Creating the happiest of couch potatoes

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS -- Couch potatoes, your day is coming. Endeavoring to create the consumer entertainment system that does it all, computer companies are battling gadget makers for control of what can best be described as the home's digital nerve center.

It's where stray digital media files -- music, video, family photos -- are stored and catalogued for delivery anywhere we want them: the bedroom computer, the living room television, the kitchen radio.

"People want their Sony Net MD to talk to their TiVo, to talk to their Nomad MP3 jukebox," said Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group, which evaluates technology. "It's been talked about for 10 years."

Devices announced at January's International Consumer Electronics Show that should hit the market this year blend the storage and networking capability of a computer server with the TV recording and time-shifting ability of a TiVo.

They add the ability to play and arrange CDs and MP3 music files alongside digital photos, DVDs and digital video files.

And they can download any of the above from the Internet, sometimes automatically, by programming them to record selections on broadcast schedules of television and radio stations.

"It's the holy grail," said Tim Bajarin, president of technology consulting firm Creative Strategies.

"The consumer electronics guys ask, 'Can you build a box that sits next to the TV that can manage the digital entertainment experience?'" Bajarin said. "And the computer guys are trying to get to the heart of the consumer entertainment experience. They all want to own the digital living room."

Networking the key

Wireless networking is key. Every device that can send and receive data through the air adds another node to the network, without adding to a rat's nest of cables.

As yet, no device performs all these requirements. Several are close.

Leading the pack is the PC crowd: Microsoft Corp., Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, ViewSonic and others. Their Media Center PCs, launched in the fall, can play and record TV programs, storing them on hard drives as large as 120 gigabytes. The machines can be operated by a keyboard or a remote control and networked with a TV.

The big consumer electronics players are firing back with their own vision. Sony, Panasonic, RCA and others say the network itself should be the centerpiece, not the PC.

"For now, the PC has the edge," Bajarin said. "A full PC is extremely versatile. It can manage pictures, audio and video and can sit at the center of a network. The problem is, it doesn't interact with the TV well."

That's where the consumer electronics companies have the edge.

Sony president Kunitake Ando unveiled a Linux-based personal video recorder with a 160 GB hard drive called CoCoon at the CES show. CoCoon, released in November in Japan, uses always-on Internet and cable connections to surf for video and music that match the owner's tastes. If CoCoon gets it wrong, it apologizes.

Sony hasn't said when the machine will arrive in North America.

Ando also displayed a Sony Vaio PC that can record and play TV programs, and, with the company's forthcoming RoomLink receiver, can stream the programs wirelessly to a TV.

Samsung said it would release by 2004 its Home AV Center system, which could handle many of the same functions. And Panasonic demonstrated its own home networking system, dubbed One, a TV-centric hard-drive server. The company hasn't said when it will be released.

Philips, SONICblue, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and other companies offered networking DVD player-recorders, some with hard drives as large as 80 GB, that can connect to the Internet as well as link a home TV to a PC. Some even let a couch potato dig into his computer media files by clicking a TV remote.

Stereos in the act

Even makers of high-end stereo components are getting into the act. Escient's Fireball music servers can store entire collections digitally, piping everything from CD music to Internet radio to separate receivers throughout the house.

And then there's SnapStream's Personal Video Station 3.0, a clever piece of TV recording software that gives a personal computer most of the capabilities of a TiVo for just $50. The software, set to emerge in February, requires a fast computer with a big hard drive.

All such video recording capabilities are beset by yet-undefined concerns over violating copyrights, especially if the copied movies or songs are shared outside the home. Most current devices prevent such sharing. SONICblue's Replay TV is one of the few that allows it.

Even kitchen appliances are getting networked. Tonight's Menu, an appliance maker near Cleveland, displayed its $2,000 Intelligent Oven, which refrigerates food until an Internet command tells it to start cooking.

For the next three to five years, the do-it-all home "gateway" will be a top goal -- perhaps the top goal -- of competing consumer electronics and PC manufacturers, Bajarin said.

As to whether home networks encourage folks to vegetate longer on their couches, some argue the opposite, saying they help users avoid time-wasting commercials and bland entertainment.

"A bunch of us will still be couch potatoes, but we'll be happier couch potatoes," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group.

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