With diverse digital consumer systems poised to hook up to myriad applications and services while simultaneously networking among themselves, the task of designing consumer electronics is getting more and more complicated. This reality is reflected in this year's International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE), to be held June 17-21 in Los Angeles.
System engineers working in the consumer realm today must deal not just with single, key technologies such as displays, storage devices and video-signal processing. They must also broaden their vision to encompass new services and architectures essential to the delivery of entertainment and information.
This trend is a direct result of "consumer electronics meeting Internet philosophy," said Michael Isnardi, head of compression systems at Sarnoff Corp. and this year's ICCE technical-program chairman. Emerging systems need to address consumers' growing appetite for freedom in "getting what I want when I want it and where I want it," Isnardi said. "It's all about choices, and we are expected to accomplish the goal by placing as few restrictions as possible" on consumers and on consumer systems themselves.
However, "before getting to that utopia," Isnardi cautioned, system engineers first must wade through "a maze of proliferating interfaces and standards." Many of those standards are designed as building blocks to help system engineers figure out interoperability issues with various services and among diversified consumer products.
Given the emerging design challenges, this year's ICCE, which is sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Society of the IEEE, will offer tutorials on a host of new standards and interfaces including MPEG-4, MPEG-7, TV-Anytime, OpenCable, digital TV transmission systems, digital home networking and wireless communication systems, ranging from the first to the fourth generation. Similarly, a number of technical papers will directly address how to leverage new standards and interfaces meaningfully, to simplify the interconnection and operation of consumer electronics devices.
Technical sessions at the ICCE show, running this week in Los Angeles, offer insight into the expanding requirements of next-gen consumer device designs. Michael Isnardi, head of compression systems at Sarnoff Corp. and this year's ICCE technical-program chairman, says engineers have to craft their designs to be ready for new services that deliver entertainment and information. The first step, he says, is to wade through the maze of proliferating interfaces and standards. |
MPEG-4, for instance, is not just about low-bit-rate audiovisual coding. It's about a set of sophisticated, object-oriented tools. The standard can be used in designing new, interactive multimedia applications in the Internet world and in digital television. Because a lot of those object-oriented applications have yet to debut, education is a key to their arrival. "People first need to understand what MPEG-4 can offer," said Isnardi.
Meanwhile, the emerging MPEG-7, defined as "a multimedia content-description interface," will be essential in enabling consumers to search and browse-going beyond plain text to video, audio, graphics and images plucked from the Internet "in an intuitive fashion," according to Isnardi. In essence, MPEG-7 makes it possible for anyone to "hum a few bars, and find a Web site with the MP3 link that contains that song," he said. "It can bring sea changes in the way we browse and surf the Internet today."
Many engineers at consumer electronics companies are also paying close attention to development of the OpenCable standard, largely because the new spec could enable CE vendors to break into the U.S. cable market. OpenCable offers specifications for the interface of a so-called "point-of-deployment" module, as well as a set of standard application programming interfaces for digital cable set-top boxes.
Meanwhile, for many CE vendors currently developing personal digital recorders, TV-Anytime deals with another hot-button issue. This emerging specification is designed to enable consumers to explore, link, acquire and store content transmitted by TV and the Internet. The spec, in turn, will allow designers of client systems and local storage devices to make their products interoperable and interchangeable for a high-volume, standard-product market.
The U.S. digital TV standard, known as the Advanced Television Systems Committee specification, is also important to many CE vendors. Isnardi acknowledged that last year's lingering controversy over ATSC's modulation scheme-centering on whether 8-VSB is indeed robust enough for DTV services-"has been a deterrent to the growth of digital TV sets in the United States."
Test nixes DTV worries
However, he said the latest test results show that newly proposed 8-VSB enhancements will finally "allow us to put that question behind us," presumably leaving little to worry about for "consumer electronics engineers who might have been holding off DTV development."
Among 20 sessions, many papers address nuts-and-bolts issues for the industry's underlying key technologies. Among them is media conversion, a topic Isnardi called new to the CE industry's engineering agenda.
Indeed, the proliferation of diverging formats and standards is making it harder for consumer devices-which may vary in their display capabilities, processing power and memory size-to access a host of new services. Though PC users may be accustomed to downloading plug-ins for different streaming-media formats, "Imagine how devastating that might be if it was applied to television," Isnardi said.
In a paper titled "Adapting Multimedia Content," Anthony Vetro, principal member of the technical staff at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories, will explore how the adaptation of multimedia content should be accomplished based on user, network and terminal constraints. Media conversion can occur either in the network or in the client. But Vetro notes that different conversion methods must match the characteristics of clients, from handheld devices to personal video recorders, and of particular networks.
Clearly, how to network CE devices in the home is high on the list of items that concern many engineers today. Designers are struggling to determine how to leverage and extend what the standards have specified, in order to implement what they hope to offer in their new services or new applications.
For one, Roli Wendorf, senior member of the research staff at Philips Research, will describe in his paper a new approach for extending the HAVi home network beyond its IEEE-1394 physical layer, by allowing remote access from any Internet-enabled device. Rodger Lea, vice president and director at Sony Distributed Systems Laboratory, will introduce the HAVi Java API, a Java environment design that lets third-party developers build applications that run on CE devices.