illegal sharing of online purchased music has been broken, and if one has not, it just means that it is not popular enough for someone to make the effort.
On the other side of these devices, home automation was in full force. In years past, true integration between your entertainment systems and home controls like HVAC, lights, and security systems was limited to those who could pay for a Crestron or AMX system and the ability to pay a professional to program them. This was an expensive proposition for those who wanted this support, and for most people it was only a dream. Over the last few years, we have seen a growing number of products trying to address this, but this year felt like a turning point. Many of the start-up home automation systems were easy enough that I could program them, and the flexibility was very compelling. Even some of the convergent devices mentioned above were supplying direct support of home automation.
Here are some of the devices you can expect to see arriving on the store shelves over the next year:
LG LRM-519 DVR/DVD Recorder
The LRM-519 works like an extension to Microsoft’s Media Center but with a twist in that it has the ability of access content locally. It has a 160GB hard drive for PVR functionality, USB ports for accessing digital photos and music from flash devices like digital cameras and MP3 players or adding extra storage, and a DVD-Recorder to offload your PVR, create CDs for the car, or even backup your home movies.
Meedio Essentials, TV and HouseBot software
Meedio, a small company building a competitor to Microsoft’s Media Center, showed off their suite of software that was able to not only turn your standard computer into a entertainment component connected to your main display, but also add full support for organization and access to all your digital photos, music, and movies using touch screen panels or remote control. The HouseBot addition brings support for control of household appliances and other AV equipment, all from customizable menus.
Samsung Home AV Center
Samsung had on display their Cable and over-the-air HDTV tuner and PVR system which could share content around the house with smaller client systems. The Home AV Center also contained a 160GB hard drive and DVD player. It also allowed Internet access from all the client systems and USB ports to display photos and other media.
Fusion Research - M-Plus control systems
M-Plus displayed their software which made use of very affordable Viewsonic Air Panels for integration of all your control needs. Using a simple PC and a wireless network, they were able to take control of home automations, AV components, and even control and playback media stored on a PC.
Overall, CES 2005 was an impressive showing of integrated technologies. Everything was smaller and more feature-packed, and I was impressed with the products being introduced to make our lives easier. On the devices that support PVR functionality, I worry about monthly charges that will be placed around them if the cable companies are responsible for bringing them to market. While companies take sides on which high definition media to support (HD-DVD or BlueRay) we did make some progress getting HD discs into our hands.
- Sandy Bird -