CES Roundup, Part One: Ballmer Keynotes; Toshiba and Dolby Address Loudness

By Carolyn Braff

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in his first CES keynote, said one of the biggest areas of opportunity for the consumer-electronics industry — even given the current economic recession — is to converge the capabilities of PCs, phones, and TVs,
Multichannel News reports.

“In the future, you will be able to connect to information and people you care about instantly, across any of those screens,” Ballmer said in Wednesday evening’s lead-off address.

The TV has the most potential for evolution as an Internet-connected platform, according to Ballmer. “For more than 60 years, the TV has been at the center of the family-entertainment experience,” he said. “But the capabilities have largely remained the same.”

As TVs become more networked over the next few years, Ballmer said, “the boundary between the TV and the PC will dissolve.”

Of course, tech pundits and executives have long predicted the convergence of televisions with PCs — with no significant breakthrough that has bridged those two distinct worlds, yet.

But CES 2009 seems like it could change that. Yahoo! has introduced “widgets” designed to be delivered to TV sets via Internet connections. Samsung has introduced technology that will allow those widgets to be delivered to the TV.

Ballmer said HDTV displays will become cheaper, lighter, and more portable, presenting a significant opportunity to link those into a broader set of information and applications: “Screens and displays will literally be everywhere.”

In a separate presentation, Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, said the company will launch a “Primetime” channel for the Xbox gaming console later this spring, “a strategy to create scheduled programming and live events.” As an example, he showed “1 vs. 100,” an interactive trivia game for Xbox Live adapted from the TV show that airs on NBC, with four players playing over the Internet.

Semiconductor maker Silicon Image is angling to set the standard for distributing HD content to multiple devices throughout the home, with the launch Thursday of a chip-based architecture it has dubbed “LiquidHD.” Making its debut at CES, LiquidHD is a series of protocols designed to let consumers quickly and easily access HD content and applications from any source device to compatible cable set-tops, TVs, home theater systems, PCs, and portable consumer electronics.

The protocols define control functions, hardware-based content security, and autodiscovery of LiquidHD-enabled devices.

“Silicon Image’s technology comes at the right time as the number of TVs and other consumer-facing devices capable of receiving video over an IP network continues to grow,” said Comcast Chief Technology Officer Tony Werner. “While Silicon Image’s technology could be used to enable multiroom DVRs, its real benefit could be its ability to help get cable providers’ content and applications to multiple consumer devices.”

Silicon Image is positioning LiquidHD as a video-optimized alternative to other approaches to distributing content within the home, including the standard promoted by the Digital Living Network Alliance. DLNA is a consortium of 250 consumer-electronics makers, computer companies, and service providers, whose members include Comcast, Microsoft, Cisco, Motorola, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Intel, and Macrovision.

“The problem with previous approaches is that they were based on a PC architecture,” Silicon Image Director of Product Marketing Rob Tobias said. “Consumers electronics are really a different breed. We slimmed this down so we could run this on silicon.”

The LiquidHD protocols are designed to run over any Internet Protocol-based networks, including Ethernet, powerline, Wi-Fi, and coaxial cable, such as networks that use the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance standard.

A key piece of the LiquidHD launch is Silicon Image’s SiI6100 HD display processor, an integrated system-on-chip that incorporates a high-definition and standard-definition video decoder for H.264, MPEG-2, and VC-1 video formats. The LiquidHD protocols are built into the chip, which is scheduled to be sampling in the second quarter of 2009.

The company plans to promote LiquidHD as an open international standard, in the hope that it takes off the way HDMI did. Tobias said Silicon Image will form an industry consortium around the technology this year.

Toshiba announced at CES that it will be the first TV-set manufacturer to use “Dolby Volume,” a Dolby Laboratories technology aimed at solving loudness problems when switching from one DTV channel to another,
Broadcasting & Cable reports.

Toshiba will roll out Dolby Volume in its new high-end Regza LCD TVs, which also include the manufacturer’s Resolution Plus video upconversion technology and a USB slot for viewing digital media on the TV screen.

“It’s a worthwhile expense that solves a real-world problem, as opposed to putting $500 [worth] of speakers in there that people won’t use,” said Toshiba VP of Marketing Scott Ramirez. “This is a way to make their everyday life better.”

Dolby unveiled Dolby Volume at CES two years ago as a way to eliminate loudness, the volume spikes that occur on a TV set during a commercial break or when switching channels. Loudness has plagued television for years and has become even more of an issue with DTV broadcasts that use powerful 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio.

Dolby Volume manages loudness issues in TV programming with audio-normalization software in the set itself. Dolby Volume ensures that a consistent volume level is delivered to the TV speakers or external home-theater audio system, and normalizes volume when video inputs on a television set are switched, such as from a digital cable box to a DVD player.

Like manufacturers Sharp and LG, Toshiba is also supporting the delivery of Internet content to the TV set and announced at CES that it is working with Intel, Microsoft, and Yahoo! to deliver Yahoo!’s content “widgets” to its Regza sets to support interactive content as well as streaming video, movie downloads, and music.

Toshiba also is demonstrating new high-end “cell TVs” based on Toshiba’s high-performance “cell” processor chip, which is already used in Sony’s PlayStation game consoles. Toshiba’s gambit is to separate the cell processor from the LCD panel in a separate set-top box that will be loaded with reams of storage and serve as an HD home server. According to Ramirez, the processing power of the cell chip, which is three times faster than the processors in today’s Regza TVs, can support display resolutions of up to 4k by 2k and could also receive and decode six simultaneous HD streams.

Ramirez said the idea behind the cell is to load the set-top with massive storage, allowing a viewer to timeshift and store six channels of HD programming for as long as a week. Ramirez said the combined set-top and panel would probably sell in the $5,000-$10,000 range and could come out in Japan this year, perhaps even in the US before 2010.

New digital media — especially social-networking and mobile platforms — still offer big promise, but many problems remain, as was discussed on the opening day at CES, according to MediaPost.

“There has been a crisis of confidence in social media — a lot of what happened in 2008 didn’t work,” says Carter Brokaw, chief revenue officer of Meebo, the instant message digital communications media company.

Brokaw added that social-networking providers need to do a better job: “We have to get on board with metrics [marketers] understand. We need to figure it out as a industry, and frankly we haven’t done a very good job.”

Part of this has to do with media agencies, some of which are behind the curve.

“There is still no recession in consumer adoption of digital media — particularly mobile,” said Michael Zimbalist, VP of research and development operations for The New York Times Co. “What we need to see in mobile is the creation of some new formats and new ad dollars. But it’s just not there yet.”

Another panelist said starting new digital businesses now — even in a recession and especially in the mobile area — is a good move.

“There are 4 billion mobile users around the world, 300 million in the U.S.,” said Alexandre Mars, CEO of Phonevalley, Publicis Groupe’s mobile-media agency. “It’s a best time to launch a business.”

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