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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
The digital home takes shape
By Darren Waters
BBC News Online entertainment staff

BBC News Online looks at how home entertainment is changing in the digital world with the advent of movies online, wireless networks and digital video recorders.

 Digital Living Network Alliance
The future - as imagined by the Digital Living Network Alliance
Imagine a home in which films and TV programmes can be played on any screen in the house without wires trailing across floors; a home in which smart video recorders copy your favourite shows without being pre-programmed, to playback whenever you wish.

Imagine downloading your favourite movies and TV programmes from the internet in DVD quality, and watching them not on your PC screen but on TV in the comfort of your living room.

Imagine all your families' music stored on one device, but available wherever there are speakers in the house.

You can imagine it, or you could simply live it now - at a price.

Home entertainment devices such as a Sky Plus box, a Windows Media Center PC, an iPod with Airport Express and a wireless network do almost all of the above, but they are expensive gadgets which appeal primarily to the technically-minded.

But in the coming 12 months the market will be hit with a flurry of devices which will make all of the above possible for mainstream audiences.

'Cusp'

Dan Hutchison, editor of Digital Home magazine, said the market is "on the cusp".

"It has been an industry of early adopters," he explains. "But in the next 12 to 18 months, it's going to become mainstream on both the PC and AV side."

Windows Media Center PC
Windows Media Center PCs link with TVs to playback music and video
Until recently home entertainment has been the province of TVs, DVD players and hi-fi stereos (so-called AV), rather than PCs.

But these two spheres of personal computing and consumer electronics are inching closer together, merging technologies so that the lines between them dissolve.

Until now the biggest barrier has been the competitive, and at times contradictory, nature of the PC and consumer electronics industries.

Common network

Different devices use different formats and standards, which makes uniting all your devices on a common network to share information virtually impossible.

But all that changed this week when the newly-formed Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) set down a list of common principles.

The umbrella group of more than 145 firms, including Microsoft, Intel and Sony, is working to ensure that everything from your pocket computer to your PC and hi-fi will be able to interact.

That can only happen when the devices communicate over a network using common standards.

The home network - either wired or wireless - is both the skeleton and arteries of the digital home. A recent report predicted that 52% of US online households and 47% of European broadband households will have home networks by 2008.

'Interchangeable'

"The technologies have to be interchangeable," said Hutchison.

"Using a networked product to access content stored on another networked product from a different manufacturer is a consumer expectation and should be simple," said Scott Smyers, chairman of the DLNA board of directors.

Squeezebox
The wireless Squeezebox plays music throughout the house
What it means for the consumer is that one day, in the near future, your TV, PC, hi-fi and video recorder will work side by side - even if your TV is made by Sony, your PC by Dell and your hi-fi by Philips.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is at the forefront of digital home developments.

Digital video recorder companies Tivo and Replay TV both sell set top boxes which 'learn' your viewing habits, and then record programmes that match your tastes.

The boxes can be programmed via an internet connection and recorded shows can be watched in any room in the house - as long as you have multiple devices.

Wireless networks in the home are increasingly common too - meaning music, video and pictures can be "beamed" from one room to the other.

Blockbusters

In the US, the market for downloading movies has begun to grow significantly - blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Gangs of New York and Finding Nemo can now be bought online and watched at leisure.

Hutchison said the biggest development to hit the market in the next 12 months would be so-called media adaptors.

"They facilitate the streaming of content between devices around the house," he explained.

In layman's terms it means that digital photos, or music, and even video, stored on a PC in one room can be played on a TV or a hi-fi in a different room - or rooms.

"Multi-room video will be the killer application. That will have wide appeal," said Hutchison.




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