Connected devices were a top trend at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, as they have been for several years. But there's no point in having a television that displays Twitter feeds or a refrigerator that can send recipes to your oven if your home network is barely functional. Here are my favorite networking gadgets and technologies from this year's show, based on the dangerous assumption that they all will work as advertised when they actually hit the market later this year:
D-Link showed off several intriguing products, including a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that can share files on a thumb drive with the entire network and a sub-$50 router that's designed to bring home monitoring to the masses (by making it easy to access one's home network from anywhere via the Internet). But the one that I liked the most was the DHP-1565 router (shown at right), which offered a novel pairing of wireless and powerline networking. Other Wi-Fi routers have included powerline networking too, but this one monitors the signal quality on each side and automatically shifts data to the less noisy pathway. Nice.
It's due in stores in January at a suggested price of just under $160.
Netgear has been selling "network attached storage" devices — hard drives that can be accessed from anywhere on your home network — for years, but the category hasn't caught on with the masses. Still, I like the idea of consolidating all the pictures, videos and music scattered around the computers and smartphones in my home, and now Netgear has made the idea more appealing by integrating 2 Terabytes' worth of storage into a router, the WNDR4700. Not only can the router store and deliver all sorts of media to computers, smart TVs, tablets and other devices on a home network, the files on its hard drive can be read or played remotely through the Internet. It also acts as a backup device for the digital home.
Netgear said the router will arrive in the summer at an as-yet undisclosed price.
Qualcomm's Skifta is the software equivalent of a network attached storage device. Its software finds the music, video and image files that are stored on the devices connected to a home network, then enables you to play them on the connected device or devices of your choice. For example, you could use Skifta to create a slideshow on your TV of photos on your smartphone, or to have computers around your house play the same MP3 playlist. At CES, Skifta announced that it will offer manufacturers development kits for modules that can be used to turn products into Skifta-ready wirelessly connected devices. It also showed a reference design for an adapter that could connect existing stereos to the home network so they, too, could play the digital song files stored on other devices. That solves the biggest problem for the connected home: Many of the devices that people own weren't built for connectivity.
Skifta didn't announce a price for the module kits, which are expected to be available in the first half of the year.
– Jon Healey
Credits, top to bottom: D-Link, Netgear and Qualcomm
At a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, Mike Masnick of TechDirt noted that we typically don’t recognize disruptive technologies until after the fact. He’s probably right, but sometimes you really can see a technology rocking an industry in real time.
That’s the case today with gesture and voice recognition. These aren’t new technologies, but judging from CES, they are finally poised to metastasize. Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensors, of which more than 18 million have been sold, have prompted industries far removed from video games to rethink how people will use their products and services. Similarly, Apple’s Siri virtual assistant has taught manufacturers and software developers that voice recognition has moved beyond recognition and into comprehension.
Together, these developments reflect an accelerating shift from mechanical interfaces to natural ones — from typing on a keypad or thumbing a remote to pointing, asking and telling. And that’s happening largely as a consequence of the rapid increase in microchip processing power, said Aviad Maizels, founder and president of PrimeSense, which designed the Kinect’s chips.
“We didn’t have a technology when we started. We had an idea,” Maizels said. It took a while for chips to have enough horsepower to perform the near-instantaneous analysis of moving images that even basic gesture recognition requires. They’ve since crossed that threshold, and continued improvements in processing power are enabling more sophisticated gesture recognition tools.
“Moore’s Law works for us,” said Adi Berenson, PrimeSense’s vice president of business development and marketing.
The increase in processing power has also helped improve speech-recognition software, said Richard H. Mack Jr. of Nuance Communications, which makes some of the technology behind Siri. Another factor, he said, has been assembling the vast amount of data needed to understand what the speech means, and then respond accordingly. Of course, the ability to analyze all that data is also a function of processing power. “It’s only going to get better,” Mack said.
TV remotes offer a good illustration of the improvement thus far. Wands that could recognize a spoken command — say, “Channel 2″ or “power on” — have been around for more than a decade. The next wave, represented by Nuance’s Dragon TV and the forthcoming Vlingo TV app, will help people search through program guides, answer questions about shows and exchange messages with friends while they watch TV.
Berenson showed off PrimeSense’s next-generation product, which can recognize movement in three dimensions — not just up and down and side to side, but forward and back. A prototype program guide let Berenson pick out a movie from an on-screen list by reaching toward it, making a grabbing motion to start an audio preview, then pulling back to start the video. The sensor was notably more responsive to subtle movements than the current products are.
PrimeSense, one of several companies developing the enabling technology for gesture recognition, is keeping its focus on the living room. The idea has already caught on with several major TV manufacturers, which showed gesture-sensing sets at the show. Across the exhibition halls at CES, though, many other applications of gesture recognition were on display, particularly in healthcare. To cite just two examples, the ng Connect booth included prototypes of cloud-based fitness and physical therapy services built on Kinect sensors. And at the PrimeSense booth, Bodymetrics (pictured above) showed how it’s using the technology in high-tech dressing rooms that scan shoppers’ bodies, then let them try on clothes virtually to check their fit.
PrimeSense and Nuance are encouraging the spread of gesture and voice recognition by helping developers apply the technologies to new uses. Nuance has about 7,000 developers using its tools, Mack said, and there are more than 3,000 developers in OpenNI, a PrimeSense initiative to promote interoperability among “natural interaction” software and devices.
Maizels gives Microsoft credit for the snowballing momentum behind natural interaction. “Microsoft did a tremendous job of telling the world that something has to change,” he said. Judging from CES, the world listened.
– Jon Healey
Photo credit: Jon Healey / Los Angeles Times
Like television makers, leading automobile manufacturers want application developers to imbue cars with some of the energy and innovation seen in smartphones. And like their counterparts in the TV industry, they haven't settled on a standard way of doing so. The mishmash of approaches means that drivers may have to wait longer for their favorite apps to become available in the models of their choice, as different manufacturers follow divergent paths toward the connected car.
The differences surfaced at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, where a host of car brands demonstrated the entertainment and information offerings they're developing. Mercedes-Benz typified one approach, showing off a customized app platform built in-house and curated by its apps team in Silicon Valley. Subaru exemplified the opposite strategy; it chose the apps platform that Aha, a subsidiary of Harman, is developing for car makers and aftermarket car-stereo manufacturers.
Executives at both car companies say they want to take advantage of app developers' work on mobile phones. But they also note that their top priority is safety, which shapes their choices of apps to make available and the way drivers interact with them.
Mercedes is atypical in one important respect: It embeds the equivalent of a 3G Verizon phone into its cars, rather relying on the driver's smartphone for connectivity. The latest version of its telematics software, called mbrace2 and due in April, is the company's first that can be updated remotely. That means new apps can be added while they're still new, instead of subjecting them to the industry's torturous three-year development cycle — a delay that can render an app obsolete by the time it makes it into a car, said Sascha Simon, Mercedes' head of advanced product planning.
It's not an open platform, however, and Mercedes will not publish its programming interfaces for developers, Simon said in an interview this week. But it is making available through mbrace2 a wide variety of apps and services that are relevant and enhance the driving experience — 60 so far, and the number will grow.
These include a widget that lets owners send their car's navigation system points of interest they find while browsing on their PCs or smartphones (a new restaurant, for example), and a streamlined version of Facebook that can write its own status updates based on the car's location and its destination. "You can't stop people from doing it," even if you don't want them using Facebook behind the wheel, Simon said. "If folks will use it, let's make it as safe as humanly possible."
Mercedes also tries to compensate for the distractions that apps present by equipping their cars with technology that can apply the brakes automatically, guard against drifting across lanes and warn drivers about vehicles in their blind spots. But their vehicles are, ahem, more expensive than the average ride.
Connectivity to the car is a two-way street, and Mercedes sees a big opportunity to offer services based on data that apps glean from the car's diagnostic system. These include the ability to trouble-shoot problems remotely and recover stolen vehicles. There are obvious privacy trade-offs to having that kind of monitoring, though, which is why such services are opt-in only, Simon said.
Subaru relies on its drivers' cellphones to supply the in-car connectivity. Although it's using Aha's platform to integrate apps into its cars' built-in audio system and display, Subaru still controls what the user interface looks like and which apps to make available. "It's our car," said David Sullivan, a car line manager for Subaru. "At the end of the day, we answer to the customer."
Because Aha's software platform is online, not in the cars themselves, apps can be updated continuously after the cars are sold, said Robert L. Acker, Aha's general manager. Aha also gives drivers a single, simple set of controls for using all the apps, which include the MOG and Rhapsody on-demand music services, Slacker and Shoutcast online radio services, audio books, Facebook and Twitter news feeds and NPR podcasts. The apps are aggregated into a menu on the car's display, turning them into a "fourth band" alongside AM, FM and satellite radio.
When a driver tunes in one of these services, the car's audio system sends a link through the driver's smartphone to the Internet, pulling content from the driver's account with that service. For example, tuning in Slacker would provide access to the custom Slacker stations the driver created, as well as Slacker's own playlists. To limit the distraction, Sullivan said, Subaru plans to give drivers access just to five preselected favorites per screen. They'll be able to make their selections through voice commands as well as by using the display's touchscreen.
Acker said Aha's goal is to make it far easier for app developers to integrate with multiple car makers, rather than tailoring their software to meet the various manufacturers' technical requirements and design mandates. At this point, though, its only announced partners are Subaru and Honda. It's also available through the car stereos that Pioneer sells directly to consumers.
QNX Software Systems of Canada is another company making software platforms for connected cars. Kerry Johnson, a senior product manager for QNX, said the fragmentation in the industry was a real problem for developers. In his view, three things have to happen before cars routinely support a wide array of apps: Automakers have to give developers more guidance on how not to distract drivers; a software platform will have to emerge that gives developers the right tools and the incentive to use them; and there need to be enough cars with systems that can be upgraded to support apps.
"By 2013 at the earliest, you'll start seeing a base of vehicles that are upgradeable," Johnson said. Whether developers will be motivated enough to write apps for them, he added, is another question.
– Jon Healey
Photo: Subaru's interface. Credit: Harman / Aha
Some times the coolest new things you see at the Consumer Electronics Show aren't gadgets or apps or even 55-inch OLED TV sets (although, admittedly, those are cool). Sometimes they're just technologies, which is what digital stereoscopic displays and gesture recognition were before they became 3D TV sets and XBox Kinect.
A good example this year is Alljoyn, an open-source software project coming out of an innovation lab run by Qualcomm. Alljoyn enables nearby users of an app to interact with each other, even when there's no local data network. Multiple people in the room can join the activity, whether it be playing a game, taking turns in the virtual DJ booth or working on an electronic whiteboard. And unlike collaborating through a congested Internet, there's little or no delay — the users' devices are seamlessly synchronized.
The magic isn't in the short-range communications technology — Alljoyn runs on top of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. What's special is the ability it gives developers to quickly add proximity networking to just about any app, even if they have no expertise in radio communications. For example, it took programmers at Namco only a week to add Alljoyn capabilities to their Pacman Kart Rally game, according to Qualcomm's Liat Ben-zur.
The demos at the Qualcomm booth showed how nearby tablets, smartphones and even a tablet and a connected TV could join in games and productivity apps. Because Alljoyn connects apps, not devices, users can collaborate simultaneously with separate groups on different programs, with no overlap — for example, working on a virtual whiteboard with one team while collaborating on a document with another.
Ben-zur said the potential uses include a wide variety of entertainment, education and business applications. The breakthrough here, she said, is that any developer will be able to make apps that can seamlessly discover and interoperate with related apps nearby. She added, "I believe this is a new Pandora's box for mobile."
– Jon Healey in Las Vegas
Photo: Two tablets play an Alljoyn-equipped version of Spud-Ball by Signature Creative. Credit: Jon Healey
Broadband speeds have increased steadily in the United States, reaching an average of 5.8 Mbps in mid-2011. That's 50% faster than in mid-2009, and it's likely to keep going up. But aside from streaming movies and doing video chats on Skype, what will people do with all that bandwidth?
Alcatel-Lucent, a leading supplier of networking gear to telecommunications companies, is trying to give the public and broadband service providers a better idea of what connectivity can deliver. Just as important, it's trying to show DSL and cable-modem providers how they could offer new services, giving them more ability and incentive to invest in higher-capacity networks — and less incentive to cap their customers' usage or bill them by the gigabyte.
It's doing so through an inter-industry coalition it founded called ng Connect, which brings high-tech companies together to brainstorm and combine their technologies into new service concepts. It's been showing off some of those ideas this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including new approaches to television, fitness, public safety, shopping and healthcare.
On Monday the coalition announced that it had expanded to more than 125 members. New additions include Fitting Reality, whose software creates virtual dressing rooms for retailers; MetaWatch, whose wireless watches can display Web data and alerts from the wearer's smartphone; and Zephyr Technology, which specializes in remote body- and health-monitoring.
The demonstrations at CES included some familiar concepts, such as using a smartphone in a store to gather more information about the products displayed there, or continuously connecting service and public-safety vehicles to all sorts of information sources and devices (see the "Striker" concept vehicle above). But there were also some intriguing new mash-ups of capabilities on display.
For example, there was a prototype of a table for bars or restaurants that combined Microsoft's Surface computing technology, Brass Monkey's cloud-based games, streaming video and advertising, and 4G wireless broadband. And the "Avatrainer" demo combined a fitness game with wireless heart-rate monitors into a cloud-based service that enables travelers to keep track of their workouts away from home.
Jason Collins, an Alcatel-Lucent vice president who leads ng Connect, said the point of the coalition is to help tech companies combine their specialties into services that improve the experience for broadband users. It's also to help broadband providers "become part of the value equation" of the services made possible by their networks.
The demand for what's already available through broadband is ever-increasing. The question is how telecommunications companies will afford the investments needed to keep up with that demand. Obviously, Alcatel-Lucent wants service providers to expand their capacity by buying more of the company's gear. But its interests — and ng Connect's — are aligned with consumers' when it comes to finding alternatives to bandwidth caps, metered pricing and similar strategies that broadband providers have been exploring.
– Jon Healey
Photo: The Striker concept public-safety vehicle. Credit: Alcatel-Lucent
Netflix, CinemaNow and Vudu seem ubiquitous on the smart TV sets and set-top boxes on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, but they're not the only companies bringing films on demand to the TV, tablets and smartphones. Among the others trying to drum up business here have been two smaller, evolving competitors, Film Fresh and Bigstar, each of which brings something unique to the mix.
Film Fresh began as an outlet for downloadable international films, which it made available for sale or rental. It eventually added films for sale from selected Hollywood studios — Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate — because "we learned that you can't sell the long tail without the short-tail films," said founder Rick Bolton. "You need familiar films."
This week Film Fresh relaunched its site, switching to a more widely compatible format (dropping DivX in favor of Windows Media) that's more acceptable to the bigger studios. The switch enables Film Fresh to make those studios' movies available for rent, not just for purchase, and it opens a pathway to more devices. It added Roku's set-top boxes this week and plans to launch on Android tablets in a few weeks, followed eventually by Apple devices. It also opened a store this week on Facebook.
The company also added a nifty mood-based recommendation engine called "Film Finder" (pictured above). The first set of suggestions comes from the company's staff of film buffs, and the rest are generated by technology from The Filter. The recommendations help users navigate the company's library of nearly 6,000 films, most of which are titles you'd never see promoted on a bus or in a theatrical trailer. "For us, the holy grail is discovery," Bolton explained, adding that Film Finder is designed to give the site a "corner video store vibe."
With CinemaNow owned by Best Buy, Blockbuster owned by DISH and Vudu owned by Wal-Mart, Film Fresh is promoting itself to device makers as the Switzerland of online film retailers. "We're the last independent film download service with independents and Hollywood content," Bolton said. Miami-based Bigstar, meanwhile, is offering unlimited movie streaming for a monthly fee of just under $5 — the Netflix model, only cheaper.
It can afford to do that, founder Xavi Dalmau said, because it works only with indie film studios and distributors that are willing to forgo guarantees and advances. Instead, the site pays its 150 content partners half the revenue it collects from subscribers. (Most of its more than 4,000 titles are included in the subscription price, but a few hundred are available only on a pay-per-view basis.)
Bigstar has only about 5,000 paying members at this point, despite having attracted 300,000 potential subscribers over its history. It's had much more success winning a place on connected TVs and set-top boxes; it is or soon will be available on TVs by Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio, Roku players, iPads and devices that run the Android operating system.
As a result, only about 10% of the site's streams are delivered to Web browsers. "Our top platform is the iPad and the iPhone," Dalmau said, adding that the segment with the fastest growing usage is connected TVs. And unlike many of its competitors, Bigstar has the rights to stream most of its movies globally.
"We felt that the independent world was a way for us to prove our model," he said. The company hopes to gradually add deals with bigger studios, but not for blockbusters. The hits don't fit into a business model built around $4.99-a-month subscriptions. Instead, Bigstar is focused on overlooked titles — for example, indie movies that make a splash at film festivals but don't go on to a wide release. That's a common fate for festival fare, most of which never makes it to the multiplex, Dalmau said.
"All along we wanted to make the platform to give it to the filmmakers to be able to show the great movies that they make, year in and year out. A curated library has always been one of our goals. We spent a lot of time figuring out what to put in and what not to."
The privately held company's not making money yet, Dalmau said, but it hasn't been trying to. Instead, it's been building its platform and acquiring content, albeit "without spending the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars" on major Hollywood fare. With a huge supply of long-tail films gathering dust in archives, along with unheralded foreign films, documentaries and shorts, "there's a lot out there that we can get our hands on that we feel people want to watch," Dalmau said.
– Jon Healey
Credit: Film Fresh
Consumer electronics manufacturers have talked up the idea of sharing photos, videos and music across devices for the better part of a decade. At this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, though, several of the major brands took the concept a step further, unveiling cloud-based services that pushed content-sharing beyond the boundaries of the home.
LG, for example, showed off "my CloudShare" with a feature called Familycast, which enables remote access from a connected TV set in one home to the digital content stored in another. Samsung displayed "allshare," which enables people to remotely access music, movies and pictures either from their home network or from copies stored online, and a "Family Story" app that shares pictures and messages across multiple homes through connected TVs, tablets and smartphones.
These capabilities reflect the work of the Digital Living Network Alliance, an inter-industry coalition formed in 2003 to promote interoperability among devices in the home. Before the alliance started working on its specifications, manufacturers used a hodgepodge of different and potentially incompatible technologies — some of them proprietary — to store information and send it from device to device. DLNA cleared the confusion by picking a common set of standards for file types and communications protocols for devices to support.
The DLNA specs enable TVs, camcorders, smartphones, tablets and other devices connected to a home network to be automatically discovered by and share content with one another. More than half a billion products that meet the DLNA specifications are now in use, by ABI Research's estimates, laying the groundwork for the services that the likes of LG and Samsung demonstrated at CES. (Notably absent from DLNA is Apple, which follows its own muse on home networking.)
The new wrinkle this year is the addition of cloud-based sharing, which manufacturers pitched as a way to share pictures and home movies with friends and distant family members, or to enjoy one's personal music and video collections when away from home. Consumers have been able to do such things for years through their computers; now, the big consumer electronics brands want to make sharing simpler and bring it to more devices.
For example, Samsung's "Family Story" enables people to store photos — including those snapped by the camera built into selected Samsung TVs — in the cloud, where they can be viewed by others who are authorized to see them. The Family Story app essentially creates a private social media group through the Internet, with new photo uploads automatically made available to each member.
The cloud-based services on display at CES have the potential to promote copyright infringement, but that's true of any online-sharing application. The manufacturers' main selling point also seems to be sharing family memories, not record collections or Hollywood movies.
For Samsung and LG, at least, there's no revenue attached to the services — they're free to users. So for now, cloud-based sharing is a feature aimed at selling more hardware, not a route to generating recurring revenue. But with Apple testing consumers' willingness to pay an annual fee for enhanced online storage, will their rivals in the consumer-electronics industry be far behind?
– Jon Healey in Las Vegas
Photo: Samsung President Boo-Keun Yoon discussing the company's connected TV strategy at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. Credit: Samsung
With surprisingly little fanfare, the major consumer electronics manufacturers introduced a new category of television at the Consumer Electronics Show this year: 4K TV sets, which cram four times as much picture information onto the screen as the best of the current high-definition models. That's a little over 8 million pixels, compared to about 2 million in a 1080P HDTV set.
LG showed off an 84-inch "ultra definition" LCD set (pictured above). Sony, which already has a 4K projector on the market, said it would continue to develop 4K TVs and promised Blu-ray disc players that upconvert HDTV to 4K. And Sharp took the wraps off not only a 4K LCD TV, but also an 8K prototype. No details were available on prices or release dates, although most manufacturers said they'd have 4K sets in stores this year.
The LG and Sharp sets offered stunningly good pictures, presenting a precisely defined yet silky smooth canvas of images. Yet with so many consumers more than happy with 1080P (and 720P, a less intensive level of high definition), why bother? 4K TV doesn't change the viewing experience as fundamentally as the shift from analog to HDTV, or from 2D to 3D. And although 3D sets are selling well, it's not clear that consumers are buying them because they want something better than HDTV — they may just see it as a way to future-proof their sizable investment in a flat-panel set.
To some degree, 4K is a natural reaction to the rapid decline in TV prices. Manufacturers are under pressure to offer new capabilities every year in order to push prices back up, at least at the high end of the market. LG spokesman John Taylor added a more practical consideration: On a very big screen, 1080P doesn't provide enough resolution.
4K probably won't come to 42-inch sets because it's not needed in that size, Taylor said. But over time, U.S. consumers have gravitated toward ever-larger sets, attracted by thinner and lighter designs and plunging prices. So while 42 inches may be the sweet spot now for many buyers, especially those who grew up on 25-inch analog sets, the demand for bigger displays is likely to grow.
The nontrivial problem for 4K, though, is that there's nothing to watch in that format. As bad as the shortage of 3D programming has been for home viewers, the supply of 3D dwarfs the availability of 4K material. That helps explain why the new 4K sets received so little attention during the manufacturers' press blitz Monday, even though they will be making their debut in 2012.
"There is no 4K broadcasting," noted Panasonic's chief technology officer, Eisuke Tsuyuzaki. And given that the quality of 4K is equivalent to a pristine copy of a 35mm film print, piracy-conscious studios may think twice before agreeing to let any truly valuable content be broadcast in that format, Tsuyuzaki said.
He envisioned a demand for a few thousand 4K displays for medical use (for example, assisting surgeons) and in computer graphics and design. But for the living room? "It's going to be a while," he said. "It's not a technical issue…. The biggest issue is the content."
Then again, TV stations don't broadcast in 1080P, either. That format is limited mainly to Blu-ray discs and video-on-demand services. So if upconverted broadcasts have been good enough for 1080P, perhaps that will be enough to justify the purchase of a 4K set — for those whose homes are big enough to fit one in.
– Jon Healey in Las Vegas
The capacity of today's hard drives is so enormous, the average consumer might have a tough time figuring out what to do with it. Dish Network has an idea: How about giving TV viewers the chance to watch every prime-time program on the four major networks that they missed in the last week?
The satellite operator, which is the third-largest pay-TV provider in the United States, announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday that its new Hopper digital video recorder will have an extra tuner dedicated to capturing all the prime-time programs broadcast by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. It also will have a 2-Terabyte hard drive, giving it enough room to hold on to all those recordings for eight days — along with hundreds of hours of movies and shows chosen by each Hopper's owner.
It's a gimmick, sure, but a potentially useful one — both for Dish and for its customers. Dish rival Time Warner Cable offers a "look back" service that enables subscribers to watch a broad range of prime-time programming from the previous three days, although the recordings are stored at the cable company's central office, not in subscribers' homes. Unlike a digital video recorder, however, the service doesn't let viewers fast-forward through commercials, which is one of the most appealing features of a DVR like the Hopper.
In addition, the Hopper helps close the gap between the time a show is broadcast and when it becomes available online through Hulu and other authorized sites. Networks routinely hold programs back until the day after they're broadcast; Fox delays them for eight days, although Dish subscribers can get those programs within a day. With a Hopper, there is no waiting.
The ultra-roomy hard drive also enables Dish to store a large supply of movies and shows for on-demand viewing, albeit not to the extent that cable operators can. On-demand service has long been cable's big advantage over satellite; cable is a two-way network that can send programming on request to individual homes, but satellite is a one-way system that broadcasts programming to entire regions.
Satellite operators have tried to overcome that technological disadvantage by teaming up with broadband providers to offer on-demand services through the Internet, and by caching programs on their subscribers' DVRs that can be unlocked for viewing on demand. The larger the capacity of the DVR, the larger the library of programs that can be cached.
The Hopper is designed to feed smaller set-top boxes, called Joeys, in other rooms of the home. According to Dish, a home equipped with a Hopper and three Joeys can watch four different recorded shows simultaneously.
– Jon Healey
Image: A Hopper digital video recorder. Credit: Dish Network
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Monday, Rovi Corp. announced what appears to be the first legal tool to convert consumers' DVD collections into digital files that can be played from on online library. It's not exactly iTunes Match for movies, but it's a step in the right direction, with caveats — lots of them.
One of the main benefits of the digital revolution has been to release music, photos, books and video from their physical bindings, enabling consumers to access their media collections any time, anywhere, on a variety of devices. Those benefits haven't extended to DVDs, however; the discs' anti-piracy software deters people from making functional digital copies of the movies on the discs.
That's "deters," not "stops." It's technically possible to circumvent a DVD's safeguards and copy it, and the software exists to do so. But under federal law, it's illegal to make, sell or distribute such circumvention tools, even if the copy is being made for a legal use. And the Hollywood studios have mounted legal assaults against a series of companies (e.g., 321 Studios and RealNetworks) that have put DVD copying software on the market.
Unlike their ill-fated predecessors, Rovi isn't actually creating copies of DVD movies. Instead, it has created an app for Internet-connected Blu-ray disc players that can read the unique identifier on each DVD or Blu-ray disc, then offer the disc owner the chance to store a copy of that movie online. It won't be free, however; Richard Bullwinkle, Rovi’s chief evangelist, said the studios participating in the service plan to charge a small fee for the stored copy. The fee will be higher for high-definition copies than for standard-definition ones.
The fee is just the first of the caveats. The second is that Rovi's disc identification will work only on Blu-ray players capable of downloading and running a new Rovi application. Bullwinkle wouldn't name the manufacturers that will support Rovi's app, but the possibilities include disc players from Samsung and LG and Microsoft's XBox 360.
The third is that the stored movies will be protected by some form of digital rights management software that limits which devices can stream or download the files. Users won't be able to use the online locker of their choice; instead, they'll have to rely on a service blessed by the studios. Again, Rovi isn't identifying any specific partners yet, but a good bet would be Best Buy's CinemaNow and others that use Rovi's e-commerce technology.
In sum, here's what Rovi Digital Copy offers: the chance to buy a discounted digital copy of a movie you've already paid for that can be played on many computers, tablets, game consoles, smartphones and set-top boxes, but won't necessarily be accessible from or compatible with all of your devices.
As limited as it is, this offer may still appeal to the same people who think it's worth paying Apple $25 a year for an online copy of their digital music collection, or who bought CD copies of the vinyl albums on their bookshelves. And as demonstrated by the popularity of online photo sites, there is something powerfully appealing about being able to shift a media collection from one's living room or home computer to the cloud, where it can be enjoyed from just about anywhere.
Even the relatively small step forward represented by Rovi Digital Copy is still a leap for the piracy-phobic Hollywood studios. Their main argument against other approaches to DVD copying has been that they enabled people to copy movies rented from Netflix or borrowed from friends, creating permanent collections on the cheap. Rovi's software can't stop that sort of behavior, either; instead, it minimizes the effect by allowing only one digital copy to be bought per disc. Nevertheless, that curb was enough to satisfy Rovi's studio partners.
Rovi's service helps plug a gaping hole in Hollywood's UltraViolet initiative, which encourages people to buy Blu-ray discs by including access to a digital copy of that movie in the cloud. So far, however, UltraViolet only works for selected new Blu-ray releases. As a result, it's trying to sell people on the benefits of movie ownership — in particular, the ability to enjoy a film anywhere, any time, and on a variety of devices — that applies only to a fraction of the titles in their collection. Rovi's solution can extend those benefits potentially to a movie lover's entire DVD and Blu-ray collection — for a fee, unfortunately, and with non-trivial caveats.
– Jon Healey in Las Vegas
Image: A chart showing how Rovi Digital Copy would work. Credit: Rovi
Five years ago, Samsung unveiled a digital TV broadcasting technology that was optimized for mobile devices. It's still waiting to sell its first broadcast-enabled smartphones in the United States, just as the TV industry is still waiting for the notion of mobile DTV to take off. But there are signs that the wait may be coming to an end.
On Wednesday, a coalition of TV stations and networks announced a partnership with mobile phone company MetroPCS that will enable the latter's customers in Los Angeles and 13 other markets to tune in the stations' mobile DTV signals later this year. The first compatible device will be an Android smartphone made by Samsung, which will use a telescoping antenna for better reception. In the meantime, RCA plans to show off an Android-based flat-panel TV (shown above) that can tune in the coalition stations' service (called Dyle) at next week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The coalition's formal name is the Mobile Content Venture, and its membership includes Fox, NBC, Univision, Telemundo, ION Television and about a dozen large station ownership groups. Their members have been installing mobile DTV transmission equipment at 72 stations in 32 markets, which reach half of the U.S. population, according to Erik Moreno, a senior vice president at Fox Networks Group and the co-general manager of the coalition. "We needed to make that first move to convince someone like MetroPCS" to offer mobile DTV service to its customers, Moreno said.
That investment by the coalition's members helps overcome the chicken-and-egg problem faced by mobile DTV. But it remains an open question whether consumers will tune in. Qualcomm's high-profile effort to broadcast TV programming to specially equipped cellphones attracted few viewers, in part because it offered only a limited selection of programming. The company eventually abandoned the venture and sold the airwaves to AT&T.
Part of the problem for Qualcomm's Flo TV service was that local stations developed a standard for delivering TV signals to mobile devices over a portion of their own digital channels, cutting out the middleman. Although the standard was adopted in late 2009, however, only 120 of the 1,600 stations in the United States are transmitting mobile DTV signals today. One reason is that few consumers have a device capable of tuning in to those signals — the industry is starting from scratch. Another reason is the lack of a credible way to determine how many people are watching the mobile signals, making it hard for stations to charge advertisers for commercial time.
The members of Mobile Content Venture have taken the mobile DTV standard one step further, encrypting the signals to control their availability. That might sound counter-intuitive for an industry that has long relied on reaching the largest possible audience on the widest array of devices. But Moreno's counterpart Salil Dalvi, a senior vice president at NBC Universal, said that encryption serves two important purposes.
First, it enables stations to identify each mobile tuner and track (anonymously) what's being watched, giving it the kind of credible data about audience sizes and locations that advertisers demand. And second, it gives stations the ability to charge for the programs or services they offer mobile users, or to make their content available only to subscribers, in addition to their usual ad-supported business model. Those alternatives give broadcasters multiple ways to get a return on their mobile investment.
"We don't have to decide today exactly which business model is going to be available five years from now," Dalvi said.
On the other hand, Dyle faces two of the same steep hurdles that felled FloTV: Consumers have to buy new equipment in order to tune in to the programs, and some of the most popular TV content won't be available through the service. Among the missing content: ABC, CBS, ESPN and a panoply of other top cable TV networks.
Then there's the question of whether the stations that aren't members of Mobile Content Venture will deploy technology that's compatible with Dyle, or if they'll start the kind of format war that plagued the music industry in the early days of digital downloads. Many of those stations have joined forces in a group called the Mobile500 Alliance, which wants to develop a multi-channel mobile TV service.
Moreno contended that the risk of dueling, incompatible services was low because there's a broad understanding among broadcasters that such a split doesn't help anyone. There may be competing offerings, he said, but the applications and devices are likely to be interoperable.
Salvi noted mobile devices are far better now than when Flo TV debuted, and there's a much larger base of customers accustomed to using those devices for entertainment. "We have seen strong indicators that consumers want video on their devices, and they want live video on their devices," he said, adding, "We look at consumers here in the United States, and their live TV consumption today, and our experience providing live programming on the phone before — this is a product that will have resonance with consumers."
– Jon Healey
Photo: RCA's Android-based flat-panel TV can tune in to mobile DTV signals. Credit: RCA
Marvell, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor designer, announced Thursday that the next generation of Google TV will be built around one of its chipsets. The specifications of its reference design show, predictably, a considerable advance in power and chip integration over the first generation of Google TV: For example, Marvell’s Armada processor is a dual-core chip, as opposed to the single-core Intel Atom processor found in Logitech’s first-generation Google TV product. That’s welcome, but the main problems with Google TV thus far have been business-model and software shortcomings. In other words, even if a Marvell-powered Google TV is more powerful and less expensive, it won’t necessarily be more appealing.
According to Marvell co-founder Weili Dai, the semiconductor platform her company designed can handle high-definition 3-D movies and video games in addition to smart-TV applications. One complaint about the initial Google TV products, which debuted in October 2010, was that the roster of apps was thin. But Dai argued in an interview Wednesday that the open platform provided by Google TV will attract the same kind of attention from developers that the Android operating system has for smartphones.
“Many people are writing apps on that platform,” Dai said. “Every day, every hour [they are] building that capability. … What you saw for Android and smartphones in general is happening now with the smart TVs and the Google TVs of the world.”
A bigger hurdle for Google has been the decision of many important suppliers of television programming online — including Hulu, the four major broadcast networks and several popular cable channels — to block Google TV from displaying the online versions of their shows. That reflects the networks’ fear that Google TV could encourage people to swap their cable TV subscriptions for free TV online, undermining an important source of revenue for the industry.
The programming and software issues have been so significant that one of the two original Google TV vendors, Logitech, abandoned the product last month. That was a few months after the company revealed it had more returns on the unit than sales in the second quarter of 2011, prompting it to slash the list price from $250 to $99.
Dai said Marvell has cut the cost of the box’s chips to the point where companies can “build very affordable devices.” She also said she believes that consumers’ experience with the connectivity, utility and flexibility of smartphones makes them hungry for a similar capability on the big screens in their home. But she conceded that it’s up to Google and the TV industry to come up with a business model that persuades more content providers to embrace the Google TV platform.
“When Android was born, there was the learning curve. The Google TV side is the same thing,” Dai said. Google has opened up the TV business model, but now “they need to work within the ecosystem,” she added. “I’m hopeful they will resolve that.”
Google TV products based on the new Marvell chips are expected later this year. Dai declined to identify any of the manufacturers, but at least some of them are likely to show off prototypes at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week.
– Jon Healey
Photo: Marvell’s reference design for its Foresight Platform, which powers the next generation of Google TV. Credit: Marvell
Rhapsody, the longest-running subscription-music service, announced Thursday that it had finally crossed the 1 million subscriber threshold. Before you cue the cork-popping, bear in mind that Rhapsody launched almost exactly 10 years ago, so its growth isn't setting land-speed records. And three years ago, Rhapsody and rival Napster each reported having about 750,000 subscribers. The two companies are now combined, thanks to Rhapsody's purchase of the fast-declining Napster in October, but the total is far less than the sum of their erstwhile parts.
So the announcement doesn't exactly herald the dawn of a new era for subscription music services in general or Rhapsody in particular. The total number of people who pay for on-demand music services online is still dwarfed by the more than 21 million who subscribe to Sirius XM. And in a country of more than 110 million households, 1 million isn't mass market.
Nevertheless, Rhapsody President Jon Irwin insists that the new total is a real milestone. Although online music services have notched higher subscriber counts before, they were inflated by the inclusion of customers who'd signed up only for low-cost premium radio services. More important, Irwin noted that the way subscribers use Rhapsody has crossed a significant threshold as well. For the first time, most of that usage is not on a personal computer. Instead, more than half of the playback is on mobile phones, stereos, TV set-tops and other consumer electronics, with smartphones accounting for 40%.
Irwin said Rhapsody started focusing on smartphone users in 2009, and that focus paid very real dividends this year. The company was losing subscribers in the late 2000s because, like Napster and other competitors, it was charging too much for mobile access, Irwin said. The turnaround came after it helped persuade the labels to accept less for the rights to play songs on portable devices, enabling it to drop its monthly charge from $15 to $10.
Another factor for Rhapsody has been the partnerships it has struck with other service providers. It has long teamed with Verizon Wireless to offer Rhapsody to subscribers as a $10-a-month add-on. This year it went a step further with Metro PCS, which bundled Rhapsody into a $60-a-month unlimited data plan. That sort of bundling is the Holy Grail for subscription services.
A third factor in Rhapsody's recent growth was the Napster acquisition, although Irwin declined to say how many subscribers converted to Rhapsody after it extinguished the Napster brand this month. That growth may be good for Rhapsody, but it doesn't indicate any momentum for music services in general.
Irwin predicted that the next subscriber milestones "are going to come much faster" for Rhapsody. The competition is certainly stiffer. Apple, Amazon and Google rolled out free or low-cost services this year that let people store copies of their MP3 collections online, which they can play from any Internet-connected device or compatible mobile phone. For people who don't have a constant need for new songs, those options are pretty compelling.
For those who do want to hear lots of new music, Spotify has ushered in a much more generous form of "freemium" music service, offering a large amount of on-demand music for free as a way to attract people to its paid services. Spotify's CEO said recently that it had 2.5 million subscribers worldwide, most of them in Europe. The company's numbers could jump next month, when its initial U.S. customers reach the end of their allotment of unlimited free tracks and start bumping up against monthly caps.
Irwin remains skeptical about free advertiser-supported tiers as a way to acquire paid subscribers. The ad-supported model is a hard one to make work economically, he said, given how much the labels demand for the right to stream their songs on demand. He also wonders whether freemium services attract "music transients," people who switch from service to service as they exhaust their free trials. But he also said Rhapsody could switch to a freemium model in a heartbeat if a competitor demonstrates that it works financially. Whether it's a free tier or just a longer free trial, Irwin said, "it all goes to the same end: to show people the value of a subscription and get them to pay."
There's the rub. Compared with other forms of music consumption, not many people see the value in paying a monthly fee for access to a large music collection, as opposed to paying once for tracks that can be kept permanently. Irwin acknowledges that the Rhapsody model isn't for everybody, but he argues that it will become a mass-market way to consume music. Given that Rhapsody has "almost doubled" the number of subscribers since it was spun off from RealNetworks and Viacom in early 2010, Irwin said, and given the wealth of consumer-electronics devices Rhapsody is now available on, the service is "getting to the point where it can be mainstream."
Rhapsody is privately held, and Irwin declined to say whether it's profitable. "With a million-plus subscribers … I can cover my operating costs," he said, adding that the company may still need to plow cash back into attracting new partners, expanding internationally and improving its service. "If I want to be profitable, yeah, I can be profitable," he said. "I'm not going to be driven by short-term financial considerations."
– Jon Healey
Online music service Grooveshark is swimming in murky legal waters, as evidenced by the copyright-infringement lawsuit that three major record companies are now bringing against the site's owners and several of its executives. Judging from the amended complaint filed Thursday by Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, however, that lawsuit won't be the last in a series of epic battles between tech companies and the entertainment industry over third-party liability. Instead, the case may hinge on the company's employees own efforts to stock the online jukebox.
Grooveshark lets people stream tracks from an online library of millions of songs. Some of those songs — the ones the company has licensed from EMI, a major record company, and numerous independent labels — were uploaded by Grooveshark. The rest — including thousands of unauthorized hits owned by Universal, Warner and Sony — were uploaded by users in violation of the site's terms of service, company executives say.
The company has long argued that it's not liable for the unauthorized songs because it's protected by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law provides a safe harbor for companies that give the public a place to store or share material online, provided that they don't know about or benefit financially from the infringements and that they take down infringing material when it's pointed out to them.
If Grooveshark is right, the lawsuit may turn out to be a meaningful battle over a DMCA-compliant site's duties in the face of rampant piracy — in effect, a rematch of Viacom's unsuccessful lawsuit against YouTube. (Viacom's appeal is pending at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.). But the major labels' complaint seeks to avoid that fight by alleging that Grooveshark doesn't comply with the DMCA and isn't eligible for a safe harbor.
They base their claim on e-mails, internal documents and online comments by someone claiming to be a Grooveshark employee, all of which suggest that Grooveshark executives knew about and profited from the infringements. For example, the supposed whistleblower alleged that the company ordered employees to upload songs from the major labels, including the ones taken down in response to the copyright owners' complaints.
That sort of allegation has been a standard feature of the entertainment industry's lawsuits against online piracy hotbeds. In some cases, such as the suits against Limewire and Grokster, those internal documents helped convince judges. In others, such as Viacom versus YouTube, they didn't.
The YouTube ruling alarmed entertainment companies, who fear that its broad interpretation of the DMCA safe harbor gives sites too much freedom to build businesses around infringing material uploaded by the public. They're fighting to narrow the safe harbor's reach, both in court and in Congress.
Grooveshark epitomizes what copyright holders think is wrong with the DMCA. They complain that even when the site responds to their request to take down unauthorized tracks, the songs pop right back up. To get a feel for this, read the comments on this Digital Music News post about King Crimson's long fight to remove its material from the site. Copyright holders have pressed the courts and Congress for years to require sites to monitor uploads and block copyrighted material. So far, however, jurists and lawmakers have resisted, leaving the burden on copyright holders to identify specific instances of infringement and ask that they be removed.
What qualifies as knowledge is a matter of some dispute, but it's not enough for a company to be aware generally that some of its users are infringing. According to the statute, they must have "actual knowledge" that material on their site is infringing, or they must be "aware of facts or circumstances" that make the infringements apparent. Of course, ordering one's employees to upload unlicensed songs would be a pretty clear instance of "actual knowledge."
Even if the evidence supplied by the major labels isn't what it seems, Grooveshark has been pushing the limits of the safe harbor's protections. Its most recent redesign added an "Explore" section to help users discover more music they might like. Although the most prominent part of the section promotes songs and artists who have deals with Grooveshark, it also includes links to the most popular songs on its site — most of which are from artists and labels who don't have deals with the company.
John Ashenden, a senior vice president at Grooveshark, said the existence of the page doesn't mean the company knows that the listed tracks actually are what the links say they are. "This is an automated list of songs, based on day-to-day activity on our site," Ashenden said in an interview before the lawsuit was filed. "This isn’t a list that we are going out of our way to put together. We have really no direct control of the songs that pop up in the 'popular' section."
The lawsuit is the second that Universal has filed against Grooveshark. After EMI settled its claim against the site and granted it a license, Universal brought an infringement claim against Grooveshark in state court in New York, alleging violations of the state-law copyrights on songs recorded before 1972. That suit, which is still pending, will probably have to address Grooveshark's safe-harbor claims as well. As Digital Music News has pointed out, at least one federal judge in New York has opined that the safe harbor protects sites against claims under state law too.
– Jon Healey
One of the criticisms of the digital locks used by broadcasters and Hollywood studios is that, in trying to squelch piracy, they can interfere with fair uses of copyrighted material by other artists. And under federal law, it's illegal to circumvent those locks. Chicago-based Kartemquin Films (the subject of the video at top) and other documentary filmmakers won a temporary exemption from that law a year and a half ago, with the help of students at the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic and lawyers from Donaldson & Callif of Beverly Hills. Now the clinic and the firm are seeking to extend the exemption to all filmmakers and authors of multimedia e-books.
The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal to circumvent "technical protection measures" on DVDs and other digital media. That created a dilemma for filmmakers who wanted to use a snippet from an earlier movie on DVD: Even if the use wasn't infringing, they could still be sued for going around the locks. So even though circumvention tools are widely available online (despite the fact that they're illegal to make or distribute), filmmakers used them at their peril.
That's why documentarians sought an exemption from the Copyright Office in 2009. Recognizing the potentially chilling effects of the anti-circumvention provision, lawmakers had included in the 1998 law a requirement that the office consider granting relief every three years to those whose non-infringing uses were adversely affected. The exemption documentarians won in July 2010 applies only to DVDs, and it expires next year.
In seeking a new exemption, the filmmakers are focused on two problems, said Jack Lerner, a law professor at USC who directs the Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic.
The first is that fictional films have many of the same needs as documentaries, and they're running into the same hurdles when trying to make legal uses of clips from movies, TV shows or news broadcasts. The second is that "technical protection measures" have become ubiquitous, extending beyond discs to media broadcast through cable, via satellite and online.
Documentarians have been joined in the current application by independent filmmakers creating works of fiction, and they're seeking permission to circumvent the locks on Blu-ray discs as well as DVDs. And if the material they seek is available only as a digital broadcast or online stream, they want to be allowed to circumvent the copy-protection technology on those transmissions. A similar request was filed by the USC clinic and Donaldson & Callif on behalf of four authors working on multimedia e-books about film, who seek permission to circumvent the locks on DVDs and digital streams (but not Blu-ray discs, Lerner said, on the theory that no one using a tablet needs the extra pixels).
It's worth remembering that the exemption wouldn't allow filmmakers and e-book authors to make infringing uses of copyrighted material. It only applies to legal copying (or "fair use"). Think commentary, investigative reporting and parody, for example. So the question isn't whether filmmakers and e-book authors are capable of doing good things with clips from copyrighted works — that's a given. The question is whether they need access to copy-protected digital media to do those things.
The major Hollywood opposed the 2009 application, arguing that documentarians didn't need to circumvent the locks on DVDs to get the clips they needed. Instead, the studios argued, they could film the scene as it played on a TV, or they could ask the owner for a licensed copy.
Anticipating a similar response this go-around, the filmmakers contend in their new application that they can't get by with anything less than a high-definition copy, and that the licensing process puts them at the mercy of copyright owners who may not support the new works being created. Here's an excerpt from their argument about their need for high-definition source material:
"The technical standards for film distribution have evolved in ways that require filmmakers to obtain high-definition source materials," the filmmakers argue in their Copyright Office filing. "Since 2009, many television stations have adopted HD distribution requirements such that virtually all major broadcasters now require that filmmakers deliver their films in HD. Because of this new standard, it is now impracticable for filmmakers to distribute films that make fair use without access to an HD source," such as Blu-ray discs.
Their application also includes copies of two standard licensing contracts for clips, both of which bar the clips from being used in a work that's "derogatory to or critical of the entertainment industry" or the company that created the clip. Such conditions would make it well-nigh impossible to do a documentary about media bias, say, or to use clips in a historical drama with a critical edge.
The studios aren't likely to welcome an authorized circumvention of the anti-piracy technology on Blu-ray discs, but the filmmakers contend that the material they need just isn't available on VHS any longer and is increasingly scarce on DVDs. They also argue that as content creators, they too are eager to preserve copyrights and stunt piracy. And as far as they know, the exemptions granted for DVD circumvention haven't given rise to any new allegations of infringement.
The requests to circumvent Blu-ray and streaming protections represent the edge of the envelope for the Copyright Office, which has moved slowly and incrementally in the past on requests for exemptions. But they're a logical extension of the exemptions granted for making fair use of content on DVDs. A decision on the application is due next year; stay tuned.
– Jon Healey
Credit: YouTube and Kartemquin Films