Current and Future Trends Archive

Are we going to expect more from distributed Wi-Fi setups?

Article

NETGEAR Orbi distributed WiFi system press image courtesy of NETGEAR

We could be expecting more from distributed-Wi-Fi devices of the NETGEAR Orbi ilk thanks to 802.11ax Wi-Fi and the Internet of Things

Distributed Wi-Fi: How a Pod in Every Room™ Enables Connected Smart Homes | Wi-Fi Now Blog

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Now consortium wrote up a blog article where we are to expect more from a distributed Wi-Fi installation especially in the context of Internet Of Things and the smart home.

One of the key drivers for this issue will be the 802.11ax standard for Wi-Fi wireless networks. This is intended to be the successor to the current 802.11ac but also is about high throughput and the ability for multiple devices to work at once from the same network. As well, it is expected to yield high-efficiency operation with an experience similar using an Ethernet network that uses a switch like when you have devices connected to your home network’s router via its Ethernet LAN ports.

According to the article, 802.11ax with its increased throughput is pitched as being suitable for newer broadband-service technologies like fibre-to-the-premises, DOCSIS 3.1 HFC cable-modem and 5G mobile broadband. In the context of the distributed Wi-Fi network, 802.11ax will be positioned for use as a wireless backhaul between the access-points and the edge router that links to the Internet.

But the article places an expectation on these access-point pods being installed in every room due to the increased number of Wi-Fi-based network-enabled devices connected to the home network. There is also an expectation that these access points will support Bluetooth and/or Zigbee as well as Wi-Fi thus becoming a localised network bridge for smart-home and Internet-Of-Things devices based on these wireless technologies. But I would place in the same scope Z-Wave, DECT-ULE and other similar “Internet Of Things” wireless technologies.

Previously this kind of functionality was offered through separate network bridges that interlinked a Bluetooth, Zigbee or similar-technology device to your home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Such equipment was typically offered as an accessory for a smart-home device like a smart lock by the device’s manufacturer and you weren’t sure if this piece of equipment would work with other smart-home devices implementing the same wireless-link technology. Or it was offered as a “smart home hub” which worked with devices using a particular wireless technology and supporting certain function classes. But these hubs offered various smart-home controller functions including remote management as long as you were using particular apps or services.

This new approach could allow for an increased number of IoT devices in each room “talking” with the access-point pods and this data moves along the backhaul to the “edge” router for that “smart-home-as-a-service” setup. The article also sees it as allowing for an IoT device, especially one that is battery-powered, not to be part of a large Zigbee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth mesh thus leading to increased device reliability. I would also see it become relevant with setups that use technologies like DECT-ULE which use a “hub and spoke” topology.

For this concept to work properly, the network-bridge devices that interlink Zigbee or similar IoT wireless technologies to an IP-based network have to work independent of particular smart-home controller software. Then the smart-home controller software has to be able to work with any IoT-based device no matter which of these network bridges they are talking to as long as they are on the same logical network. This situation would be of concern with portable user-interface devices like remote controls that are likely to be taken around the premises.

Although this article is Wi-Fi focused, I would still see the wired network being important. For example, some house designers and builders are even wiring the homes they design with Ethernet whether as standard or as an option while the home is being built or renovated. As well, there is powerline networking based on either HomePlug AV500 or AV2 standards. Here, these wired-network technologies are still viable as a backhaul connection alternative especially if you are dealing with building materials and techniques like double-brick or sandstone construction, or foil-lined insulation that can slow down Wi-Fi wireless communications.

But could these wireless-network access-point “pods” be simply a dedicated device installed in each room? It could be feasible for a device that offers other functionality that benefits from the network to be an access point or one of these “pods” in its own right. For example, a network-capable printer or a consumer-electronics device like a home-theatre receiver could connect to an existing network’s backhaul but also be an access point in its own right.  In this context, a Smart TV installed in a lounge area further down the end of the house could become an access point or smart-home “pod” to cover that end area.

The idea has been proven in the form of the Amazon Echo Plus smart speaker which has a built-in network-bridge function for Zigbee smart-home devices. This is alongside the ability for it to be a controller for these devices in context with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.

What is being put forward with the Wi-Fi NOW “Pod In Every Room” concept is the idea of a single logical network with a high-speed wireless data backbone and access-point devices serving all wireless networking applications for both regular data transfer and smart-home/IoT applications. As long as the approach is driven by common open standards without dependence on particular technology owned by one vendor, then there is the ability for this approach to multi-function Wi-Fi networking to work properly.

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Midget stereo amplifiers–could they be today’s equivalent of those early low-power “general-purpose” amplifiers?

There has been a consistent range of affordable stereo amplifiers and receivers offered from the 1960s onwards that weren’t about high output levels or audiophile-level sound output quality. Here, they were about playing music from what was fed through them and yielding a decent-enough sound through a set of modestly-priced speakers.

Typically they were sold as something to have as the heart of your first multi-piece hi-fi system whether the system was with source equipment and speakers that you chose or as part of an affordable stereo-system package offered by the manufacturer. In some cases, the circuitry in some of these amplifiers has been integrated in one or more of the premium single-piece or three-piece stereo systems offered by that manufacturer.

Examples of these ranged from the Australian-built valve-based Cosmos stereo integrated amplifier that was sold through the Encel hi-fi store during the late 60s and early 70s, through affordably-priced Realistic stereo receivers sold by Tandy / Radio Shack through the 70s and 80s to the “micro” component systems that most of the Japanese hi-fi names launched through the early 1980s. This class of amplifier or receiver also represented the equipment that was offered at the lower end of a manufacturer’s product range.

In a lot of cases, these amplifiers and receivers were typically used as the heart of an elementary stereo system like one’s first hi-fi setup or a secondary hi-fi setup. Then the user’s needs would change towards using a better amplifier and these amplifiers ended up being used with a pair of cheap speakers to amplify sounds like game sound effects from a multimedia-capable computer.

But lately this practice has shown up again with the likes of Lepai, Topping and others who implement very small stereo integrated amplifiers that work effectively on a single chipset for both channels. Some of these amplifiers may have extra functionality like a phono stage, a digital-analogue converter, or a USB or Bluetooth interface as part of that same chipset or as another chipset that presents a line-level signal. But typically they are sold through different online stores as well as some specialist electronics outlets or hi-fi stores.

Here, these amplifiers are based on a TriPath “Class T” circuit design or a similar design which is based on the Class D switch-mode amplification approach that has allowed for highly-compact audio amplifiers. That is due to the ability to work with low current demands as well as not yielding excess waste heat.

Why are these amplifiers showing up again? Here, the low power output and the small circuit size has allowed for a very small footprint and one could easily connect them to low-powered speakers of which many are in circulation. One of the reasons this has This is brought about through affordable three-piece stereo systems that had given up the ghost and the speakers associated with these systems are seen as of value with a low-power amplifier.

There is also the fact that most, if not all, of the stereo speakers made before the 1970s were engineered for amplifiers which had low power outputs thanks to valve (tube) or early solid-state circuit designs that couldn’t achieve high output power. In this situation, these speakers including the floor-standing types were designed for maximum efficiency and an ideal tonal response while better amplifiers were designed for improved sound clarity.

A common application that these midget amplifiers are being put towards is to become an audio amplifier for your computer’s sound infrastructure. This is seen as being better than a lot of budget-priced active speakers pitched towards computer users which aren’t seen as offering high-quality sound.

Personally I would still value a stereo system based around these amplifiers as another direction towards a cost-effective music system where you don’t want memories of the gaudy 90s.

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Wi-Fi introduces a new way to onboard new wireless-network devices

Articles

Draytek Vigor 2860N VDSL2 business VPN-endpoint router press image courtesy of Draytek UK

A QR code and a configuration app could be the way to get your Wi-FI network going or add a device to that network

From the horse’s mouth

Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi Easy Connect (Product Page)

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Alliance has released as part of its WPA3 update for wireless-networks security the Wi-Fi Easy Connect protocol for onboarding new devices to a Wi-Fi network segment. It will work with extant WPA2 network segments as well as newer WPA3-compliant segments which offers the chance for existing Wi-FI devices to support this technology. That is alongside the ability for device manufacturers and software / operating-system developers to meld it in to their existing products using new code.

It is intended for onboarding devices that have a limited user interface including onboarding Internet-capable “white goods” and “backbone” devices like fridges or heating / cooling equipment to your Wi-Fi network. It is currently being seen as an alternative to the push-button-based WPS configuration process for devices that don’t have much in the way of a user interface. For Android smartphone users, much of this process will be similar to using a printed QR code to “onboard” your smartphone to an existing Wi-Fi wireless network.

What is it about?

QR Code used on a poster

QR codes like what’s used on this poster will be part of configuring your Wi-Fi wireless network

The main goal with the Wi-Fi EasyConnect standard is to permit a device with a rich user interface like a laptop, tablet or smartphone running suitable configuration software to pass configuration information to other devices that have a limited user interface. This can be facilitated with an independent configuration app or function that is part of the device’s operating system. Or it could be to allow configuration through the access point using its Web-based management user interface or a management app supplied by the access point’s manufacturer.

In all cases, the software that looks after the configuration aspect is described as a configurator. Access points or client devices that want to be part of the network are described as “enrollee” devices.

Android main interactive lock screen

Smartphones will become part of your Wi-Fi network’s setup or device-onboarding process

It can be feasible for one device to assume the role of a configurator or enrollee. An obvious example would be a computing device like a laptop, tablet or smartphone being able to come onboard an existing Wi-Fi network then you using that same computing device to bring another device like a network-capable fridge on board. Or you could bring a Smart TV or set-top box on-board to your Wi-Fi network using Wi-Fi Easy Connect but it then has the ability to be a “set-up point” for smartphones or tablets who want to join your Wi-FI network.

There are different ways of “associating” the enrollee device with the configurator device but it is primarily about making both devices know that they are trusted by each other.

The main method would be to use a QR code.that is on a sticker or card associated with the device or shown on the device’s display if this display is of the bitmapped graphical kind or can connect to a TV or monitor. Then the configuration device would scan this QR code if it is equipped with a camera.

Another option that is put forward is to use a text string written on a card or shown on a display and this would be used for configuration devices not equipped with a camera. This kind of situation may come in to its own if you are running a configuration program from a regular computer that isn’t equipped with a functioning Webcam.

.. as will laptops, Ultrabooks like this Dell XPS 13 and tablets

The Device Provisioning Protocol standard that is what the Wi-Fi EasyConnect feature is based on supports the use of NFC “touch-and-go” or Bluetooth Low Energy wireless link as another way to interlink a configuration device and an enrollee device during the setup phase. Both these technologies could work well with smartphone-centric applications, wireless speakers, connected building-management technology and the like. But these haven’t been placed as part of the certification testing that Wi-Fi Alliance has for the EasyConnect standard.

Once the initial information is exchanged between the devices, both devices will establish a separate secure Wi-Fi link with each other. Then the configuration software on one of the devices will use this link to pass through the parameters necessary to allow the enrollee device to connect with the extant Wi-Fi network. The whole configuration data-exchange is secured using asymmetrical public-key cryptography with the public key obtained during the initial setup process. Then that device hunts for, discovers and connects to the newly-programmed network.

There is the ability to use this same setup with an access point to set it up to work with an extant network or to create a new network. The latter situation would most likely be based around accepting a machine-generated ESSID and password or allowing the user to enter an ESSID and/or password. On the other hand, the previously-connected Wi-Fi networks list that an operating system maintains could be a data source for configuring a Wi-Fi device to a particular extant network using EasyConnect.

From the FAQs that I had read on the Wi-Fi Alliance Website, the Wi-Fi EasyConnect protocol allows for a single configuration program to configure multiple enrollee devices at once. Here, it is to facilitate situations where you are onboarding many IoT devices at once or are creating a new Wi-Fi network with new credentials.

But it doesn’t support the ability to onboard a single Wi-Fi client device to two Wi-Fi networks at once like your main network and a hotspot / guest network. Instead you have to repeat the Wi-Fi EasyConnect procedure including scanning the QR code for each network you want a device to associate with. This is so you can have greater control over what networks your devices are to associate with, but it can be of concern if you have a separate Wi-Fi network segment with distinct ESSID (network name) linking to the same logical network such as when dealing with a dual-band network with separate network names for each band.

What needs to be done

Personally, I would like to see Wi-Fi EasyConnect configuration functionality baked in to desktop and mobile operating systems including Apple’s operating systems rather than be separate programs. This avoids the need to find, download and install separate EasyConnect apps from your platform’s app store or loading a computer or smartphone with too many apps. But it could encourage other software developers to build improved Wi-Fi EasyConnect configuration apps that may, perhaps, suit particular user needs like asset control in the business-computing context.

I would also encourage the idea of maintaining WPS-PBC push-button pairing as an alternative method to Wi-Fi EasyConnect for onboarding Wi-Fi devices. This is more so for those devices that have a limited or no user interface and the goal is to quickly onboard a device without a rich user interface like a printer to a Wi-Fi router or access point.

Similarly, the use of NFC or Bluetooth as a legitimate certification option for onboarding Wi-Fi devices has to be encouraged and underscored through the life of this standard. Here, I would prefer that smartphones or tablets equipped with NFC and / or Bluetooth be tested to be compliant with the NFC and Bluetooth aspects of this standard.

There also has to be the ability with Wi-Fi EasyConnect to onboard a Wi-Fi network device with a limited user interface to an enterprise-grade Wi-Fi network that uses individual usernames and passwords. This is important for “Internet-Of-Things” devices that will increasingly be part of these networks.

Conclusion

Wi-Fi EasyConnect leads to another way of onboarding a Wi-Fi network device or access point using another device equipped with a rich user interface and can apply across all small-network setups.

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Instagram is offering a video service that competes against YouTube

Article

Instagram – now supporting IGTV and competing with YouTube

Instagram is launching its YouTube clone, IGTV, on Android in a few weeks | Android

IGTV in action

Authority

Meet Instagram’s YouTube Clone: IGTV | Gizmodo Australia

Here’s IGTV: Instagram’s vertical answer to YouTube | FastCompany

My Comments

There have been some recent situations where YouTube has become arrogant with how they treat end-users, content creators and advertisers thanks to their effective monopoly position for user-generated video content. One of these was a fight that Google and Amazon got into over voice-driven personal assistants and this led to Google removing YouTube support from Amazon’s Echo Show smart display. I even wrote that it is high time that YouTube faces competition in order to lift its game.

Initially Framasoft who is a French developers got working on an open-source video-distribution mechanism called “PeerTube” with a view to have it compete against YouTube.

But Instagram, owned by Facebook, have set up their own video-sharing platform called IGTV. This will be available as a separate iOS/Android mobile-platform app but also allow the clips to appear on your main Instagram user experience.

Initially this service will offer video in a vertical format for up to 1 hour long. The format is chosen to complement the fact that it is likely to be used on a smartphone or tablet that is handheld. The one-hour length will be offered to select content creators rather than to everyone while most of us will end up with 10 minutes. This may also appeal to the creation of “snackable” video content.

Currently Instagram offers video posting for 60 seconds on its main feed or 15 seconds in its Stories function. This is why I often see Stories pertaining to the same event having many videos daisy-chained.

The IGTV user experience will have you immediately begin watching video content from whoever you follow on Instagram. There will be playlist categories like “For You” (videos recommended for you), “Following” (videos from whom you follow), “Popular” (popular content) and “Continue Watching” (clips you are already working through).

The social-media aspect will allow you to like or comment on videos as well as sharing them to your friends using Instagram’s Direct mode. As well, each Instagram creator will have their own IGTV channel which will host the longer clips.

A question that can easily come up is whether Instagram will make it work for usage beyond mobile-platform viewing. This means support for horizontal aspect ratios, or viewing on other devices like snart-display devices of the Echo Home ilk, regular computers or Smart TV / set-top devices including games consoles.

It is an effort by Instagram and Facebook to compete for video viewers and creators but I see the limitation to the vertical format as being a limitation if the idea is to directly compete with YouTube. But Facebook and Instagram need to look at what YouTube isn’t offering and the platforms they have deserted in order to provide an edge over them.

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Sonos launches the first soundbar that works with multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Sonos Beam soundbar connected to TV - press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam under the TV

Sonos says its new Beam speaker will be able to talk to Siri, Alexa, and Assistant | FastCompany

A closer look at Sonos Beam: Smaller, smarter and more connected | Engadget

Sonos introduce cheaper, smarter Sonos Beam soundbar | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Sonos

Sonos Beam (product page – direct purchase opportunity, press release)

My Comments

Sonos Beam soundbar (black finish) press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam soundbar

Sonos has offered a smart speaker that not just is part of their own multi-room ecosystem but can work with multiple different voice assistants. Now they have taken this concept further by offering the Sonos Beam compact sound bar which can do this same trick.

They have taken this approach due to a reality with people operating two or more different voice-driven assistants. The classic reality would be someone who has an Amazon Echo at home but uses Siri in their iPhone or Google Assistant in their Android smartphone. But these assistants don’t complement each other effectively or even work with each other at all.

But this has been taken further with the Sonos Beam soundbar which is seen as a competitor to JBL’s Link Bar soundbar that has integrated Android TV set-top box functionality and can work with the Google Assistant. Initially it will come with Amazon Alexa but Siri and Google Assistant will be delivered as firmware updates through the year. A firmware upgrade will fully enable the Sonos Beam for Apple’s AirPlay 2 ecosystem which is Apple’s take on a full-blown multiroom setup centred around their products.

Sonos multiroom system press picture courtesy of Sonos

Works equally well with the rest of the Sonos multiroom system

For the sound, the Sonos Beam soundbar uses a digital-enhancement approach to draw out the bass from its compact cabinet. But you could team it with Sonos’s “Sub” subwoofer if you find that this may offer a better job at providing that extra bass. As well, thanks to the Sonos setup, you could team two of their standard speakers if you want to set up the full surround-sound experience.

The Sonos Beam “hears” you through an integrated far-field microphone array. But you can control whether it hears you or not by pressing a microphone-mute button on the speaker – this will have a “mic” icon located on it. The ability to control the microphone on this device reduces the risk of nuisance triggering which can easily happen when TV content is being played. Thanks to the HDMI-CEC standard facilitated by the HDMI-ARC connection, there is the ability to voice-control your TV in relation to sound volume (including muting the advertisements) or power status.

A limitation most of us will find with this soundbar is that it only has one HDMI connection for HDMI-ARC connectivity to the TV for its sound. This can be very constraining for those of us who use a TV that has very few HDMI connections and you use all these connections for various video peripherals.

But it is another effort by Sonos to prove that a smart-speaker device could support multiple voice-driven assistant platforms on the same device. Could this also be a reality with other equipment manufacturers soon? On the other hand, could this device become a virtual friend for that lonely person by providing better sound for daytime TV or being someone to talk to?

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Google and Facebook are starting to bring accountability to political advertising

Articles

Australian House of Representatives ballot box - press picture courtesy of Australian Electoral Commission

Are you sure you are casting your vote without undue influence? (Courtesy of Australian Electoral Commission)

Facebook announces major changes to political ad policies | NBC News

Facebook reveals new political ad policies in wake of U.S. election | VentureBeat

What Can and Can’t You Do with Political Advertising on Facebook? | Spatially

Google Joins Facebook In Banning All Ads Related To Ireland’s Big Abortion Vote | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Update on Our Advertising Transparency and Authenticity Efforts {Press Release)

Facebook will not be accepting referendum related ads from advertisers based outside of Ireland {Press Release)

Google

Supporting election integrity through greater advertising transparency (Blog Post)

My Comments

Over the last five months, a strong conversation has risen surrounding electioneering and political advertising on the online platforms including social media and online advertising.

The trends concerning this activity is that the political advertising spend is moving away from traditional print and broadcast media towards online media as we make more use of highly-portable computing devices to consume our information and entertainment.

Issues that have also been raised include the use of fake comments and pre-programmed auto-responding “bots” as part of political campaigns. This is alongside the rise of very divisive political campaigns during the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential election cycles that played on racial and religious prejudices. There is also the fact that nation states with improper intentions are seeing the idea of poisoning the information flow as another weapon in their cyber-warfare arsenal.

It has also been facilitated through the use of highly-focused data-driven campaign-targeting techniques based on factors like race, gender, location and interests, with this practice being highlighted in the Cambridge Analytica saga that caught up Facebook and Twitter.

As well, the online advertising and social media platforms have made it easy to create and maintain an advertising or editorial campaign that transcends jurisdictional borders. This is compared to traditional media that would be dependent on having the advertising material pass muster with the media outlet’s advertising staff in the outlet’s market before it hits the presses or the airwaves.

This issue will become more real with the use of addressable TV advertising which is currently practised with some advertising-based video-on-demand services and some cable-TV platforms but will become the norm with traditional linear TV being delivered through through the increasing use of interactive-TV platforms.

This technology would facilitate “hyper-targeting” of political campaigns such as municipal-level or postcode/ZIP-code targeting yet maintain the same “air of legitimacy” that the traditional TV experience provides, making it feasible to destabilise elections and civil discourse on the local-government level.

Election-oversight authorities in the various jurisdictions like the Australian Electoral Commission or the UK’s Electoral Commission have been doing battle with the online trend because most of the legislation and regulation surrounding political and election activities has been “set in stone” before the rise of the Internet. For example, in most jurisdictions, you will see or hear a disclosure tag after a political advertisement stating which organisation or individual was behind that ad. Or there will be financial reporting and auditing requirements for the election campaigns that take place before the polls.

Facebook and Google are having to face these realities through the use of updated advertising-platform policies which govern political advertising, But Facebook applies this to candidate-based campaigns and issues-based campaigns while Google applies this to candidate-based campaigns only at the time of writing.

Firstly there is a prohibition on political advertising from entities foreign to the jurisdiction that the ad is targeted for. This is in line with legislation and regulation implemented by most jurisdictions proscribing foreign donations to political campaigns affecting that jurisdiction.

This is augmented through a requirement for political advertisers to furnish proof of identity and residence in the targeted jurisdiction. In the case of Facebook, they apply this policy to pages and profiles with very large followings as well as ads. Similarly, they implement a postcard-based proof-of-residence procedure where they send a postcard by snail mail to the user’s US-based home / business address to very presence in the USA.

Facebook augments this requirement by using artificial-intelligence to flag if an ad is political or not, so they can make sure that the advertiser is complying with the requirements for political advertising on this platform.

Like with traditional media, political ads on both these platforms will be required to have a disclosure tag. But Facebook goes further by making this a hyperlink that end-users can click on to see details like verification documents, why the viewer saw the ad along with a link to the sponsoring organisation’s Facebook Page. This has more utility than the slide shown at the end of a TV or online ad, the voice-announcement at the end of a radio ad or small text at the bottom of a print-media ad or billboard poster which most of these tags represent.

Both of the Internet titans will also make sure details about these campaigns are available and transparent to end-users so they know what is going on. For example, Facebook requires advertisers to maintain a Facebook Page before they buy advertising on any of the Facebook-owned platforms. This will have a “View Ads” tab which includes details about targeting of each current and prior campaign with a four-year archive allowance.

Google has taken things further by making sure that political organisations, politicians, the media and journalists are aware of the resources they have to assure data security for their campaigns and other efforts. Here, they have prepared a “Protect Your Election” Webpage that highlights the resources that they provide that are relevant for each kind of player in a political campaign. This includes Project Shield to protect Websites against distributed denial-of-service attacks, along with enhanced security measures available to operators of Google Accounts associated with critical data.

Both companies have been implementing these procedures for North America with Facebook trying them out in Canada then “cementing” them in to the USA before the midterm Congress election cycle there. Both companies then took action to suspend political ads from foreign entities outside Ireland during the election cycle for the Eighth Amendment abortion referendum taking place in that country. Here, they have applied the prohibition until the close of polls on May 25 2018. Let’s not forget that these standards will be gradually rolled out in to other jurisdictions over time.

But what I would like to see is for companies who run online advertising and social-media activity to liaise strongly with election-oversight officials in the various jurisdictions especially if it affects a currently-running poll or one that is to take place in the near future. This is in order to advise these officials of any irregularities that are taking place with political advertising on their online platforms or for the officials to notify them about issues or threats that can manifest through the advertising process.

 

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JBL premieres a soundbar with a built-in Android TV set-top box

Articles

Google partners with JBL for an Android TV-powered soundbar | The Verge

JBL’s next soundbar doubles as an Android TV box | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Harman (JBL)

Smart TV Content Meets Amazing Sound: JBL and Google Developing LINK BAR (Press Release)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

One set-top-box manufacturer approached the subscription-TV and ISP market with the idea of integrating a set-top box and a soundbar in to the one physical unit.

It is to capitalise on the fact that most of us would prefer to use a soundbar rather than the multiple-speaker home-theatre setup. This is perhaps about budget issues or TV-positioning arrangements like the traditional “TV in the corner” arrangement to avoid competing with the view offered by a picture window or fireplace. As well, we may be more interested in maintaining a stereo system dedicated to music playback.

Now JBL has answered this product class through premiering at Google I/O 2018 the Link Bar soundbar which has a built-in Android TV set-top box. This unit has the full Android TV experience including the ability to download Android-TV-based native apps through the Google Play Store. It also has a microphone built in to it so you can speak to the Google Assistant to call up video content. As per requirements for the Android TV platform, you have to press a button to make the microphone come alive so you can speak to the Google Assistant

Android TV has appeared in some smart-TV devices, especially the NVIDIA Shield games console and a significant number of Sony smart TVs. But for JBL to issue this platform in a soundbar is very impressive and is an attempt to push out this product class. It is also an attempt to get Android beyond the smartphones and the tablets.

There is the ability to connect the Link Bar soundbar to your TV and video peripherals via HDMI with it honouring HDMI-CEC and HDMI-ARC expectations. This is taken further by you being able to switch sources or control the TV with your voice. As well, the Google Assistant is available independent of whether the TV is on or off and can work tightly with your Google Home smart-home setup.

JBL intends to have the Link Bar ready for release in to the US market at least by between September – November 2018.  Here, I would see this soundbar work well alongside most flat-screen TVs and have them become a Smart TV. But what needs to happen is that Google needs to keep the Android TV operating system up-to-date to make sure it works properly and securely all the time.

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How do I see the state of play with network-based multiroom audio?

Definitive Technologies W-Series multiroom soundbar – an example of one of these network multiroom speakers

Increasingly everyone in the consumer audio-visual industry are releasing multiroom audio platforms that work across a small network to share audio content through your house.

This typically is used as a way for these vendors to “bind” most of their network-capable audio-video products having them serve as an endpoint for music around the house. For some manufacturers, this functionality is seen as a way to differentiate their consumer-electronics product ranges.

Key functions offered by most network-based multiroom audio platforms

Each unit in a network-based multiroom audio platform can be one of many AV device classes. These cam be: a speaker system that plays out the audio content; an adaptor device that plays the audio content through another sound system that has its own amplification and speakers; or a network-capable amplifier that connects to a set of speakers.

The adaptor devices are often promoted as a way to bring an existing hi-fi in to the context of a multiroom audio setup, but you could use computer speakers or a 1980s-era boombox for the same effect. Similarly, network-capable amplifiers may be seen as a way to get existing speakers as part of a multiroom audio setup.

There are different variations on the theme with soundbars that are connected to a TV, or receivers and stereo systems that are capable of acting in their own right as a sound system but can be part of these multiroom setups, or subwoofers that connect to the home network but exist to add some “kick” to the sound played by other speakers in the setup.

These work on the premise of the speakers existing on the same logical network of a “home / small-business” network setup. That is where

  • the network is connected to one router that typically gives it access to Internet service,
  • Wi-Fi wireless segments are set up according to the WPA-Personal (shared passphrase) arrangement
  • members of a network are not isolated and can easily discover each other
  • and you are not using a Web-based login page to use the network.

This Def Tech device is an “on-ramp” digital media adaptor for a network-based multiroom audio setup

The speakers can be set up as members of a logical group that typically represents a room, with the ability to have multiple logical speaker groups on the same logical network. Under normal operation, all speakers of that group play the same audio stream synchronously. As well, the hardware and software works together to avoid jitter and other problems associated with moving synchronous time-dependent audio content across packet-based networks.

Some platforms allow the creation of a multichannel group where a speaker or speakers play a channel of a stereo or multichannel soundmix. Here, you could have one speaker play the left channel of a stereo soundmix while another speaker plays the right channel of that stereo mix. This has led to the creation of surround-sound setups with a soundbar or surround-capable stereo receiver playing the front channels of a surround soundmix while wireless speakers look after the surround channels and low-frequency effects of that mix.

Let’s not forget that some systems have the ability to use certain speakers to handle particular frequency ranges of the audio stream. The obvious case is to bring in a wireless subwoofer to provide that bit of extra bass punch to the music. But it could be to use full-range speaker systems with improved bass response to complement speakers that don’t have that kind of bass response. In this case, the full-range speaker may be allow frequency-level adjustability and you could set things up so that it puts more of its power behind the bass while the other speakers provide stronger localised treble response.

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – a MusicCast-based example of a stereo component that cam stream its own sources to a network multiroom system or play content from an online or multiroom source

You can adjust the sound levels for each output device individually or adjust them all as a group, The individual approach can appeal to “party-mode” arrangements where different speakers are in different rooms and is of benefit where you can adjust the sound level on the device itself; but the group approach comes in handy with multiple speakers in one room such as a multichannel setup.

All of these setups use a mobile-platform app supplied by the platform vendor as the control surface. But some of them allow some form of elementary control like programme selection or sound-level adjustment through controls on the device or its remote control. Let’s not forget that an increasing number of these platforms are being supported by interfaces for one or more voice-driven home assistants so you can tell Amazon Alexa to adjust the volume or play a particular source through the system.

Most of these platforms allow a device to have integrated programme sources or input connections for external equipment and stream what’s playing through these sources or inputs through one or more other speakers. The applications put forward include to play the TV sound from a connected TV in the living room through a speaker in the kitchen or to have the music on a CD playing on the stereo system’s CD player coming through a speaker in the bedroom.

A party context for this feature could include connecting an audio adaptor with a line-level input to the DJ’s mixer output in parallel with his PA amplifier and speakers serving the dance-floor area. Then you “extend” the party sound that the DJ creates in to the other rooms using other wireless speakers / audio adaptors based on that same platform with each output device working at a level appropriate to the area each speaker or adaptor-equipped sound system is used in. Here, the multiroom audio setup can make it easy to provide “right-sized” amplification for other areas at the venue.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

The Denon HEOS multiroom speakers – a typical example of network-based multiroom devices

Increasingly, most of these platforms are being geared towards taking advantage of your home network to reproduce master-grade audio content recorded at the different speakers. Initially this was to cater towards file-based audio content sourced from online “download-to-own” music storefronts who cater to audiophiles but is catering towards high-quality streaming-music services. It also is a way to stream audio content from analogue sources such as your vinyl record collection across your home network without losing sound quality in the process.

The current limitations with these systems

The multiroom-audio platforms are created by the audio-equipment manufacturers or, in some cases, the companies who are behind the hardware chipsets used in these devices. Only one platform, namely DTS PlayFi, is created by a company who isn’t developing particular chipsets or equipment.

Here, this leads effectively to balkanisation of the network-based multiroom audio marketplace where you have to be sure all your equipment is part of one platform for it to work correctly. You may be able to work around this problem through connecting one unit from one platform to another unit belonging to another platform using a line-level, digital or Bluetooth connection, then juggling between two different mobile-platform apps to control the system.

What needs to happen?

As this product function evolves, there needs to be room to improve.

Firstly, there needs to be the ability for one to establish a network-based multiroom setup using devices based on different platforms. This would require creating and maintaining industry-wide standards and specifications under an umbrella “multiroom AV platform” that all the manufacturers can implement, in a similar way to HDMI-CEC equipment control via HDMI. The Wi-Fi Alliance have taken steps towards this by developing Wi-Fi TimeSync as a standards-based approach towards achieving audio synchronisation across Wi-Fi-based devices. Qualcomm is wanting to push the AllPlay

It would also be about identifying and creating multichannel audio setups that can work appropriately. In the case of a stereo setup, this would require the speakers to have the same output level and frequency response for a proper stereo pair. A surround setup would work with speakers that are part of a “pair” in the Front, Surround or Back (7.1 setups) having the same output level and frequency response. To the same extent, it could be about adding a subwoofer to speakers that can only handle the middle and higher frequencies.

Manufacturers also have to underscore whether these systems can work across any network segment types present in a home network including handling networks that are comprised of multiple segments. This can cater to wireless networks implementing either an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone, or one of the newer distributed-Wi-Fi networks. A few multiroom audio platforms have achieved this goal through the supply of equipment, typically stereo systems and adaptor devices, that uses Ethernet connectivity as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.

There is also the issue of allowing for network-based multiroom audio setups to have a high number of endpoint devices even on a typical home network. Here it is about how much can be handled across the typical network’s bandwidth especially if the network and devices implement up-to-date high-bandwidth technology.

This is important if one considers implementing one or more multichannel groups or use wireless subwoofers in every group for that bit of extra bass. It also is important where someone may want to run two or more logical groups at once with each logical group running the same or a different local or online content source.

Some manufacturers may determine device limits based on the number of logical groups that can be created. But I would still like to do away with placing an artificial ceiling on how large one can have their multiroom audio setup, with the only limit being the effective bandwidth available to the home network.

Conclusion

The network-based multiroom audio technology is showing some signs of maturity but a lot more effort needs to take place to assure a level playing field for consumers who want to implement such setups.

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Dell takes a leaf out of Detroit’s book with their budget gaming laptops

Articles

Dell G7 15 gaming laptop press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell G Series laptops – to be the “pony cars” of the gaming laptop scene

Dell’s new G series laptops pair gaming specs with a cheap plastic chassis | The Verge

Dell rebrands Inspiron gaming laptops to G Series, serves up four new models | Digital Trends

Dell’s G Series laptops are priced for every gamer | PC World

Dell’s Renamed Low-Cost Gaming Laptops are Thinner and Faster Than Before | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Ford Mustang fastback at car show

Dell used the same approach as Ford did in the 1960s with the original Mustang

During the heyday of the “good cars” that was represented through the 1960s and 1970s, the major vehicle builders worked on various ways to approach younger drivers who were after something that was special.

One of these was to offer a “pony car” which was a specifically-designed sporty-styled two-door car that had a wide range of power, trim and other options yet had a base model that was affordable to this class of buyer. Another was to place in to the product lineup for a standard family-car model a two-door coupe and / or a “sports sedan” / “sports saloon” that is a derivative of that standard family car and built on that same chassis but known under an exciting name with examples being the Holden Monaro or the Plymouth Duster. This would be available as something that young people could want to have when they are after something impressive.

Both these approaches were made feasible through the use of commonly-produced parts rather than special parts for most of the variants or option classes. As well, there was the option for vehicle builders to run with variants that are a bit more special such as racing-homologation specials as well as providing “up-sell” options for customers to vary their cars with.

The various laptop computer manufacturers are trying to work on a product class that can emulate what was achieved with these cars. Here, it is to achieve a range of affordable high-performance computers that can appeal to young buyers who want to play the latest “enthusiast-grade” games on.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – to be superseded by the Dell G Series

One of the steps that has taken place was to offer a high-performance “gaming-grade” variant of a standard laptop model like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop, one of which I had reviewed. This approach is similar to offering the “Sport” or “GT” variant of a common family-car model, where the vehicle is equipped with a performance-tuned powertrain like the Ford Falcon GT cars.

But Dell have come very closer to the mark associated with either the “pony cars” or the sporty-styled vehicles derived from the standard family-car model with the release of the Inspiron G series of affordable gamer-grade laptops. Here, they released the G3, G5 and G7 models with baseline models being equipped with traditional hard disks and small RAM amounts. But these were built on a very similar construction to the affordable mainstream laptops.

These models are intended to replace the Inspiron 15 Gaming series of performance laptops and it shows that they want to cater to the young gamers who may not afford the high-end gaming-focused models. As well, the G Series name tag is intended to replace the Inspiron nametag due to its association with Dell’s mainstream consumer laptop products which takes the “thunder” out of owning a special product. This is similar to the situation I called out earlier with sporty vehicles that are derivatives of family-car models having their own nameplate.

The G3, which is considered the entry-level model, comes with a 15” or a 17” Full-HD screen and is available in a black or blue finish with the 15” model also available in white. It also has a standard USB-C connection with Thunderbolt 3 as an extra-cost “upsell” option along with Bluetooth 5 connectivity. This computer is the thinnest of the series but doesn’t have as much ventilation as the others.

The G5 which is the step-up model, is a thicker unit with rear-facing ventilation and is finished in black or red. This, like the G7 is equipped with Thunderbolt 3 for an external graphics module along with Bluetooth 4 and has the ability for one to buy a fingerprint scanner as an option. Also it comes only with a 15” screen available in 4K or Full HD resolution.

The G7 is the top-shelf model totally optimised for performance. This is a thicker unit with increased ventilation and implements high-clocked CPU and RAM that is tuned for performance. It has similar connectivity to the G5 along with similar display technology and is the only computer in the lineup to implement the highly-powerful Intel Core i9 CPU that was launched as the high-performance laptop CPU as part of the latest Coffee Lake lineup.

All the computers will be implementing the latest Coffee Lake lineup of Intel high-performance Core CPUs, being the Core i5-8300HQ or Core i7-8750H processors depending on the specification. In the case of the high-performance G7, the Intel Core i9-8950HQ CPU will be offered as an option for high performance.

They all use standalone NVIDIA graphics processors to paint the picture on the display with a choice between the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q, the GeForce GTX1050Ti or the GeForce GTX1050. What is interesting about the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q is that it is designed to run with reduced power consumption and thermal output, thus allowing it to run cool in slim notebooks and do away with fans. But the limitation here is that the computer doesn’t have the same kind of graphics performance compared to a fully-fledged GeForce GTX1060 setup which would be deployed in the larger gaming laptops.

Lower-tier packages will run with mechanical hard drives while the better packages will offer use of hybrid hard disks (increased solid-state cache), solid-state drives or dual-drive setups with the system drive (C drive with operating system) being a solid-state device and data being held on a 1Tb hard disk known as the D drive.

I would see these machines serving as a high-performance solo computer for people like college / university students who want to work with high-end games or put their foot in to advanced graphics work. As well, I wouldn’t put it past Lenovo, HP and others to run with budget-priced high-performance gaming laptops in order to compete with Dell in courting this market segment.

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What is the new HEIF image file format about?

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

An iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 has native support for the HEIF image file format

A new image file format has started to surface over the last few years but it is based on a different approach to storing image files.

This file format, known as the HEIF or High Efficiency Image Format, is designed and managed by the MPEG group who have defined a lot of commonly-used video formats. It is being seen by some as the “still-image version of HEVC” with HEVC being the video codec used for 4K UHDTV video files. But it uses HEVC as the preferred codec for image files and will provide support for newer and better image codecs, including newer codecs offering lossless image compression in a similar vein to what FLAC offers for audio files.

Unlike JPEG and the other image files that have existed before it, HEIF is seen as a “container file” for multiple image and other objects rather than just one image file and some associated metadata. As well, the HEIF file format and the HEVC codec are designed to take advantage of today’s powerful computing hardware integrated in our devices.

The primary rule here for HEIF is that it is a container file format speci

Simple concept view of the HEIF image file format

fically for collections of still images. It is not really about replacing one of the video container file formats like MP4 or MKV which are specifically used primarily for video footage.

What will this mean?

One HEIF file could contain a collection of image files such as “mapping images” to improve image playback in certain situations. It can also contain the images taken during a “burst” shot where the camera takes a rapid sequence of images. This can also apply with image bracketing where you take a sequence of shots at different exposure, focus or other camera settings to identify an ideal image setup or create an advanced composite photograph.

This leads to HEIF dumping GIF as the carrier for animated images that are often provided on the Web. Here, you could use software to identify a sequence of images to be played like a video, including having them repeat in a loop thanks to the addition of in-file metadata. This emulates what the Apple Live Photos function was about with iOS and can allow users to create high-quality animations, cinemagraphs (still photos with a small discreet looping animation) or slide-shows in the one HEIF file.

HEIF uses the same codec associated with 4K UHDTV for digital photos

There is also the ability to store non-image objects like text, audio or video in an HEIF file along with the images which can lead to a lot of things. For example, you could set a smartphone to take a still and short video clip at the same time like with Apple Live Photos or you could have images with text or audio notes. On the other hand, you could attach “stamps”, text and emoji to a series of photos that will be sent as an email or message like what is often done with the “stories” features in some of the social networks. In some ways it could be seen as a way to package vector-graphics images with a “compatibility” or “preview” bitmap image.

The HEIF format will also support non-destructive metadata-based editing where this editing is carried out using metadata that describes rectangular crops or image rotations. This is so you could revise an edit at a later time or obtain another edit from the same master image.

It also leads to the use of “derived images” which are the results of one of these edits or image compositions like an HDR or stitched-together panorama image. These can be generated at the time the file is opened or can be created by the editing or image management software and inserted in the HEIF file with the original images. Such a concept could also extend to the rendering and creation of a video object that is inserted in the HEIF file.

HEIF makes better use of advanced photo options offered by advanced cameras

Here, having a derived image or video inserted in the HEIF file can benefit situations where the playback or server setup doesn’t have enough computing power to create an edit or composition of acceptable quality in an acceptable timeframe. Similarly, it could answer situations where the software used either at the production/editing, serving or playback devices does a superlative job of rendering the edits or compositions.

The file format even provides alternative viewing options for the same resource. For example, a user could see a wide-angle panorama image based on a series of shots as either a wide-aspect-ration image or a looping video sequence representing the camera panning across the scene.

What kind of support exists for the HEIF format?

At the moment, Apple’s iOS 11, tvOS 11 (Apple TV) and MacOS High Sierra provide native support for the HEIF format. The new iPhone and iPad provide hardware-level support for the HEVC codec that is part of this format and the iOS 11 platform along with the iCloud service provides inherent exporting of these images for email and other services not implementing this format.

Microsoft is intending to integrate HEIF in to Windows 10 from the Spring Creators Update onwards. As well, Google is intending to bake it in to the “P” version of Android which is their next feature version of that mobile platform.

As for dedicated devices like digital cameras, TVs and printers; there isn’t any native support for HEIF due to it being a relatively new image format. But most likely this will come about through newer devices or devices acquiring newer software.

Let’s not forget that newer image player and editing / management software that is continually maintained will be able to work with these files. The various online services like Dropbox, Apple iCloud or Facebook are or will be offering differing levels of HEIF image-file support the the evolution of their platform. Depending on the service, this will be to hold the files “as-is” or to export and display them in a “best-case” format.

There will be some compatibility issues with hardware and software that doesn’t support this format. This may be rectified with operating systems, image editing / management software or online services that offer HEIF file-conversion abilities. Such software will need to export particular images or derivative images in an HEIF file as a JPEG image for stills or a GIF, MP4 or QuickTime MOV file for timed sequences, animations and similar material.

In the context of DLNA-based media servers, it may be about a similar approach to an online service where the media server has to be able to export original or derived images from one of these files held on a NAS as a JPEG still image or a GIF or MP4 video file where appropriate.

Conclusion

As the container-based HEIF image format comes on to the scene as the possible replacement for JPEG and GIF image files, it could be about an image file format that shows promise for both the snapshooter or the advanced photographer.

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