Electronic Design

Consumer Electronics: Fun And Convenience Will Rule The Day At Home

The digital home control center will be master of it all.

Smarter home appliances, sharper and clearer high-definition TVs (HDTVs), and advanced entertainment devices—personal video recorders, MP3 players, digital cameras, VCRs, DVDs, and CDs—will pervade the home in the not-too-distant future, as they take on killer-app trappings. These developments will bring unparalleled levels of convenience and fun for the consumer.

Refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, and ovens will become more "intelligent." Sensory and transceiver devices will transmit the status of each appliance to some central control panel located in the home to signal when they will need periodic maintenance and repairs.

HDTVs are expected to proliferate despite their presently comparatively high price. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that TV set makers must produce digital tuners for all future sets. By 2004, half of all sets with screen sizes of 36 in. or larger must have such tuners. By 2007, all TVs with screen sizes of 13 in. or larger, as well as VCRs and DVD players, must have digital tuners. Not surprisingly, the ruling has caused some consternation among TV makers about the cost of upgrading to digital tuners.

With HDTV sales on the rise, large-area displays will also advance, sporting higher resolutions and flatter profiles. By 2005, organic light-emitting-diode (OLED) displays will bring commercially available flat-panel HDTVs with thicknesses of under 1 mm. Such displays will also permeate into other devices like advanced cell phones and automobiles. Experts foresee 3D "arcade-type" video games on high-end 3G cell phones, as well as lower-end cell phones with messaging and conventional gaming applications for a growing population of children using them.

Consumers are already snapping up digital cameras and video recorders, which allow easy sharing of images with friends and family via e-mail. Such devices will become wireless entities, instantly transmitting their contents to and from anywhere the consumer desires.

One new feature will be the personal video recorder, or PVR. This hot, new application is gaining momentum. A PVR is a recording device with a hard disk that allows digital recording of any TV program. Satellite-TV broadcasters are making available TV receivers with hard-disk drives for PVR capability. Cable-TV companies also are looking to use silicon interface chips in set-top boxes to provide the same capability.

DVD recorders should boom in consumer applications, despite the many diverging DVD recording formats. Interface chips are expected to solve format incompatibilities.

How Do You Control All This? Experts are trying to sort out these developments and bring order to the myriad analog and digital signals that will permeate the home environment as they emanate from electronic equipment. As a result, one of the hottest killer apps in consumer electronics will be the home control center.

Whether it's a set-top box, a home PC, a digital recorder, or an entertainment center, this "digital hub" will arrive soon. It promises to transform the home into a venue that will record, archive, and play back video and music, organize photo albums from digital cameras, distribute media anywhere around the home, handle home security, monitor appliances, interface with the Internet, and direct cable, satellite, and/or antenna signals.

Though the form this hub will take is still unclear, the aim is to make it a single entity. There's a general consensus on what it should look like and what functions it should be able to handle (see the figure). Although the PC and the set-top box are both viable, many doubt it will be the PC. Computers are susceptible to hackers, creating problems for producers of digital video and audio content that want copyright protection for their wares.

Several leading makers of consumer electronics have banded together to establish a seamless interoperable architecture for networking a wide range of devices. The Home Audio Video Interoperability (HAVi) initiative is based on the IEEE 1394 (Firewire) standard, a high-speed serial bus that hasn't gained as much attention as the Universal Serial Bus (USB).

Even the short-range wireless standard Bluetooth is expected to seep into home entertainment. Philips, working with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, is hammering out the details of an upcoming Video Distribution Profile for audio/
video streaming applications, as well as a Video Conferencing Profile for 3G cell phones. As a result, consumers can expect high-quality stereo headsets for music and gaming by as early as next year.

Soon, the master hub will become a virtual "pushbutton" command center, limited only by the user's imagination.

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