The 2006 CES Show in Las Vegas is about to kick off and one of the biggest launches will be the new Viiv media centre platform.

Get ready, you’re about to have your eyes and ears lambasted with another new Intel brand. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January will play host to the launch of the digital home equivalent of ‘Centrino’ – Intel’s Viiv platform.

The company is reported to be spending in excess of $300 million on Viiv’s promotion, a similar amount to the sum forked out to make Centrino the household name it is today. So expect to see the curious Romanesque Viiv logo on a TV screen near you for most of 2006.

Viiv: rhymes with ‘five’Viiv isn’t just a new processor and a commitment to Media Center PCs, it’s been designed as a digital home platform.

In the past, Intel’s branding exercises have concentrated on individual components, predominately its CPUs. The Centrino name, however, has been used to market the entire concept of mobile computing. Although the Pentium M processor is a key part of the Centrino picture, the chipset and wireless networking elements are equally important – and so is the claim of compatibility with the wireless hotspots which have sprung up globally over the last few years.

In a similar way, Intel’s Viiv is all about the platform and what it can do for you, not the specific Intel components that make it up. The new brand is intended to stand for the convergence revolution enabled by digital technology, which is bringing computing and consumer electronics devices into one interlinked home entertainment system.

Intel hopes to put Viiv at the centre of this revolution, and with it the company’s enabling technologies. As Kevin Corbett, vice president and general manager, Content Services Group, Intel Digital Home Group, told us: “Intel Viiv technology-based PCs will not only connect to the TV, but also deliver the latest movies at home, create ‘music DJs’, play games and showcase home photos and videos – it’s a ‘one-stop-shop’ for entertainment.”

A PC with the power of two
Although Viiv is as much a marketing concept as it is a specific set of technologies, the platform’s requirements have already been fleshed out in some detail. Perhaps the most surprising of these is the necessity for a dual-core processor, which contradicts the lightweight processing ability of most consumer electronics devices.

When Viiv first hit the rumour mill, this was reported to be the forthcoming dual-core Pentium M, codenamed Yonah. But Pentium D and dual-core Pentium 4 Extreme Editions will also be possible. The PC will obviously need a chipset to support any of these three. The Yonah will have its own new chipset, but the Pentium D and EE will use existing 945G and P, or the high-end 955X. So in this respect Viiv will not be anything revolutionary compared to a normal PC.

Although dual-core technology hasn’t found a great deal of mainstream support just yet, it has more to offer digital media than, say, office applications. Not only do tasks like video encoding and decoding get some benefit from multiple processors in themselves, but the home hub idea also expects your PC to do more than one thing at a time.

Right now, we’re happy if our PVRs can record and play back TV programmes at the same time – particularly if they can record more than one channel. But a home media hub may well be called upon to do this and, simultaneously, act as your digital music jukebox and serve recorded content across wired or wireless networks to other devices around the house.

Designed as a ‘digital hub’
The processor and chipset are only part of what will be necessary to make a PC a Viiv PC, however. An Intel network adapter and Intel HD Audio will also be required, with the requisite analog or digital connections for at least 5.1 surround sound. Intel’s own drivers will be required for these, too, and Intel’s own network adapter software. This will allegedly allow a home network to be set up using just a remote control, although it may be possible to use the Intel applet with third-party networking as you can the Windows XP wireless network configuration utility.

One of the reasons for the more stringent driver specifications is the new ‘instant on and off’ capabilities that Viiv promises. However, this description is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t actually turn the PC off at all – it just extinguishes visible external signs that it’s on, such as LEDs and graphics output. Since Viiv is meant to do all manner of tasks other than just play back content, it will need to remain powered to make recordings or serve media over the home network.

Unsurprisingly, official reports so far have stated that Viiv will also require Windows XP Media Center Edition and its IR Remote. But there have also been rumours that part of Apple’s move to Intel processors will include Viiv-based devices – see Betting on a Mac Media Centre. It has even been suggested that versions running the Linux operating system will be made, to offer a low-cost entry point to the technology.

However, one of Viiv’s more controversial technologies could make both of these a little questionable. This is the Integrated Media Server (IMS) software, which is both the hub of what makes Viiv important and why the platform has already faced considerable press criticism before it was even branded (the original codename was East Fork).

Why connectivity is king
Intel’s IMS has been designed to automatically convert any media on the system to image, audio and video formats which are compatible with playback via network-attached and portable devices.

The key for a home media hub is interoperability with other devices. An organisation called the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) has been set up to ensure this, and already has numerous members, including traditional consumer electronics companies like Bang and Olufsen. DLNA-certified devices are already appearing from the likes of Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. See Digital Home? Look for the logo.

The DLNA specification defines a basic file format support, which requires the ability to view JPEG images, listen to audio compressed in LPCM format, and play back MPEG-2 video. It also allows optional support for other formats, including PNG, GIF and TIFF images, AAC, AC-3, ATRAC3plus, MP3 and WMA9 audio, plus MPEG-1, MPEG-4 and WMV9 video.

The controversy with Viiv’s Integrated Media Server software is over what formats Intel has chosen to use by default. Some analysts have alleged that it will be siding with Microsoft, but Intel recently told us that Viiv will convert to whatever formats your other DLNA-compliant devices need, and won’t specifically force you down the Windows Media route.

Data security is also an issue, ensuring that any copyright held by content owners is respected when you ‘rip’ music or video to a Viiv PC. According to Intel, Viiv will be ‘DRM agnostic’, and will support whatever digital rights management the platform partners need to distribute their content. This is an absolute requirement for big media companies to feel confident enough to allow their content onto Viiv-like devices. But the fears that Viiv will be the realisation of a huge corporate DRM conspiracy don’t appear to have any grounding – at least, not yet.

The importance of content
The core specification of a Viiv PC itself is really just part of the picture, just as a Pentium M notebook with Intel wireless networking is just part of Centrino. The content partnerships and device interoperability will be what makes or breaks the Viiv platform.

Apple has already shown with the success of iTunes that it’s who you know that counts. With the right media partners, a new player can become a key player relatively quickly in the brave new world of digital media.

Intel has brought together a fine selection of partnerships for content delivery via the Viiv platform. These include distributors such as Movielink, who will be providing subscription-based, pay-per-view and other video-on-demand services. Napster is (unsurprisingly) among the music partners. Intel also hopes to supply games on demand, and includes Ubisoft as one of its partners for their provision. Most interesting amongst Intel’s new friends is TiVo, which is working to make its set-top boxes compatible with Viiv.

(There’s a full list of Intel’s initial content partners in the box entitled ‘What’s the big deal?’ at the bottom of this article.)

Unlike Apple, however, Intel is leaving the overall hardware design open, in true PC fashion. Despite all the functional details, Viiv doesn’t actually specify a particular form factor. Just as you can now buy Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs as normal-sized desktops or cute little lounge-friendly slabs, Viiv PCs could come in many shapes and sizes.

However, Intel was waving around one prototype at the most recent Intel Developer Forum which was scarcely larger than a hardback book. We asked a few of the current UK Media Center partners to comment on their plans for Viiv, but they refused to tell us what their Viiv systems would be like. Considering Viiv is meant to go head-to-head with more conventional consumer electronics, though, it’s likely that small and sexy will be the general trend.

A Media Center re-Viival?
Viiv will face similar problems to current Media Center Edition PCs. For a start, they’re much more expensive than consumer electronic devices such as PVRs. And since initial Viiv PCs will essentially be optimised Media Center Edition systems, they will be just as complex to use in comparison to less sophisticated CE devices.

But a Viiv PC will also do all kinds of things no standalone set-top box can do. Viiv has the potential to be your video-on-demand service, gaming system, music jukebox, and home content distribution system all rolled into one – although connectivity with portable and wireless devices is perhaps its most unique feature.

Media pundits worry that Viiv will wrest control over digital content distribution into the hands of Intel, Microsoft, and their favoured partners. But most end users only care about how much it costs and whether or not they can receive the content they want in a convenient way.

In this respect, the biggest challenge for Viiv is actually whether the platform itself can be made simple and reliable enough for most people to use. If that can be achieved, then Viiv really could mark a big step forward for digital entertainment. And Intel has earmarked $300 million to ensure you at least give it a try.

Intel Viiv news


Intel Viiv news

What’s the big deal?
More than just a new CPU and a chipset to go with it, Intel has been working to develop content delivery deals for Viiv. The finer points of the platform won’t be made public until January at CES 2006, but the Media Center-driven content that Intel is enabling for its Viiv technology will include the following:

Movies, Video and TV
  • Intel says: “Rent and download hundreds to thousands of major motion picture and independent movies via subscription-based, pay-per-view or free video-on-demand services. Select from hundreds of movies to purchase and download. Choose from a variety of TV programs for viewing on an Intel Viiv technology-based PC and receive the latest sports news on demand or view short clips and replays of the winning goal or putt.”
  • Intel is working with: Afendis AG, arvato mobile, Bellrock Media Japan Inc., British Sky Broadcasting, Broadband Tower, Inc., Canal + Group, Glowria, Gretech Corp., LoveFilm.com, MEDION AG, Movielink, NEC, Sohu.com, Telecom Italia, Tiantian Online Inc., TiscaliS.p.A., TiVo, T-Online International, Usen Corp., and webs-tv Digital International Co.

  • Intel says: “Purchase the latest hits or subscribe to services to download and enjoy thousands of music tracks in your home or on a portable media device. Access streaming music videos on demand or view live concerts as they take place around the world.”
  • Intel is working with: Afendis AG, arvato mobile, Avex Network Inc., Gretech Corp., Loudeye, MEDION AG, Napster, Oricon Inc., SK Telecom, Skysoft Co. Ltd., Telecom Italia, Tiantian Online Inc., and VirginMega.

  • Intel says: “Play a purchased premier title game, including several number one titles in a variety of local markets, online with other players or play a Web-based game alone. Sample subscription-based and free gaming services that allow for multiple downloads for family and friend involvement. Consumers could also bring the arcade into the living room and access hundreds of games on demand to play online.”
  • Intel is working with: arvato mobile, CAPCOM, CCR Inc., DISCover’s My Games, Exent Technologies, Metaboli, NHN, Ourgame, Square Enix Co., Telecom Italia, The 9 Limited, TWP Corp., and Ubisoft.

  • Intel says: “Use photo editing software to organize, edit and share personal photos in a slideshow format on the TV screen in the living room. Add music to turn it into a memorable home movie or send it to portable media devices or burn it to a CD for family and friend sharing. Consumers can store, view, share and print photos online via online photo services. They can also create personalized home videos that are edited on the desktop PC in the home office but that can be viewed in the living room while sitting on the couch.”
  • Intel is working with: Adobe, arvato mobile, CyberLink Corp., muvee Technologies, Pinnacle, Ulead Systems, and Sonic Solutions

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