CE players confused over best wireless tech
Even as a full suite of HDTVs, DVD players and cameras are now being delivered by consumer electronics companies into the digital living room, the question of how best to connect them remains. Almost everyone agrees that wireless is the right approach for products they are planning for 2009, but they disagree on which technology is best.
Samsung and Hewlett-Packard have plans for the Wireless USB variant of UWB. Panasonic and perhaps others, including Toshiba, will pass on Wireless USB in favour of 60GHz radios. LG Electronics will at least initially use Wi-Fi. Philips and Sony are gearing up to use different proprietary versions of UWB. Sony also may use proprietary versions of Wi-Fi, based on demos at last week's Consumer Electronics Show.
The result will likely be a broad range of incompatible products shipping into the digital living room in 2009 as the industry sorts out its strategy.
"The wireless situation is bad for the consumer and will hold back adoption," said Phil McKinney, chief technology officer in the personal systems group at Hewlett-Packard Co. "The industry is not addressing the underlying problem consumers are begging us to solve: making things easier."
For its part, HP will step into the wireless personal-area networking space gingerly, providing external dongles for a few systems rather than putting Wireless USB natively into devices.
"People don't know which way the industry is going, so 2008 is really a year of trials," McKinney said.
Samsung is making a deeper commitment and plans to put Wireless USB into digital TVs, printers, HD camcorders and DVD players in 2009, a Samsung engineer said at the company's CES press conference.
At the event, Samsung demonstrated an HD camcorder streaming HD files over Wireless USB to an HDTV. An initial glitch with the demo forced Samsung to restart the TV before the devices could recognise each other and launch the video stream.
"We are committed to bringing all our products together to share content with wireless technology," said J.W. Park, vice president of Samsung's digital media group.
Panasonic's strategy is to use a form of sneaker net with Secure Digital (SD) flash cards in its products while it waits for the 60GHz radio technology to mature. At CES, the company took high-def videos saved on an SD card in one of its camcorders and plugged them into one of its HDTVs with a flash card slot for playback.
"It does not get any easier than that," said Shiro Kitajima, president of Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co.
Panasonic fielded plasma and LCD TVs as well as high-def camcorders and Blu-ray DVD drives with SD slots. In addition, it pledged to ship a 32Gbyte SD high-capacity card this month supporting Class 6 data transfers of up to 20MBps. The card can hold 5-1/2hrs of 1920 x 1080i full HD video, Kitajima said.
Panasonic will not support Wireless USB or other UWB technologies, because at rates of 50Mbit/s to 1Gbit/s they do not have the bandwidth to carry uncompressed 1080-progressive video, and because they are not approved for use in all countries. By contrast, Panasonic showed 60GHz radio technology delivering about 4Gbit/s. That's adequate for uncompressed video, and the frequency is unlicensed globally, said Tsuyoshi Okada, chief engineer of Panasonic's digital A/V network strategy group.
The downside to Panasonic's strategy is that 60GHz radios are relatively immature. The CES demos used an FPGA implementation. Initial chip sets due out shortly from startup SiBeam—currently the only announced silicon provider—consume too much power for battery-powered devices, putting off their use in camcorders until at least 2009.
By contrast, many forms of UWB are available today from multiple sources and with power consumption suitable for mobile devices. Westinghouse became one of the first consumer companies to use UWB in a product, announcing at CES that it will ship an HDTV geared for the business-to-business signage market using the UWB variant from Pulse-Link.
If the product is successful, Westinghouse could bring a version to retail markets before the end of the year, said John Santhoff, chief executive of Pulse-Link.
The UWB design win was the first for Pulse-Link, a pioneer of the technology. The breakthrough came when partner Analog Devices Inc. lowered the cost of its associated JPEG 2000 compression chip from about Rs.1,184.35 ($30) to about Rs.315.83 ($8) with a new design, making the solution affordable for a high-end HDTV.
For its part, Philips is working with UWB startup Radiospire, testing its unique variant for possible use in a range of products that could debut as early as September. "We are looking for a universal solution" that could connect TVs, DVD players and other products, said a Philips executive at CES.
Radiospire's AirHook technology uses a relatively wide, 1.7GHz swath of spectrum to deliver up to 1.6Gbit/s, enough to carry some forms of uncompressed video—including 1080 progressive—up to 15 feet with 100?s latencies, the startup claims. Sony demonstrated at CES its own internally developed variant of UWB, called TransferJet, and said it will design the technology into its 2009 products. TransferJet creates an experience similar to near-field communications in which a camcorder, for example, might be set on top of an HDTV to establish a connection. It uses a direct-sequence spread-spectrum modulation technique in the 4.5GHz range to deliver 560Mbit/s at the physical layer over a distance of about 32mm.
"Rather than racing to offer a faster data rate at a longer distance, we asked ourselves, 'What if we kept the wireless distance very short?' " said Ko Togashi, deputy general manager of Sony's network software development group.
The end result is an intuitive user experience that delivers relatively fast data transfer at low power with less signal interference than some versions of UWB?"and fewer UWB regulatory worries," Togashi said.
Sony has been working on its UWB-based TransferJet system since 2005, according to Togashi. The company did not propose its technology to standards groups, largely because the industry forums showed scant interest in the idea of wirelessly transferring data over a very short distance.
Although TransferJet's first live, public performance did not go smoothly, a technology demonstration after Sony's CES press conference appeared to go well. Sony has developed TransferJet chips that are small enough to be embedded into a dongle, said Togashi. The biggest challenge for the company lies in finding partners that will commit to the wireless technology.
Sony believes TransferJet could co-exist with near-field communications technology. "While NFC can take care of payments, TransferJet can download content," Togashi said.
Sony may have other surprises up its sleeve. At CES, it also demonstrated a proprietary version of Wi-Fi from startup Amimon for carrying uncompressed high-def video within a room, and it showed internal work on directional antennas to send video over 802.11g around a home. Sony is also a member of an ad hoc 60-GHz radio group, along with Panasonic, Toshiba and others.
"We have not decided which technology to use," a Sony product planner said at the company's CES booth.
Keeping options open
LG Electronics has decided to keep things simple, making its latest plasma HDTV products "wireless ready" for 802.11, presumably building in antennas and an upgrade slot of some sort.
"If someone decides in the future to go wireless, we will enable that for them," said Allan Jason, a marketing VP in LG's consumer group. "We're very bullish on wireless going forward."
Woo Paik, LG's chief technology officer, said Wi-Fi is just a first step. The company is keeping its options open as to which wireless technology it will use, and it's a member of the 60GHz group.
Sharp Electronics has kept relatively mum on wireless, at least for U.S. products. The company said it will use powerline networking as one option for Internet-connected models of its Aquos HDTVs. But it has not offered an updated status report on wireless since its demonstration of UWB about two years ago in the States and more recently in Japan.
"We're not ruling out wireless. It's a good solution for within the room," said Bob Scaglione, a VP for Sharp's U.S. subsidiary.
While UWB is gaining plenty of attention for the digital living room, high-definition cameras and other portable devices using the link will not be welcome clients in cars or on aircraft.
"It would be a nightmare and could take years to get UWB built into cars, because UWB has massive EMC [electromagnetic compatibility] problems in the car," William Mattingly, a VP for automotive electronics at Chrysler LLC, said during a CES panel.
UWB is banned from use in aircraft, as is Bluetooth, said another panelist, calling for the industry to rally around wireless technology, such as 802.11, that can be more readily used in the home as well as on the road and in planes.
- Rick Merritt, Junko Yoshida
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