Anaheim, Calif. -- In one vision of the digital future,
consumers would have movies, TV programs and CD-quality audio zipping around to various
display and listening devices in the home, without having to purchase extra electronics.
That was one of the technological trends at the recent
Western Show, where in-home networking techniques cropped up all over the show floor.
In-home networking enables people to control a variety of electronic appliances, from
audio systems to TVs to computers, with one device, from anywhere in the home.
The in-home wiring category apparently isn't just a
collection of technologies seeking applications. Wedbush Morgan Securities, for one,
expects that the category for home networking will exceed $4 billion by 2002.
Avio Digital Inc., the company owned by Paul Allen's Vulcan
Ventures Inc., kicked off the home networking bonanza, showing up with a
"MediaWire" technique linked to Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s Explorer 2000 set-top
boxes. The idea: Set-tops can be used to control digital video, audio, computer data
services, telephony and home controls, throughout the house.
"As consumers bring more and more digital devices into
the home, they will want to easily connect the equipment and services together so they can
be accessed from anywhere in the house," said Don Burtis, acting vice president of
technology for San Carlos, Calif.-based Avio.
Allen Ecker, president of S-A's Subscriber Network sector,
said, "It is becoming evident in the industry that within a few years we will have
in-home networks linking all manner of digital devices in the home." He said the
set-top box is "the ideal focal point" to allow in-home networks to connect to
the outside world via the cable system.
General Instrument Corp., S-A's set-top rival, said at the
show that it would work with Sony Corp. to come up with home networking solutions.
In Avio's view of the world, set-tops are outfitted with a
"MediaWire" interface, then become the main gateway for signals to travel over
ordinary telephone wiring to end devices. That means cable modem data could be directed to
other personal computers in the house, without installing new network cables, Burtis said.
Wiring distance tops out at about 100 feet between nodes,
Burtis said, using "simple, category-three phone wiring." Using higher grade,
category-five wiring extends the maximum distance to over 300 feet, Burtis said.
"In either case, a MediaWire home network can have a
total cable length of over 2.5 miles," he said.
The network can simply connect two devices or up to 100
devices in a loop, he said, describing top data rates of 88 megabits per second. That
speed will bump up to a blistering 1.5 gigabits per second on a future version of the
MediaWire technology running over category-five wire, officials said.
But even at 88 Mbps, that's enough to carry four MPEG-2
video channels, 16 audio channels (at 24 bits each), eight phone lines and more than 3
mbps of cable modem data.
Still, to move digital video from the master digital
set-top to an older TV set relegated to the guest room also requires the installation of a
MPEG decoder module to turn the signals back to analog NTSC for display.
The same goes for audio: A digital-to-analog converter
module is necessary so that existing stereo components can translate digital audio streams
on the network.
Avio designed MediaWire to "plug and play,"
officials said, so that once devices are connected, the network automatically configures
itself. Avio officials repeatedly called the technique "cost effective," but
declined to discuss pricing specifics. S-A officials described the cost addition to the
Explorer 2000 as "nominal."
Another technique outlined at the Western Show was wireless
signal distribution. El Dorado Hills, Calif.-based ShareWave Inc. outlined a way to send
data around the house at speeds of 4 Mbps. ShareWave's solution, code-named
"Osprey," includes a chip set, a radio and a reference design, officials said.
Prototype models will be available in January.
ShareWave, which calls its strategy a "multimedia
furnace," works by locating a central hub inside the home -- a PC, a residential
gateway or another server -- as the collection point for digital content. The content is
then wirelessly distributed via radio signals to devices throughout the home. The
"gateway" could also be a set-top, company officials pointed out.
In-home electronics that are outfitted with the ShareWave
digital wireless device can then share real-time, full-motion video; computer-generated
graphics and CD-quality audio, executives said.
Also in the home networking game, with plans for both a
wired and wireless approaches, is Motorola Inc., which aims to develop a gateway that
integrates a cable modem with a "no new wires" data network, officials said at a
press briefing here.
"The 'no new wires' home networking technologies are a
key to Motorola's strategy for connecting PCs, voice-over-IP phones, and other
Internet-aware devices in the home, to the broadband cable network," said Vedat
Eyuboglu, vice president of Motorola's Home Networking Product group.
As part of that effort, Motorola licensed technology from
Tut Systems, so that it can send data over existing in-home telephone wiring.