Electronic Design

Drinking From The Firehose: Broadband Opens The Floodgates

We take the ability to pour water into a cup for granted. Similarly, we're taking images, music, and video for granted. We treat this content like a liquid, pouring it around our homes via wired and wireless networks.

We're tapping the water mains—broadband networks—to get our share of the content. We carry it in containers like memory cards, homemade CDs or DVDs, MP3 players, PDAs, and laptops. And this trend is only accelerating as networks run faster and larger amounts of storage get shoehorned into ever smaller products.

Already, 1-in. micro disk drives from Seagate Technology, Hitachi Global Storage Technology, and Cornice can pack anywhere from 4 to 8 Gbytes of information. By the late third quarter of this year, drives with even higher capacities probably will be unveiled. Slightly larger 1.8-in. drives now offer up to about 60 Gbytes. Even higher densities loom on the horizon as drive vendors transition to perpendicular recording technology.

Flash-based memory cards already feature 1- and 2-Gbyte capacities. As the new 4- and 8-Gbit flash memory chips come off the production lines from Samsung, Toshiba, and other companies, cards will brandish even higher capacities. Gradually, these solid-state alternatives will replace the lower-density microdrive-based solutions.

Driving the need for more storage are today's lightning-speed Internet connections. Cable and ADSL modems allow us to download gigabytes of data in a few hours. For now, the water mains—the copper between homes and the central office—are showing their age in most locales. But over time, those connections will accelerate further as higher-speed xDSL modems, WiMAX wireless systems, Fiber to the Home (FTTH), and passive optical networks (PONs) become available, ultimately increasing the volume of data Internet service providers deliver to your door.

Once at the door, it takes faster gateways to increase the data flow into the home. The proposed higher data rates of 45 to 100 Mbits/s will enable multiple channels of streaming high-definition video to reach the home. But to pipe it around, today's 802.11b data rates of up to 10 Mbits/s must give way to speeds of 54 and 108 Mbits/s (802.11a, g, respectively) and possibly even 1 Gbit/s within the home, or perhaps just within a room using either wired Gigabit Ethernet links or short-distance Ultra-Wideband (UWB) transceivers.

That will radically change current download and media management scenarios. The hours to download a video today may turn into tens of minutes, while the minute or so to download an audio file will occur in the blink of an eye. The shorter download times will translate into more content transfers because it will be easy to pull together collections of audio and video to suit the moment.

Such heaping amounts of content will eventually put a strain on storage systems in the home. In response, multihundred-gigabyte drives will appear inside home media centers. Even terabyte-capacity, RAID-based network storage arrays will be common within the next five years.

Of course, many security issues arise when downloading content from various music and movie sites, as well as from the many peer-to-peer share sites. The entire issue of digital rights management (DRM) could fill volumes, and there are many aspects—both pro and con—to the many approaches. Studios and content creators want to protect their material and charge fees for viewing or listening. Users, of course, want unrestrained access to content and are mostly unwilling to pay for it.

Newer services such as iTunes from Apple Computer Inc., Rhapsody from RealNetworks, and others offer music tracks for less than a dollar as well as monthly subscription plans, giving consumers a legal avenue to build up their music collections. However, existing copy-protection approaches still have problems. Most users aren't really sure how to deal with DRM when they save files to their disk and then move the files to memory cards or portable players. This could become a particularly sticky wicket in trying to achieve a truly fluid media environment.

Microsoft's plan to get through the goo revolves around a certification program called PlayForSure. By precertifying the player hardware and the online digital music and video stores, users are guaranteed that the protected content will play on the devices on the certified list. A PlayForSure logo and categories for content are defined. When the download site displays the logo, users can be assured that the content will play on a certified player.

Within the home, it's becoming more common to have wired and wireless Ethernet networks that move data at rates from a few megabits per second to 1 Gbit/s. Give it a few more years, and they will be ubiquitous. Ethernet networks based on the various flavors of 802.11 are the most popular for now. Yet many alternatives coming down the road could replace or supplement what most industry experts believe will be an Ethernet backbone in the home.

Advances in powerline networking, which permit 14-Mbit/s data rates (check out the Home-Plug Alliance), packet transfers over the video cable system (see the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance), two versions of UWB (see the UWB Forum and Freescale Semiconductor) wireless short-range networks, and Bluetooth ad-hoc options, promise increased connectivity and flexibility when creating new "plumbing."

The power behind many of the improvements in networking speed stem from advances in both proprietary and commodity digital signal processors—higher clock speeds, lower costs, and enhanced architectures. Companies such as Analog Devices, Freescale, Starcore, CEVA, and Texas Instruments are leading the way in this area.

As these solutions become cost-effective (single-chip or integrated as part of a larger chip), they will come embedded in systems rather than added as an aftermarket product. This will enable computers to talk to stereo systems. And stereos and computers will transfer media to handheld devices, a car, or each other. IP-based (Internet Protocol) set-top boxes also are starting to appear. These systems will form a nexus for moving digital media files to the entertainment complex. At the same time, users will control everything from their easy chairs with a wireless remote (Fig. 1).

The myriad devices to make this happen must be network- or communications-enabled via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, UWB, powerline, or some other connectivity scheme. Each of the schemes has its cheerleaders and its detractors. Cost, range, quality of service, ease of installation, and maintenance are just a few of the issues that the design community must address to ensure the solutions are bulletproof for consumers who don't really care about the technology—they just want optimum results.

The big question is what these devices will connect to. Will the nexus be a PC (e.g., one of the media center PCs), or a network storage system, or a more optimized solution? Many companies are vying for that central role, but it will be a while before any clear direction is visible.

At the high end are server systems. Kaleidescape Inc. offers a system that consists of three basic components—a scalable server, a movie player, and a DVD reader—all connected via a switched Ethernet fabric (Fig. 2). The server includes a RAID-based storage subsystem expandable to 4.4 Tbytes (up to 660 DVD videos) using hot-pluggable hard-disk-drive cartridges. Additional servers can be grouped for virtually unlimited capacity.

The companion networked movie player decodes the DVD videos with up to high-definition 1080i resolution and Dolby Digital, DTS, PCM, and MPEG audio for playback on the audio/video systems. To capture the DVD content, a matching DVD reader imports an exact copy of each DVD and sends the content over its 100-Mbit/s Ethernet port to the server. By leveraging the Ethernet connectivity, players with infrared remote controls can be located throughout the house.

Netstreams LLC offers an IP-based streaming audio system called DigiLinX. It can tie audio systems, security cameras, lighting, air conditioning, and other systems together over an IP network. Small, in-wall controllers with LCD screens provide access. Or, the system can be controlled via a wireless Web tablet, a compatible PDA, a PC, or any device that runs a Web browser and Macromedia's Flash software.

The main system components include a 24-port managed Ethernet switch, the MediaLinX controller, which converts content from an analog or digital source into TCP/IP packet-switched uncompressed WAV audio streams. The MediaLinX unit also controls the CD player, cassette, turntable, or other audio sources. Included in the system are SpeakerLinX IP-based audio distribution amplifiers, the StreamNet-enabled music server, and the PowerLinX intelligent power-distribution system.

The MusicCAST MCX1000 music server system from Yamaha Electronics Corp. and the Modero audio/video distribution system from AMX Corp. are similar to DigiLinX. Most of these systems, though, are usually installed by dealers because they require significant menu customization and usually A/V room customization to deliver high-quality results.

For the more budget-minded come systems like the DMP3000 Digital MediaBridge, developed by the Acoustic Research Division of Thomson Inc. Users can take music, photos, or videos stored on their computer and play them on their home entertainment system using either a wired or wireless Ethernet connection (Fig. 3).

The MediaBridge handles full 1080i HDTV resolution for wireless viewing of digital photos and 720p resolution for video display. Content can be sent to the UPnP-compatible (Universal Plug-and-Play) system from up to three computers located throughout the home.

All of the computers run the Implicit inServer application software package so that they can work with the MediaBridge. The MediaBridge supports Windows XP and Windows 2000 operating systems, and it will support the Macintosh operating system with a future software download. A six-device IR-based remote control handles the on-screen menus as well as five additional A/V sources, such as DVD players and FM tuners. Software in the MediaBridge lets users search music files by title, album, or genre; organize photos into slideshows with audio accompaniment; and alphabetically sort a movie library.

Thanks to either Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet connections, the Roku Soundbridge music-player systems can connect to a stereo or powered speakers and play content from a PC or other network source. The top-of-the-line M2000 is a 17-in. long tube with a 512- by 32-point vacuum-fluorescent display that gives the artist, title, duration, and even a 16-channel spectrum analyzer (Fig. 4).

The system includes built-in support for Apple Rendezvous and iTunes, Rhapsody, Windows Media Connect, and Windows Media Player 10, as well as any music service that uses Windows Media DRM 10 (e.g., Napster, MusicMatch, and Walmart.com). At this point, however, it can't play iTunes Music Store files (protected AAC files).

In addition to playing WMA, AAC, WAV, MP3, and AIFF files, users can listen to the large selection of Internet radio stations without the computer thanks to an IR remote control and built-in browser. Via the remote control, users can search for music based on artist, album, song name, or keyword. It also offers many functions for controlling playback and song-queue management.

A 400-MHz Blackfin DSP from Analog Devices Inc. lies at the heart of the SoundBridge systems, performing all signal processing and internal control functions. A module version of the SoundBridge targets designers who would like to embed SoundBridge functionality into other products.

Simple wireless solutions are available for homes in which existing wiring or running Ethernet cables isn't practical. One system offered by Sonneteer, the Bardusb, consists of two units. The transmitter, which looks similar to a USB memory stick, simply plugs into the computer's USB port. The receiver, which employs forward error correction to reduce reception errors, attaches to the amplifier or powered speakers (Fig. 5). As a result, users can wirelessly play music from their computer's hard drive, the Internet, or from a CD or DVD drive on their audio system, or to audio systems in any number of rooms in their home. The transmitter has a 50-m range and uses the 2.4-GHz band to transmit uncompressed digital audio in real time.

Controlling all of the music- and video-file transfers is a challenge without a full keyboard at your disposal. Quickly reacting to the problem, many companies are now working on programmable remote controls. Some use IR, and some use RF wireless, including Wi-Fi-based solutions that can link directly into home networks.

One such networked controller is Universal Electronics' NevoSL. By using UPnP, the controller discovers media (photos, audio, or video) on the networked PC or media servers and lets users browse through the selections on its screen (Fig. 6).

The on-screen menus allow users to select and then direct the media to the desired system for playback or display. Inside the NevoSL controller is a 203-MHz, 32-bit CPU with up to 64 Mbytes of DRAM, a touchscreen display (3.5-in. QVGA LCD with 64k colors), 17 programmable hard buttons, IR and Wi-Fi (802.11b) interfaces, and a USB 1.1 data port.

PDAs, MP3 players, handheld multimedia devices that play videos and music, portable game devices like the Sony Playstation Portable, the Gizmondo from Gizmondo Europe Ltd., and cell phones are the latest containers for media-on-the-go. Recently entering the fray is the LifeDrive mobile manager from PalmOne. With built-in Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, the LifeDrive packs a 4-Gbyte micro hard drive to hold MP3 audio files, photos, video clips, and work data (Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and Adobe Acrobat documents). Based on a 416-MHz Xscale processor, the system includes a 320- by 480-pixel transflective TFT LCD panel that displays 64k colors and includes touchscreen support.

Currently, over a dozen handheld media players and most higher-end PDAs and cell phones now support video files. Higher-end audio players like the Apple iPod support pictures and audio, and support for video likely isn't too far off.

In the automotive space, we already have an abundant number of car-installed DVD playback systems to entertain passengers. XM and Sirius receivers offer radio stations from all over the country. BMW started the music-on-the-go trend by adding a pre-integrated hookup for iPods so users can connect iPod players and then manage the tunes with the stereo controls in the car.

Also getting updated is the stereo in the cabin. Some CD players can now play MP3 files on home-burned disks as well as standard CD-audio files. A few systems will even start to offer memory-card slots or a USB slot. Thus, drivers can bring their DRAM-based memory card or USB memory stick and plug it in to play their favorite tunes while they drive without having to carry a separate music player.

AMX Corp.

Apple Computer Inc.



Freescale Semiconductor

Gizmondo Europe Ltd.

Hitachi Global Storage Technology

Home-Plug Alliance

Kaleidescape Inc.

Multimedia Over Coax Alliance

Netstreams LLC








Starcore Alliance

Texas Instruments

Thomson Inc., Acoustic Research Division


Universal Electronics

UWB Forum

Yamaha Electronics Corp.

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