Platforms link entertainment devices in the home -

Platforms link entertainment devices in the home

LAS VEGAS — Mediabolic Inc. and Moxi Digital Inc. have emerged at the Consumer Electronics Show with separate software platforms to network various entertainment devices in the home.

Using slightly different business models and technology building blocks, both companies have developed a Linux-based platform for home entertainment media plus networking software to distribute digital music and video throughout a home.

Mediabolic (San Francisco) said Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. will use its Mediabolic One platform to power the Digital Library, a new media server with a CD drive and 60 to 80 Gbytes of hard-disk drive storage. The Digital Library will offer four primary functions: a music jukebox; photo albums; video clips; and Internet content. Using wired or wireless IP-based Ethernet, the system is designed to offer any of these functions simultaneously to various members of a household in multiple rooms.

“The Digital Library is capable of distributing three DVD-quality streams and 21 audio streams simultaneously,” said Matthew Dever, vice president of marketing and product planning for the Home Entertainment Division of Pioneer Electronics.

For Internet content, Digital Library will play back MPEG-1, MPEG-2, Windows Media Video, Windows Media Audio and MP3 content.

Software components of the Mediabolic One platform include a database capability; automatic device discovery — compliant with Microsoft Corp.'s Universal Plug and Play; navigation tools to help find audio and video clips; and PC connectivity.

“We are not reliant on PC, but we don't ignore PC, either,” said Jeremy Toeman, the Mediabolic founder who serves as its director of business strategy. “We treat PC as a node.”

While advanced users can manage rich media applications from a PC, the Digital Library will make it easier for less-proficient consumers to rip content from their favorite CDs, transfer music from a PC, and sort photos for viewing as a slide show with images from a PC or the Digital Library's internal CD player.

Pioneer is currently conducting consumer research to determine final features for the Digital Library, which it plans to launch late this year or in early 2003, Dever said. “We could offer a DVD drive instead of a CD drive in the Digital Library, for example,” he said.

Toeman said Mediabolic will announce licensing deals with other consumer electronics and set-top box vendors shortly. The Mediabolic platform has already been ported to X86 processors, National Semiconductor's Geode, Cirrus Logic's ARM processor, and the PowerPC. Support for MIPS processors will come soon, Toeman added. The platform is primarily based on Linux or the Unix operating system, but can also run on Windows.

Moxi's method

Meanwhile, Moxi Digital, founded by Steve Perlman, a co-founder of WebTV Networks Inc., premiered at CES the Moxi Media Center, an all-in-one home entertainment platform. In contrast to Pioneer's Digital Library, the Moxi Media Center combines the features of an advanced digital cable or satellite receiver,plus a personal video recorder, CD/DVD player, music jukebox, Internet gateway and home media server. Moxi offers everything from high-level software designs to a hardware reference design.

Rather than pursue consumer electronics manufacturers or set-top vendors, Moxi has gone straight to service providers. EchoStar Communications Corp., whose pending acquisition of DirecTV could make it the largest digital satellite service provider in the United States, will deploy the Moxi software platform on its mainstream satellite receivers later this year. “We have been working with EchoStar in the last 18 months on the hardware and software definitions,” Perlman said. EchoStar is also an investor in Moxi.

Moxi licenses its platform and basic applications to network operators and charges based on number of homes deployed. It will make its hardware and software technology available to set-top vendors free of charge.

The company' s platform is offered as a combination of the Moxi Media Center (MC) and Moxi Media Center extensions (MCx). The Moxi MC with integrated broadband connections — with possible combinations of digital satellite, 56-k modem, digital cable and cable modem — also incorporates 80 Gbytes of hard disk storage and a CD/DVD player. TV programs, movies and music downloaded to the MC can be distributed to MCx on a second or third TV within a household. The MC demonstrated at CES had two tuners, but MC can be built to support up to four video tuners, said Perlman. “So it's possible to watch three different TV programs simultaneously on different TV sets within a home, while recording yet another program on the MC.”

MC and MCx are essentially designed as a client-server architecture, said Toby Farrand, vice president of engineering at Moxi. Much of the brain resides in the MC, while MCx has a simpler hardware architecture and a wired or wireless home networking interface, but no TV tuners and no cable modem.

The Moxi platform supports home networking based on coax, Ethernet or a 802.11a wireless connection. If either Ethernet or 802.11a is used, MCx comes with MPEG-2 decoding capability.

Moxi has embedded core entertainment applications and Macromedia Flash Player 5 its platform. It has also partnered with RealNetworks Inc. to allow Moxi MC users to play back RealNetworks' RealOne-based streaming media. The platform will not support Microsoft's Windows Media. however. “Windows Media based on the Windows operating system doesn't work on our platform,” Farrand said.

Farrand declined to detail specific chips designed into MC and MCx. “Not everything is locked in yet, and we are trying to be as flexible as possible with our hardware design,” he said. “We will be talking to a lot of chip vendors during the show.”

For the time being, “the Moxi MC hardware reference design today uses a X86 processor with modest graphics capability,” Perlman said. The MCx reference design is based on a MIPS processor and a graphics engine, said Farrand.

In addition to the hardware reference design, the company has also developed “a media routing and distributed processing architecture” to handle real-time media, said Perlman.

Afshin Daghi, vice president of software at Moxi, said the company is trying to address quality-of-service problems in the home-networking environment “at a much higher system level, while 802. 11e is being worked on to deliver QoS at a much lower level.” As for system-level solutions, “Our media routing architecture provides buffering on both ends — between MC and MCx — for about a few milliseconds to respond to any latency variations. Meanwhile, we also monitor arrival rates of data,” said Daghi.

Frames are often dropped without notice, but if traffic exceeds a certain level or if the CPU is too busy, too many errors may be introduced or too many frames dropped in streamed programs. In such cases, “we will simply stop the service and ask the user to come back later,” said Daghi. The objective is not to degrade the quality of the program while distributing it within the home.

Pointing out that many on the Moxi engineering team previously worked at such companies as WebTV, Tivo, Palm, Replay TV, Apple, Diva and 3DO, Perlman said: “We have really learned all the pitfalls that turn products into dead-end applications.”

Moxi's combination of entertainment systems into one media center avoids the complexities that consumers face and that OEMs must navigate when connecting disparate standalone products scattered throughout homes today, the company said.

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