`Wired house' race is on

Networks: Coming technology is aimed at connecting personal computers, TVs and stereos to maximize home entertainment.

March 14, 2002|By Vikas Bajaj and Doug Bedell | Vikas Bajaj and Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

A coming wave of electronics aims to join your computer and broadband connection to your TV and stereo in techno-matrimony. All that's left is for them to get off to a splendid first date.

Technology industry chiefs from Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates on down envision a future where music and video flow freely from the Internet to your computer, then into surround-sound speakers and onto a big-screen television screen. It is, the industry giants say, a natural extension of broadband lines that already stream audio and video to your desktop.

But the movement to create networked homes is in its infancy. Some skeptics say the technology remains too complicated for average consumers, and many don't even have speedy Internet connections.

The home networking clarion call came early this year when Gates unveiled a slew of products and ideas at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Other leaders, such as Pioneer Corp. and Sony Corp., chimed in with their own set-top devices and wireless networking gear.

"Entertainment and information, which are right now sequestered and separated, are going to be blended in a new way," said James Katz, a Rutgers University communications professor.

But for the two worlds to come together, companies must figure out how to make money from content, regardless of how it is distributed. And consumers must change their behavior, too.

"Economics and the human psychology also are going to be agglomerated in a different way. It's not just an issue of connecting one end of the wire to another," Katz said.

The industry's challenge will be to persuade wary consumers to immerse themselves deeper into the often baffling world of wired and wireless technologies. Many are expected to resist entangling their simple, stable TVs and stereos with powerful, but finicky, personal computers.

"There's no room for a PC at the center of entertainment experiences," said Josh Bernoff, a Forrester Research analyst. "Vendors should focus on set-top boxes instead."

At the Consumer Electronics Show, computer and software makers attempted to prove their products are best for the long haul.

Sony trotted out its $2,800 Vaio MX desktop computer, which is designed to take the place of stereos and digital video recorders in the home entertainment center.

Meanwhile, consumer electronics manufacturers rolled out "entertainment gateways" that take over some computing functions in stand-alone, "smart" set-top appliances.

Moxi Digital Inc., a start-up run by former WebTV developer Steve Perlman, presented Media Center, a set-top box that will be marketed to cable and satellite companies. It combines a DVD player, CD player, MP3 player and the ability to record, play back and manipulate incoming video, much like TiVo or ReplayTV set-top digital recorders.

"We're probably going to enter a three- to five-year battleground where the PC itself continues to thrive, while all the activity shifts to the heart of the living room," says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc. of Campbell, Calif., an expert on home electronic trends.

"We see a fundamental war between the smart DVD systems, game systems and set-top boxes to try to be the heart of the entertainment hub," he said.

The rapidly expanding ability of home computers to store and process digital entertainment presents consumers with unique challenges.

As home users begin compiling massive catalogs of music on their hard drives in the home office, how can they feed their favorite music to the stereo entertainment center in an inexpensive way? And why can't that home video, so carefully prepared and edited, be piped to the television for viewing?

A Consumer Electronics Association survey found more than half of 1,067 Internet-connected homeowners were interested in creating a network for distributing audio and video throughout the house. But only the most inventive and well-heeled among them have solved the difficulties on their own.

"I have had different levels of success hooking up home networks," said Kathie Hackler, a vice president at research firm Gartner Inc. "It's still not something the average person thinks about putting on their shopping list."

As manufacturers wrestle with standards and newfangled set-top options, home users can create links between PC and entertainment centers using products already on the market.

"There is a lot of cool stuff happening all of a sudden," said Mike Grannan, director of Internet data services at SBC Communications Inc.'s Technology Resources division in Austin. "There are a lot of things available today and more coming in the next year."

Stringing wire throughout the house is daunting, especially if the PC is situated far from the entertainment center. However, most electronics stores now sell lengths of standard audio cable designed for transferring sound from the PC sound card to stereos.

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