Living-Room Disagreements

After spending two days listening to presentations at Upside magazine's Digital Living Room conference in Laguna Niguel, I had hoped to come away with a coherent sense of how technology will affect the home of the future.

Instead I came away with more questions than answers. But I'm not alone. Even the conference organizer, David Coursey, acknowledged that there is a "lack of coherence" in the digital products being developed for home use. "Digital convergence implies that everyone is aiming at one point," said Coursey, "but they're not."

Take the integration of TV and the Internet. Several conference speakers took it for granted that people will want to use the Internet from their TV sets. But that's hardly a foregone conclusion, and even if true, there is little agreement about what type of systems will ultimately emerge.

It could turn out to be like WebTV, which is essentially a simple set-top box with a built-in modem that turns an existing TV into an Internet terminal, or it could look something like the DVX8000 Multimedia Home Theater from Philips, a $5,000 device that looks and functions like a DVD player but, inside, has a 233-megahertz Pentium Processor, 32 megabytes of RAM, a 3.1-gigabyte hard drive and, you guessed it, Microsoft Windows. Add a $2,500 digital TV monitor like Philips' new 32-inch Multimedia Home Theater display, and you have a very expensive TV set that plays DVD movies and also runs computer software such as Internet browsers and word-processing applications.

Then there's ICTV, Interactive Cable Television (http://www.ictv.com), which offers a service whereby cable TV subscribers can run Microsoft Windows on a standard TV set via their cable system. No need for the consumers to own an Intel processor or any software. All of that lives at the cable system plant. You just point a wireless keyboard at your TV set and rent access to Windows and the Internet from your cable company. So far the only cable subscribers who can use the service are Cox Communications customers in Santa Barbara.

Another theme of the conference was that digital devices, no matter how disparate, will have to find a way to talk with one another. If several of the vendors that participated at the conference are right, we'll eventually see the explosion of local area networks for the home.

The Home Phoneline Alliance, which was announced during the conference, is promoting technology that would allow homeowners to use their existing phone wire to carry computer data. The initial release, due out later this year, will carry data at one megabit per second. That's slower than standard Ethernet networks used in offices but about 20 times the speed of today's 56K modems. A 10-megabit-per-second version of the phone wire network will be available at the end of 1999, according to the alliance.

The technology, which was developed by Tut Systems, has been around for a few months but the Alliance brings the backing of 3Com, AMD, AT&T;, Compaq, Epigram, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Lucent Technologies and Rockwell Semiconductor Systems.

Interval Research, a Palo Alto-based research center, showed off its MediaWire Home network technology concept that's designed to use standard phone wiring to control an entire home audio, video, data and telephone network at speeds up to 44 megabits per second. The demonstration at the show simulated a multi-room installation with a DVD player and a stereo system all connected to each other through standard phone wiring and what are expected to be inexpensive control units all linked by regular phone wire. Unlike the wiring system promoted by the Home Phoneline Alliance, you can't simultaneously use the same wires for regular phones, but the research lab has developed a way to digitize regular analog phone lines so their signals can be carried via this all-digital network.

The MediaWire Home Network won't be available any time soon. However, if you want a network you can use to control your home appliances, IBM has a couple of solutions, ranging from $100 to $7,500 and up.

IBM's $100 Home Director Starter Kit lets you use a PC to control lighting and appliances using your home's existing electrical wiring. The kit also includes an appliance module and a wireless remote control. The system is compatible with the X-10 modules and controllers that you can buy at Radio Shack and other electronics stores.

For the more ambitious--and affluent--homeowner, IBM is now offering Home Director Professional, a centralized home appliance, entertainment and computer wiring system that is designed to be installed by home builders or contractors. The system consists of coaxial cable capable of transmitting video, audio and security data and "category 5" network cabling that can handle voice, fax and PC data. A full system, which can also be used to control heating and air-conditioning systems, will add about $7,500 to the cost of a new home, according to IBM program manager Mark Schmidt. The labor involved in installing such a system in an existing home could be considerably more.

Although not ready for market, IBM was showing some far-flung applications, including a Kitchen Information Center that consists of a flat-panel display mounted below a kitchen cabinet that serves as a family message center, Internet terminal and recipe center. An IBM engineer showed me a prototype of the terminal connected to a bar code scanner and a modified microwave oven. You scan the bar code on the box of a frozen TV dinner and the terminal finds the proper cooking time and sends it to the microwave. That same bar code reader could be used to scan foods as you place them in the refrigerator to remind you when your yogurt is about to go bad. I don't know whether anyone would actually want such a product.

While IBM and other vendors concentrated on networks for the home, Philippe Kahn, chief executive of Starfish Software, talked about even more localized networks that he calls "personal area networks" to link all those hand-held devices you carry around with you. Starfish is building technology that would let your pager, cell phone, personal organizer and other devices exchange data automatically.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com or keyword LarryMagid on America Online.

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