Technology to watch for your home in 2003

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The word on the street is universal entertainment devices, digital displays and do-it-all home control systems.It is never easy to predict where technology for the home is headed. Fortunately SmartHouse magazine is privy to information that provides a forecast of what sorts of systems and products we might see hit the home electronics scene in 2003.

In a nutshell, we will see tremendous advancements in the world of home entertainment and home control. Products and systems of 2003 will do more and perform those tasks better and easier than before. Also encouraging is that prices of almost everything proposed for 2003 will plummet, making even the newest digital TVs finally affordable.

Digital Music – better storage, better sounding

CD players introduced an army of homeowners to the wonders of digital-quality music. We love it, and it shows. Many homes in the late 1990s were installed with multiroom music distribution systems so that CDs (as well as other music sources) could be easily shared and played in all rooms of the house. As nature would have it, though, the oomph of a digital recording dissipates as songs travel from a CD player to remote speakers.

Systems of 2003 promise to maintain the digital quality from start to finish. Part of the solution has to do with the type of wiring over which the tunes travel; the other responsible party is a new type of amplifier that powers the music more efficiently than traditional amplifiers.

Digital Audio Wiring

The newest breed of multi-room music system preserves the digital quality of CDs by transmitting music over Category 5e cabling (the same type of Ethernet cabling used to network computers). A number of manufacturers, such as Channel Vision, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, JBL, Opus Technologies and UStec expect to begin shipping A-BUS music distribution systems in 2003. ABUS, an industry standard developed by Australian LeisureTech, is a simple yet efficient alternative to conventional audio distribution, with installation time significantly reduced as only a single Cat5 wire is run to each location.

Because these whole-house music systems utilise Ethernet cabling, they are best installed while a home is under construction. Recognising the demand for multi-room music, several manufacturers now offer music distribution as a new feature in their high-speed wiring systems.

In order to preserve the digital quality of the distributed music, systems of 2003 place a small, efficient amplifier at each set of 

speakers, rather than using one big amp at a central location (the traditional design of a whole-house music system). The amplifier is typically installed inside the keypad that controls the music from each room, so it’s completely hidden from view.

 
Totally Innovative

The initial crop of Cat 5eenabled multi-room music systems still require a small amount of speaker wiring. The music travels from the entertainment centre to the amplified keypad over Cat 5e wiring. From the keypad the music travels to the speakers over analogue speaker cabling. Two new companies, Netstreams and Oxmoor, however, plan to introduce speakers that connect directly to the Ethernet wiring, hence negating the need for analogue speaker cabling. From start to finish the music signal stays completely digital. And for do-it-yourselfers, an Ethernet-connected speaker offers a few installation perks. If you have a house that’s wired with Category 5e cabling, you could conceivably plug in a speaker as easily as plugging in a telephone.

Digital Amplifiers

Even if you maintain the traditional school of thought where an amp stays at a central location, finding a good space for the box is now easier and safer, thanks to new microchip technology. New digital amps embedded with tiny Class T chipsets are about half the size of a traditional amp. Plus, they produce much less heat. This means they are safe to put in an unventilated closet, and run more ef- ficiently (less power is wasted on heat; more for the speakers). “This is where the action is going,” says Bill Cawlfield, vice president of the Speakercraft Egroup in the United States. Others also agree: Elan, Panasonic, Sharp, Speakercraft and others are releasing small, efficient digital amplifiers. It has yet to be ascertained whether these products will definitely be available in Australia sometime in 2003.

Smarter, More Stylish TVs

It’s confirmed: Regular, squarish-shaped analogue TVs are a dead-end technology. In 2003, TVs are sleeker, wider and ready for high-definition TV programming. New chips, new digital interfaces and new breeds of ‘home theatre in a box’ are improving even the brightest, smartest DLP (digital light processing) and plasma displays.

Pumped-Up Plasmas

The problem with plasma screens is that they are so skinny they are unable to hold

much technology. Case in point: most plasma screens house no TV tuner; you’ve got to connect an external one to them to watch TV programs. While a plasma screen may never pack all the fun features of a bulkier TV, look for a host of new plug-in components to boost its performance. On the drawing board at Mitsubishi, for example, is a box (dubbed the HD 5000) that enables any brand of plasma screen (as well as other types of TVs) to receive high-definition signals and run the company’s exclusive NetCommand system (a menu system built into TVs that simplifies the control of all connected audio/video components). A point of note: The price of plasmas is set to decrease significantly in 2003.

 
Multi-Room Entertainment

Until recently, if you wanted multi-room audio and multi-room video, you needed two black boxes, controllers and installations. The two different (but similar) types of entertainment were thought of as apples and oranges. The latest trend in this area is the melding of audio and video distribution into one ‘multi-room entertainment’ distribution/ controller box. In some cases the amplifier is built in as well. The usual suspects are leading the way, such as Xantech with its MRC88; Russound and its CAV6.6; Elan and its System6; and Niles and its ZR-8630AV, subject to approval.

Entertainment Servers – store, rip and play music, video and more

In the ‘old’ days, CD libraries consisted of a drawer stuffed with jewel cases. DVDs ate up another cabinet. Tomorrow’s systems

require no discs at all. Instead, they draw music and video from the hard drive of a single entertainment server. Expect servers of 2003 to store, manipulate and play back a variety of media, giving you a one-box solution to entertainment needs.

Whole-House Playback

Digital music servers are nothing new; they’ve been around since 2001. What is new is their ability to play back separate audio programs to several different rooms at the same time. This new multizone playback capability makes a music server an ideal component to tie into a whole-house music system. And given that it’s small, inexpensive, and may be able to stream Internet radio programs, it’s a much better deal than a mega CD changer. The latest multizone music servers include the DH9300 from Marantz, the Digital Media Server from Elan, and the Net-Tune system from Onkyo.

On the Bandwagon

Expect nearly every major manufacturer of televisions to release its own version of entertainment server. Like a TiVo on steroids, this entirely new breed of product converges playback, storage, management, recording, and control of music and video through one hard drive. Leading the pack is Thomson Consumer Electronics with its RCA Scenium Digital Media Recorder ($1,499). The device plays DVDs like a regular progressive-scan DVD player. But it also functions like a personal video recorder by storing TV programs onto its hard drive. It also stores and plays digital music and digital photography, which can be viewed on the screen of a connected TV.

These initial multimedia servers will focus on playback in one room of the house. But watch for products that will distribute the stored video (as well as audio) content to TVs throughout the house. Pioneer plans to lead the way with its Digital Library device. Digital music, digital photos, DVD movies and Internet content can be either stored on or streamed through the hard drive, so that multiple forms of entertainment can be enjoyed by various members of the family simultaneously in multiple rooms of the house. Eventually, even HDTV broadcasts will be able to be stored on one hard drive to be played back on any TV in the house. Look for Mitsubishi’s Audio/Video Hard Disk Drive to pave the way.

 
Handier Home Control

Home control systems are trendy in 2003, particularly if the system talks via Internet protocol (IP). Premise Systems (now Lantronix) set the mould a few years back in the US when the company introduced an innovative piece of software called SYS that enabled various electronic products and systems to work together (a security system and lighting control system, for example) over an Ethernet network by speaking a language based on common Internet-speak. The concept has since incited a number of companies to develop similar systems – all ready for delivery by this year. Crestron Isys is an IP-based system that’s been in Australia for several years and AMX is also involved in IP control systems.

Systems Unite

The first benefit of an IP-enabled home control system is cost. Because they utilise a standard Internet communications language to unite a variety of products, these systems are less expensive than those that speak via proprietary communications protocol. The second benefit is a simpler, quicker installation. Any IP-enabled device, be it a security camera or a whole-house music system, can join the network easily without any fancy programming – as long as your home is wired with Ethernet (Category 5 or better) cabling. Third, you can easily access any product in your home via a Web-enabled phone, computer or PDA. So compelling is the ability to conveniently control every system and electronic component of a home, you’ll find more manufacturers offering complete home control systems in 2003. Many of these companies historically focused on one small aspect of the home. Crestron and AMX, for example, companies that primarily offered only processors and touchscreens to control a home (systems from other companies had to be integrated into these control schemes), now offer their own thermostats, intercom systems, lighting control systems, music distribution systems, and more.

Control on the Run

Couch potatoes will love the newest generation of control for everything electronic in a home. Software-enabled remote controls and PDAs are letting homeowners put up their feet to command lights, thermostats, A/V gear and other devices. Manufacturers have been mulling over portable, handheld home control stations for some time; 2003 looks as if it might be the year they actually hit full throttle.

Early generations of the product may come in one of two forms: a proprietary controller designed to operate like-brand devices and systems, or a universal controller that can manage a variety of devices. Either way, they put control into the palm of your hand rather than requiring you to stroll to a wallmounted keypad every time you want to cue a good night routine, for example.

Choices Galore

No matter what technological blips we see on the 2003 radar screen, there’s one overriding theme across the entire electronics universe. Expect manufacturers to offer a wider, more diverse selection of systems and products. Companies that have focused on one type of electronic product or system are branching out, erasing much of the differentiation that used to exist. Lighting control systems will control more than just lights; remote controls will operate more than audio and video gear.

On one hand, the ‘let’s do it all, one-stopshop’ mentality provides homeowners with a more well-rounded system that meets every technological need in the home. On the other hand, it may spur confusion, with too much selection and too little differentiation between manufacturers, their products and their systems. That said, in 2003 the advice and guidance of an experienced home systems professional will become critical to the wellbeing of your home.

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