An iPod-enabled music system that can also benefit from Android’s new USB Audio interface
Apple iOS users have had the advantage of also having a USB single-wire or docking connection between their iOS device and accessory equipment, with the ability to channel the sound data, the control signals and power to their device using the same connection. This has built up the iPod / iPhone accessory market very strongly with the accessories allowing the user to start and stop the music or move between tracks and folders on their iPod or iPhone using the control surface that the accessory provides.
People who used Google Android devices were limited to an analogue or Bluetooth audio link between an amplification device and their smartphone or tablet with support for transport control if the phone was connected via Bluetooth. They typically had to run a separate USB cable if they wanted to supply power to the Android device from that accessory.
Now the latest iteration of the Android platform, known as “Jelly Bean” and version number 4.1, supports USB Audio. This is similar to how a USB speaker system or external sound card can work with most desktop operating systems. It can then allow a large manufacturer base to develop “Android-friendly” audio playback equipment like speakers, Internet radios and hi-fi amplifiers / receivers in a timeframe that allows the device to be “ready-to-market” quickly.
What could be looked at
There are some questions I have about this kind of setup. One is whether the USB Audio functionality in Android Jelly Bean can allow for communications audio as well as audio content from the media player program. This would be of importance with automotive applications where the USB Audio link could be used as an alternative to Bluetooth for hands-free telephony in the car.
The other issue to look at is exposing the accessory device’s control surface as a control point for the Android device’s communications and media-playback functions. This situation would be of importance for accessory devices which have other audio or video sources like broadcast tuners, optical-disc players or USB Mass-Storage device connection. In the automotive context, it also extends to nearly all car infotainment setups that allow the user to make or take a call using the controls on the dashboard.
Here, it could be feasible for the accessory to control the media player or phone user interface using either the screen on the Android device or using the controls on the accessory. Here, it could allow for “basic” transport control and metadata display on the accessory device while advanced “search and play” can be performed on the Android device. Similarly, call-progress control can be managed using controls on the dashboard with the ability to, when the car is parked, commence a call on the Android device’s touchscreen.
Similarly, MirrorLink or similar techniques culd allow the accessory device to be configured or controlled in an advanced manner using the touchscreen on the Android device. It could come in handy with A/V equipment which may need specific configuration and setup procedures or Blu-Ray players that may expose “second-screen” interactivity functionality on the handset.
At least, Google have integrated commonly-accepted open standards to add functionality to Android in a manner as to rival the established Apple mobile-device platform and stimulate a healthy competitive design environment.
I was talking with a friend about the status quo with in-vehicle navigation options and what can be done about it. He was remarking about the way the vehicle builders don’t provide a smooth path for improving these systems through the vehicle’s service life.
The current situation
Typically the feature is rolled out in to mid-range to high-end vehicles as a standard option or an add-on option depending on the vehicle’s trim level. Then, if the vehicle owner wants to keep the maps in the system up to date, they have to take the car to the vehicle dealership and have the data updated there, which knocks them back by a decent amount.
It can be a problem when, in some countries like Australia where the roads aren’t likely to be icy, the service life of a vehicle i.e. the number of years between the time the vehicle leaves the factory and the time it ends up on the scrapheap tends to be in the order of ten years or more. In this situation, there isn’t the guarantee that an OEM navigation platform could be supported by the manufacturers for that duration whether in the form of new software or map data. As well, technology marches on with many improvements in this space and users of these systems can feel as though they are effectively “stuck” with these systems in their current form.
Similarly, people who buy portable navigation devices aka “GPS units” or “sat-navs” have to purchase map updates from the device’s manufacturer at a princely sum. It doesn’t matter whether the update is to add extra coverage or functionality to the device or update the maps therein.
Toshiba AT1So 7″ Android tablet – an alternative to in-car or portable GPS units
The smartphone or tablet is making these devices less relevant due to the integration of a navigation solution which has constantly-updated maps that can be downloaded for free via the Internet. Drivers can then go to mobile-phone accessory stores and purchase aftermarket mounts that attach to the dashboard or windscreen (windshield) of the car no matter how old it is so they can easily and safely operate the smartphone or tablet from the driver’s seat.
What can vehicle builders do
If a vehicle builder wants to make these options relevant to the smartphone / tablet user, they could take one of a few paths.
One path that can be used as a cheaper option would be to use the MirrorLink system which allows the dashboard-based control surface to become a control terminal for the smartphone or tablet. This could use an Android or iOS app that works as a MirrorLink server for the handset or tablet.
Another, would be to provide a user-removable 7” Android tablet in a similar form to the previously-reviewed Toshiba AT1S0 tablet that installs in to a dashboard space and works as a car navigation system but updates itself from the home network or a 3G link. The tablet could also be a loading point for various “trip-computer”, advanced-navigation and infotainment apps like TuneIn Radio. This method also has the advantage of being sold as an option that dealers can supply to customers as a deal-maker when the vehicle is being sold.
The last option would be the integrated navigation option that has the ability to be updated via a home network or a 3G link. This setup could be monetised through the provision of advanced-navigation apps like branded “find-nearest” tools, tour guides or directories. As well, this can be used as an app platform in itself for developing software that appeals to all users or a subset thereof. Of course, the apps can be downloaded via the abovementioned home network or 3G link.
What can be done for aftermarket car infotainment
The aftermarket infotainment scene can use similar paths for improved smartphone / tablet relevance. This class has to appeal to vehicles built across a very long timeframe typically since the 1950s and, in the case of new vehicles that had integrated infotainment options, is catered for with conversion kits.
One path could be to supply 2-DIN “media” head units that work as MirrorLink terminals that work with MirrorLink mobile devices. This can be varied through the use of a 1-DIN unit with a retractable or satellite screen.
Another path would be a “media” head unit that has an app platform and the ability to update via a 3G or home-network connection. This could be furnished in the form of a 2-DIN unit or a 1-DIN unit with a retractable or satellite screen.
The last option would be a 1-DIN head unit that supports full integration with 5” smartphone or 7” tablet. The smartphone or tablet would be able to be installed in a dashboard or windscreen mount and link to the head unit via Bluetooth or USB, similar to the status quo for most smartphone / in-car infotainment setups. In this environment, both these devices can work together with navigation looked after by the smartphone or tablet and the head unit offering basic control options like volume control or content selection offered by knobs and buttons.
What needs to happen with OEM and aftermarket vehicle navigation and infotainment is that there has to be support for updating, upgrading and improvement. This could be facilitated through the use of open-frame platforms like Android or Windows RT; as well as constant update paths with access to complimentarily-available map data for Google and similar sources.
It also includes encompassing the vehicle in the home network when it is at home as well as linking it with affordable mobile-broadband services.
I have noticed a gap concerning computer-based audio-visual setups especially as far as small business and non-profit organisations are concerned. It is to supply computer software affordable to these organisations that can manage audio and video playout duties that is a key part of their public-facing activities.
The current situation
Some of these organisations may push PowerPoint or similar programs to this task but they don’t really do the job well when it just comes to playing out video content. Typically, with most common presentation software, you have to embed the video file into the presentation on its own slide, in the case of Microsoft Powerpoint; or create a “virtual slide” for the video content in the case of EasiiSlides, a song-lyrics / text-display program that the churches love. This works well for short video clips that are held as files but may not do so for full-length content. These programs don’t even provide proper access to content held on DVDs or Blu-Ray Discs, which is still considered a cost-effective idiot-proof way of distributing video content.
On the other hand, programs like Windows Media Player and VLC exhibit their control surface on to the projection screen or require a very awkward kludge to permit proper dual-screen playback.
What is needed
Proper dual-screen operation
One issue I have noticed is that affordable laptops don’t readily provide separate and individual access to screen and sound outputs, including the integrated screen. Typically this kind of setup, if it works, tends to yield more problems than it is worth. This can be of concern if one of the screens is a different resolution or aspect ratio to the other, such as an economy data projector hooked up to a recent-issue laptop computer.
Audience screen vs operator screen
The goal behind these separately-addressable audio and video outputs is to create at least two separate views for the content – a “front-of-house” view which the audience sees and an “operator” or “control” view which the operator or presenter sees.
The audience feed would only show the video and audio that is related to the currently-playing content while the operator feed provides the video / audio content, content-runtime information, and any prompts and messages that the operator needs to know.
Some setups such as larger churches may necessitate a third feed for the presenter, with access to content timing as well as the content itself. Here, an operator can still control the flow of the presentation without the presenter “crooking his neck” to see the screen.
Universality with common video formats
This setup should be applicable for the consumer-optical-disc formats (DVD, Blu-Ray) as well as file or stream-delivered content. The latter situation should cater for content held on network resources as well as on local resources.
The solution offered by the presentation software typically doesn’t allow for playback off a DVD or Blu-Ray disc and a lot of users either connect a regular DVD player to the projector or mess around with DVD-playback programs to play out DVD content.
The dual-screen setup could allow for “cue” operation. This is where the operator views content on the operator screen in order to preview or “cue-up” that material. Then, when it is time to show the content, the operator then redirects it to the “front-of-house” screen and speakers.
Playlist and controlled-playback support
These should support stored playlists or active queue lists especially if they are to be used to play shorter content like music videos, video lyrics or “shorts”. Here, this could be augmented with support for “stop” entries which cause the equipment to stop playback when these files are reached.
The “stop” entries could work in a similar way to what I have noticed with some consumer MiniDisc decks where these units could be placed in to “auto-pause” where they wait at the start of the next item after they play the current item. This made these units, especially the Sony MDS-JE520, earn their keep as cost-effective audio-playout machines for community radio, churches (as I have seen), theatre groups and the like.
The playlist functionality could also support slideshows of still pictures with or without sound. This could include support for sound peculiar to each slide with or without a background-music track that runs through the playlist in a similar vein to those “theatre slides” shown before a movie session at the cinema.
The media-playout function is another example of software and hardware product designers missing out on a user group, namely small-business and non-profit organisations, due to a perceived low value in that group. But it is a group that should be observed and catered for with the right-priced hardware and software.
I have seen quite a few churches, community organisations and other small businesses use different kinds of video and data projectors for their video-display needs. This ranges from an activist group showing a video as part of their public campaign through churches that I have worshipped at showing the lyrics for songs that are part of the worship service to cafes even using the projector to create a dynamic wallpaper.
Similarly, businesses across the board, especially small businesses, are seeing the local café as an extension of their office and some of the cafes are answering this need. For example, a few of the “second-office” cafes in the trendy areas are implementing conference rooms or areas and they could set up projectors and screens in these areas, with the projectors showing sports or interesting TV during the non-business hours for the leisure traffic.
But a lot of these organisations typically run on hairline budgets and cannot afford the projectors that can do the job properly. So they often head towards cheaper (AUD$300-400) projectors such as the low-end InFocus models which can be limited in a lot of ways. For example, they miss out on HDMI or DVI-D connectivity which is becoming the norm on consumer video equipment and computer equipment.
A typical low-end data projector used by a small church – only has VGA for advanced video connections and uses 4:3 as native aspect ratio
As well, most of the manufacturers focus their design and marketing efforts on “boardroom” projectors for large business or “home theatre” projectors for people who have got the money to set up the ultimate home theatre in their MTV-style “dream crib”. This is not forgetting the vertical-market digital projectors that are implemented in cinemas and similar applications.
These classes of projectors are typically too costly for the small business or the non-profit organisation and may not even satisfy their needs exactly. For example, the “home theatre” units don’t even perform well in regular room lighting which can impair use of these units in applications such as worship, education, “dynamic wallpaper” or “hire-out” conference rooms. As well, the “boardroom” projectors come with more functionality than these users will really need.
Similarly, a lot of these projectors offer very awkward user interfaces that require a lot of training for people who aren’t familiar with these machines. The latter problem can be of concern with volunteer-driven organisations or businesses with high staff-turnover levels where the machine can be handled by people unfamiliar with it too easily. Examples of this include a lack of obvious on-machine visual indication that shows that the fan in the projector is running to cool the lamp down after the unit is turned off at the end of the show or hard-to-understand image setup routines.
Features that could be implemented in economy data projectors
16:9 display surface
Most video displays and content are moving towards the 16:9 aspect ratio but these economy projectors use a display surface that is at the 4:3 aspect ratio. If a video that was filmed at 16:9 was shown on these projectors with proper proportions, the resulting image appears too small and you may have to increase the throw (the distance between the screen and the projector’s lens) for a large image.
This is more of concern with this class of projector as most such units have a limited zoom and/or only work at their best with ideal image size and brightness when placed at a certain throw. It also may not be practical for certain viewing setups like small rooms.
HDMI input with HDCP support
HDMI connections – common on video peripherals but not on the economy-class projectors
The analogue VGA/SVGA RGB connector is on its way out as far as computer equipment is concerned and it is rare to find a DVD / Blu-Ray player, network media player or digital-TV tuner with such a connector. Infact most small businesses and community organisations typically buy video equipment from large electronics chains like Best Buy, JB Hi-Fi or Currys / Dixons and the sales assistants at these stores and the people purchasing the video equipment find it hard to get the right equipment at the right cost with the right connections unless they are technologically “clued up”.
The HDMI connector with HDCP support can make this class of projector a highly flexible machine that is able to work with all the video equipment that is on the market or in circulation. This can even help with integration with environments like cafes or bars where there is a desire to connect to pay TV so as to show sports for example and you want to use the set-top box’s HDMI connector for best display.
A cheaper implementation could be the use of a DVI-D connector with HDCP support and this could be offered as a user-installable retrofit kit so users can buy the cheaper projector but upgrade it when they can afford it.
Improved operation experience
Another feature that could benefit this class of projector would be an improved operation interface. For example, there could be a one-touch setup mode which shows a focus/keystone grid image which you use for adjusting the focus and keystone correction by using the arrow keys on the remote control.
Similarly, the projector could benefit from an indicator that shows when the unit is cooling down after being switched off at the end of the show. Typically, most projectors run their cooling fan for up to a few minutes after the user switches them off in order to cool the lamp and display surface down. In some situations, you may not hear if the fan has switched off at the end of this cycle, especially if the room is busy and you may find that in your hurry to pack the projector away, you haven’t allowed the unit to cool down properly thus reducing the lamp’s lifespan.
These kind of features can work well for equipment that is used in volunteer-driven organisations or businesses with high staff turnover levels where the people who may be handling the equipment may have differing levels of technical expertise and familiarity with this class of equipment.
Similarly, projectors equipped with zoom lenses could benefit from a zoom tab similar to that used on some SLR zoom lenses which allow you to differentiate the focus adjustment from the zoom adjustment easily.
HDMI-equipped projectors could implement the CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) standards to make them easier to use. This could then make it feasible for the presenter to avoid the need to juggle remote controls and control surfaces to manage the flow of the show.
Companies who design and manufacture video / data projectors need to look at the small-business and non-profit-organisation user-base and assess what this class of user needs and deliver future-proof easy-to-use projectors that provide what this class of user needs at a price they can afford.
They can also look at the projectors to be adaptable to changing user needs and allow for upgradability over their long service life.
An example of a hotel or serviced apartment block which would be relevant to DLNA
Why DLNA in the hotel room?
Increased availability of affordable DLNA-compliant entertainment equipment
Most manufacturers who sell consumer electronics are offering electronic entertainment devices that can be connected to a home network and can pull down content from that network or the Internet. When it comes to obtaining media from the home network, these manufacturers will use the established UPnP AV / DLNA technology rather than reinvent the wheel. This feature is being promoted as a distinct product differentiator and will soon end up being offered across all of a manufacturer’s lineup except, perhaps, the very-low-end models.
Some of this equipment is available in form factors that would suit the typical hotel room, suite or serviced apartment. Examples of this include the Sony CMT-MX750Ni / CMT-MX700Ni and the Rotel RCX-1500 music systems that I have reviewed on this site as well as the increasing number of “smart TVs” offered by LG, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony. In the same context, a DLNA-compliant network media adaptor could displace a solution-specific option as the gateway to premium content in the hotel as has been investigated for residential cable TV.
Sony CMT-MX750Ni – an example of a DLNA-compliant music system for a hotel room or serviced apartment
In the case of some of the network media adaptors and “smart TVs”, it could be feasible to integrate site-specific apps or Web links to facilitate interactive services like room-service ordering or in-room checkout that have been part of hotel-based video systems.
Access to online content through mobile computing devices
Most people are making use of online content services like Internet radio, Last.fm, YouTube and Netflix on the mobile computing devices that they take with them all around the world. This also includes use of the Social Web where Facebook and Twitter profiles and pages are replete with photo and video content hosted or referred to by the profile’s / page’s owners.
Multimedia content held on users’ mobile computing devices
Another fact is that guests want to be able to bring their own content. Examples of this include music that is held on a smartphone or reviewing just-taken digital images or footage held on a digital camera or laptop on the large-screen TV.
Acer Iconia Tab A500 – an Android example of a platform tablet computer
This is being taken further by the fact that platform smartphones and tablets have DLNA controller abilities either with them or as a low-cost or free app; and that mid-range and premium cameras will be equipped with Wi-Fi and “show-on-DLNA” functionality as a product differentiator.
This concept can allow better use of site-specific media like the pay-per-view movies. For example, a movie that is started on the lounge TV in a suite or apartment could be completed on the bedroom TV or a guest could view one of those pay-per-view movies on their iPad or similar tablet.
Personally I also see this concept as part of the desire by the hospitality sector that your hotel room or apartment is your home away from home.
Requirements Of This Setup
Different Media Pools
There are three different media pools that one has to consider when implementing DLNA technology in the hotel environment.
“Own media pool”
This represents the media files that are owned and maintained by the guests. They would be held on secondary storage in a portable computer, mobile device or camera or held on a network-attached-storage device.
Examples of these include music and image collections held on a notebook computer or just-taken digital images and movies held on a camera, camcorder or mobile phone. This could encompass content that is offloaded to a compact NAS device like Thecus’s N0204 “pocket rocket” NAS.
Property-local media pool
This media pool represents all media available to the guests courtesy of the hotel. It would typically be held on servers located within the property and the most obvious application would be those pay-per-view movies that guests can buy and view on their room’s TV.
But it can encompass any “broadcast-to-network” feeds used for distributing regular, cable or satellite TV through the building via the LAN or line-level media feeds used to pipe audio or video content from cabarets, conference suites or similar locations around the hotel.
Global media pool
The global media pool is representative of media that is owned by third parties and held on servers accessible to the hotel via Internet. The guest would simply select the content from the service provider and have it appear on their TV.
Examples of this would include IPTV services; Internet radio; online-media services like catch-up TV,YouTube or Netflix; the Social Web or cloud-driven remote access to one’s home media pool like Skifta.
A distinct logical realm of control
The room or apartment where the guest stays has to be seen as a distinct realm of control for the guest. This also includes situations where two or more rooms or apartments are hired by the one guest to be used effectively as one room, such as the common “connecting rooms” setup.
This means that the guests have to be able to push the media they want to view to any of the DLNA-compliant devices in their room, whether they bring the devices themselves or use the hotel-supplied devices. It also means that they have access to all of the content they can use, whether it’s the media on their laptop, the pay-per-view movies in the hotel or content on their Netflix or YouTube subscription.
But they can’t push the content to neighbouring guests’ TVs without invitation nor can they gain access to content pools they aren’t normally entitled to.
Ericsson’s proof-of-concept solution
This is a “proof-of-concept” setup that works on the assumption that there is no Wi-Fi Internet service in the premises and the mobile device is using wireless-broadband i.e. a 3G data plan for its Internet.
The hotel will need computer equipment on its network that performs the following functions: a Residential Gateway which links the hotel network to the Internet; and a Residential Control Device which controls access to DLNA devices in the guest rooms or apartments.
The guest’s smartphone will need a handler app which is part of the process of establishing the relationship between the mobile devices and the room devices and is performed whether the Internet connection is via Wi-Fi or wireless broadband. This app maps the DLNA equipment in the hotel room to the “global media pool” available through the online media service based on a unique identifier which is generated when the guest checks in for their hotel stay.
This identifier could be obtained by the handler app through a QR or similar code that is shown on the room’s TV screen when the guest enters the room; or printed on the room keycard that the reception staff hand to the guest. A phone capable of working with near-field-communication setups could obtain the identifier through this path, again at checkin or when the guest lets themselves in to their room if the room lock uses NFC technology; such as some of the newer VingCard RFID setups.
Then the handler would list out the DLNA devices in that room as “content sinks” for the guest to enjoy their content on.
In-house public Wi-Fi
There is a missing factor with the Ericsson proof-of-concept setup. Here, most hotels will want to provide Wi-Fi Internet service as a value-added or extra-cost amenity. As well, all smartphones and tablet computers have integrated Wi-Fi wireless functionality.
The typical way of provisioning Wi-Fi in the hospitality industry is to implement a site-wide public Wi-Fi extended-service-set covering the whole of the building. As well, if the public Wi-Fi network is properly setup, there isn’t the ability to link data between the Wi-Fi-enabled computing devices, so as to assure privacy and security for each computer user. I have raised on this site the idea of evolving this secure-network setup further to allow clusters of device
There hasn’t been work done on the idea of implementing a room-unique or guest-unique network setup for the hotel industry. This is although some hotels were trying out the use of “MiFi” routers to provide guest-unique network setups, which I learnt of in an article in the HotelChatter blog; as well as the many Wi-Fi routers that I had seen set up at the Australian Audio & AV Show in the Melbourne Marriott Hotel in order to provide DLNA media networks for demonstrating network-driven music distribution.
Access to local media
Another missing factor is the ability to provide content that is held in the guest’s own media pool to the room’s DLNA ecosystem. Here, we may want access to the media held on our devices, whether it is music held on a smartphone, videos held on a tablet or just-taken images held on our Ultrabook.
Here, there wasn’t any question about gaining access to media held on these devices via the hotel’s public-access network infrastructure either through “pull” (access through DLNA playback device’s controls) or “push” (source device’s control app) methods.
The last factor that wasn’t considered is the desire to pass media between rooms of a cluster such as guestrooms hired by a family or a conference room hired by a business alongside the guestrooms for the conference guests as part of a “block booking”.
These multi-room bookings may provide for arrangements like allowing users to shift the content to other rooms under limited circumstances. Similarly, it could be feasible to have content held on one device in one room viewable on devices in other rooms used by the group.
On the other hand, it would be desireable to prevent content being push-played by one group member to the room of another group member as a way to assure privacy and security for that member.
This situation can be catered for using the Residential Control Device software by allowing bridging between the unique IDs under certain circumstances.
What would be essential for successful DLNA setups in the hotel sector
Local logical network serving one or more physical networks
Here, you would need to create a local subnet (logical network) for each room / apartment or cluster or rooms. The physical Wi-Fi networks that are part of this local subnet would need to work with a unique SSID and stay-unique Primary Shared Key for their security. They would be served by a local Wi-Fi router that would be managed by the hotel’s “back end” software.
This software would bootstrap the router so that it is set up to the guest’s needs and allow guest-supplied equipment to simply and securely enter the subnet, linking it to the Internet and the hotel-supplied DLNA equipment. This would be set up with NFC or QR-Code technology or WPS-PBC setup when the guest enters their room.
Upon checkout, this router would be set up to a “ground-zero” mode which doesn’t provide casual access to the Internet or the DLNA devices until another guest subsequently checks in.
A consistent connection and discovery experience
When you connect your computer equipment to this network, the discovery experience for DLNA-compliant equipment must be the same as for when you use your computer at home.
The local logical network can make this feasible by exposing only the DLNA-compliant AV equipment that exists within the guest room / apartment at the exclusion of equipment and computers in neighbouring rooms. Yet the content-discovery experience is what would be expected for the class of equipment. This includes the use of control points to “push” content to playback devices.
IPv6 – a main facilitator
A major facilitator for this setup would be the use of IPv6 networks. The address pool offered by this standard is much bigger than the address pool offered by the legacy IPv4 technology and there is inherent support for secure tunnels between logical networks.
In this application, an IPv6 setup can comfortably create local logical networks for each and every guest room in a large Vegas-class resort or downtown (central business district) hotel. There is no need to implement network-address-translation to permit the local logical networks and the back-end systems aren’t destabilised. There is the ability for IPv6 routers to create v6-v4 links to legacy IPv4 devices which represent most DLNA media playback devices and this has to be supported and functioning properly in these devices.
What needs to happen to facilitate the concept of DLNA-based media management in the hotel environment is for further research and study to take place. Here, it would need to be based on technologies that are currently available to the hotelier and potential guests, such as in-house public Wi-Fi networks and near-field communications.
The functionality could also be implemented in network-infrastructure equipment through the use of software that is deployed to the equipment while it is in use, rather than through replacing or adding new hardware. Any DLNA-enablement setup should not preclude the use of media devices that are available to the consumer marketplace.
I agree with the principal argument that this article had put forward concerning the availability of the “smart-TV functionality” in video peripherals like Blu-Ray players or network-media adaptors. There is due to a reality that most of the consumer-electronics industry has been missing concerning how people have purchased and owned TV sets; something I, like most of you, have seen for myself.
The reality with TV purchasing and ownership
Since the 1970s, the typical colour television set has been able to enjoy a very long and reliable service life, thanks to transistorisation. This had been underscored with the gradual introduction of electronic tuner subsystems that were more reliable than older mechanical tuner systems like the old “click-click-click” tuning knobs that were common in most markets or the “push to select, twist to tune” button arrays common on TV sets sold in the UK in the 1960s.
This long service life then allowed for a “push-down” upgrade path to exist in a similar manner to what happens with the household refrigerator. Here, one could buy a nicer newer fridge and place it in the kitchen while the older fridge that it was to replace could go in the garage or laundry and act as extra cold storage space for food and drink, such as the typical “beer fridge”. In the case of the TV, this would mean that one would buy a newer better TV, most likely with a larger screen and place it in the main lounge area. Then the original set which was to be replaced by the new set typically ended up in another room like a secondary lounge area or a bedroom or even in a holiday house.
Usually the only reason most households would scrap a TV set would be if it failed beyond repair or was damaged, Even if a set was surplus to one’s needs, it would be pushed off to another household that could benefit.
Some people may think that this practice has stopped with the arrival of the LCD or plasma flatscreen TV, but it still goes on.
Not all TVs are likely to be “smart TVs”
Not all manufacturers are likely to offer network-enabled TVs in their product cycle. This may be due to a focus on picture quality or the ability to build lower-end products to a popular price point.
It also includes sets like TV-DVD combo units or small-size models that are offered at bargain-basement prices. As well, home-theatre enthusiasts will be interested in buying the latest projector rather than the latest “smart TV”.
Addition of extra functionality to existing televisions with video peripheral devices
The consumer-electronics industry has had success with extending the useability of existing television receivers through the use of well-equipped multi-function video peripherals.
The video recorder as a TV-enablement device
The best example of a device enabling older and cheaper TV sets was the video cassette recorder as it evolved through the 1980s. This wasn’t just in the form of recording of TV shows and playback of content held on videocassettes.
It was in the form of improved television viewing due to the TV tuners integrated in these devices. By model-year 1981 in all markets, the typical video recorder was equipped with a reliable electronic TV tuner. As well, all VHS and Betamax video recorders that implemented logic-control tape transports also implemented a “source-monitor” function when the machine wasn’t playing tapes. This would typically have the currently-selected channel on the machine’s tuner available at the machine’s output jacks including the RF output channel that the TV was tuned to.
Here, this setup gave the old TVs a new lease of life by providing them with a highly-reliable TV signal from the VCR’s tuner. In some cases, users could tune to more broadcasts than what was available on the TV set. Examples of this included cable channels received on an older “non-cable” TV in the USA or Germany; channels broadcasting on the UHF band through a mid-70s VHF-only TV in Australia and New Zealand; or access to Channel 4 on a “4-button” TV in the UK due to more channel spaces.
The ability to change channels using the video recorder’s remote control also allowed a person who had a cheaper or older TV to change channels from the comfort of their armchair, something they couldn’t previously do with those sets.
Similarly, some households would run a connection from the video recorder’s AUDIO OUT to their hi-fi system’s amplifier and have TV sound through their better-sounding hi-fi speakers. This was exploited more with stereo video recorders, especially those units that had a stereo TV tuner integrated in them, a feature that gradually appeared as TV broadcasters started to transmit in stereo sound through the 80s and 90s.
How the Blu-Ray player is able to do this
The typical well-bred Blu-Ray Disc player has the ability to connect to the home network via Ethernet or, in some cases, Wi-Fi wireless. This is typically to support “BD-Live” functionality where a user can download and view extra content held on a Blu-Ray Disc’s publisher’s servers in addition to viewing content held on the disc. As well, the Blu-Ray Disc player can connect to ordinary TV sets as well as the HDMI-equipped flat-screen TVs that are currently in circulation.
Some of the Blu-Ray players, especially recent Samsung, Sony and LG models can also pull down media from the DLNA Home Media Network and show it on these TVs. As well, some manufacturers are rolling out some Internet-ended services to these players.
In the same way as the video recorder was able to extend the functionality of the cheaper or older TV set by offering extended tuner coverage, remote control or access to better sound, the Blu-Ray player or network media adaptor could open the world of Internet–ended entertainment to these sets.
What the industry should do
The industry could work towards achieving similar interactive functionality for the network-enabled video peripherals as the network-enabled TVs. They could achieve this through the establishment of a “platform design” with similar applications and capabilities across a consumer-video product lineup. It is infact what Sony is doing for their consumer-video products at the moment with very little difference in interactive-service lineup between their TVs and their Blu-Ray players.
Here, the interactive-TV software is consistent across the whole lineup of TVs, Blu-Ray players, Blu-Ray-equipped home-theatre systems and other video peripherals. The manufacturer may vary the software according to the device’s function by omitting functions relating to particular hardware requirements like screens, optical drives or broadcast tuners in order to make it relevant to the device class. Of course, there could be support for user-attached peripheral devices like USB Webcams, Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, UPnP-compliant printers and the like to extend functionality for particular software applications like video-conferencing.
The software may be fully revised every few years to build in new functionality and accommodate better hardware. It may also be a chance to improve the operation experience for the software concerned. Yet this could maintain the branding and skinning that the manufacturer and software partners do desire.
There is a different reality that exists when buying TV equipment and this function should be supported equally in video peripheral equipment like Blu-Ray players and network media adaptors as in TV sets.
Recently, I had reviewed a few Brother printers and had observed a particular trend in how the products are being positioned. It is becoming more akin to how the typical vehicle builder is positioning a particular vehicle model or series of vehicles.
It is also becoming very similar with Hewlett-Packard’s Photosmart and OfficeJet inkjet printer ranges where there are a few common mechanisms implemented in the products. But, in HP’s case, the different models have differing cosmetic designs so as to integrate different feature sets and make the more expensive machines look classier.
A lineup of models with varying feature sets and throughput speeds but with the same design
In the vehicle world, an example of this was Holden’s large family cars sold through the 1960s to the 1970s. These vehicles had different model names depending on their level of luxury and / or their powertrain, with the “Premier” representing the top-of-the-line standard-wheelbase vehicle. Low-end vehicles were referred to initially as “Standard” or “Belmont” vehicles until the early-70s “HQ” series while “step-up” or “mid-tier” vehicles had model names like “Special” or “Kingswood”. This was until the “HQ” series where vehicles in that and subsequent series had “package” suffixes to differentiate entry-level and mid-tier vehicles.
For example, I had noticed that the HL-2240D direct-connect duplex monochrome laser printer was part of a series of laser printers based around a new printer design and print engine. There was a low-end model known as the HL-2130 which couldn’t print both sides as well as the HL-2250DN which was equipped with Ethernet networking and the HL-2280DW being equipped with Wi-Fi networking. Similarly, the more expensive models in the lineups also benefit from higher page throughput due to more powerful components in the design.
A model range derived from another model range
But the practice becomes very similar to how the vehicle builders derive a model range design from another concurrently-running model range design. An example of this would be them designing a longer-wheelbase luxury “executive” car as a derivate of a standard large family car like what Ford have done when they derived the Fairlane and LTD designs from the Falcon designs.
Here, this is reflected in how the designs for this company’s laser-printer lineup are used. I had observed that the multifunction series including the MFC-7360N that I reviewed were derived from the previously-mentioned dedicated laser printer series that the HL-2240D was part of. Here, all the units in both printer lineups used the same print engine and the same replacement parts.
Benefits for product choice
This will allow for a granular range of products in a product class where a person can choose or specify the right kind of printer based on their needs and budget; without needing to create new designs in order to satisfy the different market segments. This also allows the manufacturer to keep product prices within affordable territory because there is the ability to reuse parts across the different models. It also can allow a salesman room to upsell customers to better products or make deals that offer better value.
In most cases, the mid-tier product will offer best value for most users. For example, in these two printer lineups, the mid-tier models (HL-2250DN dedicated printer and MFC-7460DN) will offer the two currently-desirable features – double-sided printing which saves paper; and network connectivity. In some other cases like the dedicated colour laser printers based on Brother’s latest high-throughput colour-laser print engine, the HL-4150CDN which just has Ethernet network connectivity and reduced-time-penalty colour duplex printing would suit most users.
The creation of a granular product range with incremental functionality but a few common design bases and /or descendent product classes can then allow manufacturers to keep consistent value for money when they want to build out a product range.
These French-language articles are both from France, which is one of the few countries which can boast a lively competitive ADSL2 or fibre-optic powered “triple-play” Internet-service market. Here, these services are based around each service provider providing an Internet gateway device known as a Freebox, Neufbox, Box SFR or something similar, which I refer to as an “n-box”. These are connected up to an IPTV set-top box that is connected to the TV set and they are known as a Freebox Décodeur or Décodeur SFR or something similar.
Previously I have been observing the developments concerning HomePlug powerline networking and have seen some HomePlug devices in an interesting form-factor. This form-factor is in the form of a single-box combination device which works as a power supply for a piece of equipment as well as a HomePlug-Ethernet bridge for that device.
These devices would have three cables
AC-voltage cable to plug into the AC outlet
Low-voltage cable to plug in to the device in order to supply power to that device
Ethernet cable to transmit data to and from the device and the HomePlug-Ethernet bridge in this box
A few companies like Netgear had tried these as “on-ramp” accessories for their routers but Free and SFR are taking off in their own right to use this as part of their “triple-play” environment where the TV set-top box and the modem are effectively part and parcel of each other in the home network. This is also achieved as a way of “idiot-proofing” these setups and avoiding unnecessary service calls.
Why not take this further
Bringing network printers to the HomePlug network
Quite a few network-capable inkjet printers that I have used or reviewed are using an external power supply rather than having the power-supply in the unit.
This is typically in the form of a power-supply “lump” similar to the typical charger unit that comes with a laptop. On the other hand, Lexmark and Dell use a power-supply module that plugs in to the printer and the AC cord plugs in to this module.
These setups could be used to provide HomePlug powerline networking capability to a printer as long as the printer has an Ethernet socket. This would provide a logical alternative to Wi-Fi wireless networking which is known to be unreliable at times.It is due to the fact that Wi-Fi it is based on radio technology which can be affected by metal furnishings, walls that are made of dense-material construction like double-brick or stone walls; or building insulation or double-glazing that uses metal foil to improve its insulation qualities.
On the other hand, manufacturers could simply integrate HomePlug powerline networking in to a SOHO printer design like the HP Envy 100 which has an integrated AC power supply without the need to create an extra socket for the Ethernet connection.
802.3af and 802.3at Power-Over-Ethernet – a perfect marriage with HomePlug
The 802.3af Power-Over-Ethernet standard and 802.3at high-power version of this standard uses the same Category 5 cable to provide power to a device as well as convey data between the device and the network. This is typically implemented with wireless access points, security cameras and IP telephones to provide a robust yet simple power-supply setup for these devices in business networks.
Here, a HomePlug-AV-Ethernet bridge could be integrated in to an 802.3af / 802.3at compliant power-supply module to provide a “one-cord” solution for connecting a device to a home network as well as powering that device from the AC power. The device would have to have an Ethernet socket capable of taking the Power-Over-Ethernet power; and this could appeal to a wide range of device classes like Internet radios, IPTV set-top boxes and electronic picture frames as well as the usual suspects like desktop IP telephones, Wi-Fi access points. Ethernet switches and security cameras.
This demonstrates that the use of power-supply integration can bring the reliable no-new-wires network that is HomePlug AV to more devices in a cost-effective design-friendly manner.
A Blu-ray player that has advanced set-top-box functionality and access to online services
There is an increasing trend to interlink services like photo-sharing and social-networking services with network-enabled devices other than PCs or “lightweight computers” like smartphones or tablet computers. This includes set-top boxes, network printers and digital picture frames and example applications include showing photo albums from Picasa or Facebook on the large TV, printing out pictures from Picasa or Facebook without the need for a computer or showing one’s Facebook Feed on an advanced Internet terminal like the Pure Sensia. One reason that is leading the concept on is the use of device platforms like HP ePrint, Panasonic VieraCast and Google TV, where an operating-system developer or a device manufacture use the platform to build up an “app” library for the device or operating system.
Printers even now can print material from online services
It will also become more common with VoIP telephony encouraging the development of “personal landline telephone” services as well as “personalised home environments” being brought about by home automation and security functions being part of the connected home.
The current situation
The main problem with these services is that they require the user to log in to the service using an alphanumeric user name and an alphanumeric password. This would be best done using the regular QWERTY keyboard of a computer.
But most of these devices would require one of these methods to enter the credentials:
A typical smart-TV remote control that can only offer “pick-and-choose” or 12-key data entry
“Pick-n-choose”, where the user uses a D-pad on the device’s control surface to pick letters from a letter grid shown on the device’s display. This is a method used primarily with set-top-box applications like “Pixel Eyes” (a Picasa / Filckr front-end) for TiVo; or used on most Internet radios to determine the network password for a Wi-Fi network.
Small on-screen QWERTY keyboard for a touchscreen device. This is a practice used on smartphones and tablet computers that have this interface but is becoming common with network printers and other devices that use a touchscreen. This interface can be awkward and prone to errors if the device uses a small screen as common with most printers.
“SMS-style” with a 12-key keyboard. This is where the device is equipped with a 12-key numeric keyboard not dissimilar to a telephone and the user enters the credentials as if they are tapping out a text message on a mobile phone. This practice may be used on communications devices (dialling phone numbers), security devices (entering access codes) or consumer electronics (direct-entry channel / track selection).
26-key alphabetic keyboard. This is where each letter of the alphabet is allocated a key usually in a 5×5 matrix in alphabetical order. You still may have to press a button to change case or switch to numeric or punctuation mode. This has been used with some of Sony’s MiniDisc decks for track labelling and is still used with some Brother labellers for entering label text, but is not commonly being used as a text-entry method for consumer electronics devices due to size, design or cost limitations.
As well, most of the implementations don’t allow for proper “hot-seat” operation by remembering just the user name; and therefore require the user to provide both the user-name and password when they want to use the service. This can then be made more awkward with the interfaces listed above.
Facebook’s login method
HP Envy 100 all-in-one printer -implementing a simplified device enrollment for Facebook’s HP ePrint setup
Facebook have improved on this with their HP ePrint app which is part of the HP Envy 100 printer which I have on loan for review. Here, the printer displayed an “authentication code” which I had to enter in to the Facebook Devices page (http://www.facebook.com/device). Here, you would have to log in with your Facebook credentials if you haven’t done so already. Then the printer is associated with your Facebook account.
The only limitation with this method is that the device is bound to only one FB account and multiple users can’t switch between their Facebook accounts. This can also make a Facebook user more vulnerable to undesirable control-panel modification to their account if the app allows it.
The reality with most devices
Most devices like network printers or set-top boxes are typically operated by multiple users. What needs to happen is a simplified multi-user login and authentication experience that suits this class of device.
This is also more so as the authentication parameters used by Google (Picasa, YouTube), Facebook and others are becoming central to the “single sign-on” environments offered by these service providers and these “single sign-on” providers could appeal as credentials bases for home network applications like NAS management or even building security.
What could be done
A situation using a combination of the “Facebook limited-device login” method and the login experience that one encounters when using an automatic teller machine or EFTPOS terminal would be appropriate here. This is where a device can keep multiple “device account codes” for multiple accounts as well as securing these accounts with a numeric PIN.
A credentials service like Facebook, Windows Live or Google could add a simplified “numeric PIN” field for limited user-interface devices as well as the text-based password. The simplified “numeric PIN” which would be four or six digits long would only be able to work on qualified devices and the user would need to key in their text-based password to log in from a computer or smartphone.
Devices that support “limited interface” operation create a “device account passcode” for each account that is to use the device. This allows the device to create a reference between the account on the service and the account on the device. When a user is added to the device, this would be shown on the device’s user interface and the user enters this in to a “Devices Login” page at the credentials service’s Website.
A user selects the option to “add user” to the device using the device’s control surface.
The device’s user interface creates a “device account passcode” and shows it on the device’s user-interface (LCD display, TV screen, etc). In the case of a network printer, it could also print out this “account passcode”.
The user transcribes this “device account passcode” to the credentials service Website (Google, Facebook, Windows Live, etc) using a regular computer or other Web-browser-equipped device.
If the user hasn’t previously defined a numeric PIN for “limited-interface access”, the service invites the user to enter and confirm a numeric PIN of own choosing if they agree to “protected device access”. This could be done either through the Web browser or continued at the device’s control surface.
If they have previously defined the numeric PIN, the device will challenge them to enter the numeric PIN using its control surface.
The user’s account is bound to the device and the user would be logged in.
Switching between users on a device;
1 A user would go to the “Users” menu on the device and selects their user name represented as how they are known on the credentials service (Facebook name, etc) from the user list.
2 The user then keys in the numeric PIN using the device’s control surface
3 If successful, the device is “given” to the user and the user then interacts with the service from the device’s control surface
Other points of note
All users have opportunity to “remove themselves” from the device by going to the “user settings” UI and selecting “Remove User” option. Some devices may allow privileged users to remove other users from the device and there could be the option for users to change their numeric PIN from the device’s control surface.
It could be feasible for a device to provide varying levels of access to a user’s account. For example, a device shared by a household could allow “view-only” access to certain data while a user who is directly logged in can add or modify the data.
There could be the option to integrate local user-authentication information on devices that support this by relating the “device passcode” with the local user-authentication data record. This could allow a device like a security system to allow the user to gain access to functionalities associated with the credentials service but the user still uses their regular passcode associated with the device.
Once companies like social-networking or photo-sharing sites work on ways to support multi-user one-device scenarios with limited user-interface devices, this could open up paths of innovation for the devices and the services.
Another of the new technologies that Intel has been promoting alongside its “Sandy Bridge” processor architecture has been the “Thunderbolt” peripheral connector.
This connector has a current raw transfer speed of 10Gbps but could have a theoretical maximum is 40Gbps (20Gbps up and 20Gbps down) when both pairs of wires are used. You can use this same “pipe” to pass a DisplayPort-based audio-video stream for a display as well as PCI-Express-based data stream.
There is the ability to daisy-chain 7 Thunderbolt-connected devices but you can have less than 3 metres between the devices at the moment.
Thunderbolt at the moment
This technology will complement USB and other connection technologies but will be like what happened with USB in the mid-90s. This means that it will be an Apple-only technology and this will appear on the latest run of MacBook Pro laptops.
It will appear on PC-based computers in early next year. As far as retrofit opportunities go, Intel had mentioned that it could be available for new motherboards but there was nothing much said about availability as an add-in expansion card.
The main peripheral applications would be external storage subsystems like the LaCie “Little Big Disk” storage array; as well as displays. Such peripherals that have this connection will typically be marketed as being “Thunderbolt-ready”.
What could it offer
Another storage-expansion connection for computing devices
One key application would be to provide a high-bandwidth direct connection between computer devices and one or more external hard-disk storage subsystems. The reason I use the term “computer devices” is because such devices could encompass PVRs which could benefit from capacity expansion, routers and network devices that convert attached external hard-disk subsystems to network-attached storage; as well as the general-purpose computers.
Multifunction devices that are fit for the new generation of compact high-performance computers
There is the possibility for one to exploit the Thunderbolt concept to design a multifunction desktop console unit. Here, this unit could house a screen, audio subsystem, video camera, removable storage such as an optical drive or SDXC card reader and/or a USB hub. Another variant could house a keyboard instead of a screen and connect to one or more external displays using DisplayPort or regular monitor connectors.
This display unit would be connected to an ultracompact system unit that has only the processor, RAM, graphics-processor, network connectivity and a hard disk, plus some USB sockets for a desktop application. On the other hand, this display could serve as a “desktop display” for a subnotebook or ultraportable computer. The USB hub would come in handy for connecting keyboards, mice, USB memory keys and similar devices.
Here, these multifunction devices can be designed so that they are no “second-class citizen” because they have multiple functions. This means they could render the multiple video streams as well as support the high-capacity removable storage technologies like Blu-Ray Disc or SDXC cards.
This is more so as the Intel Sandy Bridge technology makes it feasible for small computers like book-sized ultracompact desktops and notebooks of the “subnotebook” or “ultraportable” class to “have all the fruit” as far as performance goes.
Issues that may be of concern
One main issue that I would have about the Thunderbolt technology is that Intel could limit it to computer applications that are centred around its chipsets. This would make it harder for competing processor designers like AMD or NVidia to implement the technology in their chipset designs. It would also place the same implementation limits on system designers who want to use chipsets that offer improved performance or better value for money alongside Intel processors on their motherboards.
This is like the Intel Wireless Display technology which allows a special display adaptor to connect to an Intel-based laptop computer via a WiFi wireless network and show the pictures on the attached display device. Here, this functionality could only work with computers that have certain Intel chipsets and couldn’t be retroactively applied to older computers.
Another issue would be to encourage implementation in “embedded” and dedicated-purpuse devices like PVRs and routers as well as the general-purpose computers. For some applications like the previously-mentioned storage-expansion application, this could add value and longer service life to these devices.
Once the Thunderbolt technology is implemented in a competitive manner, it could open up a new class of devices and applications for the computing world by making proper use of the “big fat pipe” that it offers.
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