In one grand vision for the entertainment home network of the future, consumers can watch video wherever and whenever they want using wireless connections.
But to deliver that concept, electronics and technology vendors have been trying to solve a big problem — how to deliver fat video files across a wireless home network prone to ebbing bandwidth.
So far, they've concentrated on trying to pump up the home network's existing bandwidth while keeping the same rates of video resolution and compression. That's where they've got it all wrong, according to a Toronto-based startup that debuted earlier this month.
After operating in stealth mode for 18 months, ViXS Systems Inc. has now made its debut, offering a new take on the problem of moving Internet-protocol video around in a home network.
The Toronto, Canada-based startup is currently hitting the market with a processor and related software to distribute broadcast-quality video around wired or wireless home networks at a constant, guaranteed 30 frames per second.
"We believe there has been a lot bandied about with respect to QOS [quality of service] and what that means, and we think in many ways the industry has taken the wrong direction in defining QOS for video," said Roy Stewart, senior vice president of interactive technologies. "We believe video QOS is defined as 30 frames per second.
"Video is not measured in data rates. It is measured in frames, and if you can't guarantee 30 frames of high-quality video, you are not paving the proper standard for high-quality video."
802.11 has limits
Wireless 802.11 networks have become popular among broadband users because they allow for the sharing of a high-speed Internet connection between devices without stringing wires. But they have drawbacks.
Other devices, including microwave ovens and cordless phones, can interfere with the signal, and there are distance limits. The farther away from the wireless base station you are, the less bandwidth the network provides.
"In 802.11a, the maximum you can get is 54 megabits per second," said director of product marketing Wendell Smith. "But if you walk from the access point to the extreme corner of your house, it may drop all the way down to 6 megabits per second.
"If your video requires 10 megabits per second, you are guaranteed at some point to fail."
ViXS's Xcode processor and related software-management system deals with the problem by maintaining the frame rate at 30 frames per second and instead adjusting the bit rate, resolution and Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) compression.
The screen size stays constant, but the system will cut out some color and contrast information that's contained in the data stream. Much of this information is not discernable to the human eye until the data rate drops significantly.
"You sacrifice a bit of resolution, but you are continuing to watch. Your user experience is the same," Smith said.
To reach deployment, the company has filed more than 50 patents, and is working with several electronics manufacturers — including set-top box makers — to incorporate the technology in consumer devices, Stewart said. The company has signed trial agreements with several U.S. cable operators.
"I think cable operators are very open to the idea," said Stewart. "It's just a question of when their business model will allow them to deploy a product."
Although home networking is still in the early market stages, in-house systems that can bat video around have attracted a lot of interest, according to Michael Wolf, director of enterprise and residential communications for analyst firm In-Stat/MDR (a sister company to Multichannel News). How ViXS shapes up compared to competing technologies will depend on how well it works outside of controlled lab tests.
"This is a potential big payday," Wolf said. "If it were to work, there would be a lot of people interested in it."
But there are hurdles, and one of the biggest is digital rights management. Content providers have been quite leery of any technology that shares perfect digital copies of copyrighted video — and they're even more concerned if it can find its way beyond an authorized user's home network.
ViXS said its technology does support several major encryption and digital rights-management schemes, but that isn't enough, according to Wolf.
"Someone has got to figure this out before this stuff ever gets used in a wide number of homes," he noted. "They talk about tying in Triple DES [data encryption standard] encryption. I still think that they need a stronger story on that, meaning that you can't do multiple copies."
With that and several other deployment obstacles, it doesn't take too long for the promise of multimedia home networks to meet some harsh market realities.
"Most of this connected home stuff — there is so much interest in it, but once you consider all of the potential hurdles, it all just kind of skids to a halt," Wolf said.