Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Convergence Scene

In Media Center Mac Mini for My Bedroom? (Part 1) and Media Center Mac Mini for My Bedroom? (Part 2) I spoke of equipping a Sharp AQUOS LC-37D90U 37" flat-panel LCD HDTV I intend to buy with a "media center PC": a Mac mini, suitably enhanced to capture and archive programs from cable TV. In my Apple's Forthcoming iTV post I discussed iTV, the pre-announced $299 product from Apple which can route media files from computers and their networks over into a TV and its associated audio gear. With iTV and a wireless or wired home computer network, you'd be able to point an ultra-simple remote control at an equally simple box next to your TV and summon up movies, music, photos, and any other sort of digital media files that your computer houses or can access.

All this is part of the "convergence" of home computers and home theaters. Convergence is the natural by-product of the fact that everything is now digital. Movies and other video items are digital on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray; on over-the-air (OTA) digital broadcast TV; on digital cable; on satellite TV; on the Internet, if not always legally; at the Apple iTunes Store; on iPods, BlackBerrys, and cell phones, etc., etc., etc. Ditto, TV shows, podcasts, movie trailers, YouTube uploads, and so on — they're all available digitally. Photo albums and home movies, too, are computerized and alive in the digital domain.

For audio-only media it's the same deal. CDs are digital. So are the MP3 files you rip from CDs in iTunes or in like computer applications. So are the songs you download from the iTunes Store, or wherever.

As for home-theater gear: most of the TVs you can buy today are either flat panels or "microdisplay" front/rear projectors. Both create their images digitally. And audio/video receivers in home-theater sound systems can take in, manipulate, and optionally output audio streams that are wholly in the digital domain.

In fact, you can divide most digital entertainment content today into just four categories:
  1. content on home computers and their networks
  2. content online, including the World Wide Web and the iTunes Store
  3. content on non-computer feeds coming into your home, such as OTA, cable, and satellite TV, satellite radio, etc.
  4. content on hard media like CDs and DVDs
Apple's iTV is designed to bring category-1 and category-2 content into your home theater environment. Simple as that.

iTunes, with its CD-ripping functionality, brings some category-4 content — specifically, CDs — into your computer environment, including your iPod, as category-1 content. (You can use third-party rippers like HandBrake to capture DVDs.) The iTunes software also taps into a fair amount of the category-2 content: the sort available online at the iTunes Store.

The big problem, convergence-wise, is with category-3 content. How do you bring over-the-air, cable, and satellite TV, satellite radio, and so forth into your computer environment, where it lives as files holding category-1 content that can be bridged to your home theater by the likes of iTV.

I have no personal experience with satellite radio and can't comment on it. My interest is mainly in the "TV taps" that you can turn on and off in your home: specifically, the "cable-TV tap."

When you hook the wire that brings cable TV into your home to a suitable device such as a digital cable box — or a "digital cable ready" television equipped with a cable tuner and a CableCARD — you can turn on the tap at will and get any and all of the programming you've signed up for. Some if it is still analog, while much of it is now digital. Some of the digital cable channels are standard-definition, some are high-def.

You can even record cable programming that you are authorized to receive by saving it on a digital video recorder (DVR) built into the cable box. If you go to the trouble and expense of leasing a DVR box from the cable company, such temporary recordings of (even high-def) digital programming, made for the sole purpose of time-shifting the viewing experience, are perfectly legal.

Likewise, you can legally use a TiVo Series 3 HD-DVR to do your time-shifting. Put one or two CableCARDs from your cable company into this TiVo, and you can have it do what the DVR in the cable box would ordinarily do: capture SDTV analog, SDTV digital, and HDTV digital cable programming for later enjoyment. In the case of SDTV analog content, the programs are digitized and compressed by the TiVo itself. With SD and HD digital content, the TiVo just saves the original digital program stream as is.

I don't think, however, that you can export the digitized-or-saved content from either a cable DVR box or a TiVo to a computer. Oh, you can play that content back into a TV-capture device in a computer and try to capture it that way. The playback all too often is analog, coming out of the cable box or TiVo along component-video, S-Video, composite-video, or 75-ohm "RF" wires.

The best of these analog options is component video; it would be nice to find a TV-capture device for a computer that digitizes it, compresses it, and archives it. As yet, though, the only TV-capture devices I know of for the Mac or the PC take only S-Video, composite-video, or 75-ohm "RF" input. (One such product, which I intend to investigate thoroughly, is the ConvertX PX-TV402U PVR from Plextor, shown at left.)

None of these connection types other than component video has enough bandwidth to carry high-definition images without losing resolution. All introduce noise and artifacts into the picture. So ... it beats me why there are no component-video TV-capture devices for the Mac.

Better still would be devices that could capture digital video at 720p or 1080i, and even at 1080p, with no intermediate detours into the analog domain. Ideally, it would have to work with both broadcast (OTA) and cable, which unfortunately encode the signal differently. Optionally, it would also work with satellite TV, with yet a different encoding.

For the Mac, Elgato Systems' EyeTV Hybrid (shown in a laptop) already seems to do the job with OTA digital TV, but not with digital cable. For the latter, a CableCARD would be needed. Elgato has told me via e-mail that "It would be nice to have a product that supports the CableCARD however it is too early in the development of the CableCARD to be viable. At the moment, there are no such products available."

CableCARD is a thin device that slips into a TV set (or another device like a TiVo) and allows the TV's internal cable-TV tuner to gain access to the channels the cable company authorizes you to receive — including, of course, digital channels. The cable company brings the CableCARD to your home, installs it, and authorizes it. You (or the cable guy) just plug the wire that would normally go to a cable box into the TV itself.

Then you don't need the cable box — unless, that is, you depend on interactive, two-way cable-box communications for getting a program guide, pay-per-view, or video-on-demand. CableCARD can't deal with those three functions. If you can dispense with them, you can tell the cable guy who delivers the CableCARD to take his cable box and put it where the sun don't shine.

The next revision of CableCARD will eliminate the two-way interactivity problem. Unfortunately, CableCARD 2.0 will not be backward compatible with the CableCARD-equipped TVs of today. Those TVs are merely "digital cable ready." TVs expected in 2007 0r 2008 — the ones with the new CableCARD 2.0 slots — will be "interactive digital cable ready."

(An editorial aside: a few years back, the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., mandated that cable companies offer CableCARDs to their customers and that TV makers put CableCARD slots in their TVs. Score one for "government interference in the marketplace." CableCARDs are a goo idea. But the commissioners were too namby-pamby to mandate the equivalent of CableCARD 2.0 right off the bat, ensuring that there would one day be a clumsy, confusing, consumer-angering transition between the original CableCARD and the newer, non-crippled one. That day is going to be here soon. Score one for the marketplace libertarians who would have shown the FCC the door in the first place.)

(Note also that there is already a move afoot to make even CableCARD 2.0 obsolete. It's called OpenCable. Here is it's website.)

Why are we having such a long wait for everything to fall into place, convergence-wise? Espeically with regard to category-3 "TV tap" content, there is no good solution yet for capturing and archiving it. Why not?

You can, if you like, blame the typically long gestation period for any cutting-edge technology. You can blame the Feds either for not exercising strong enough dominion over teh technology or getting in its way, depending on your political persuasion. But part of the blame stems from the legitimate anxiety that content owners have over digital rights management (DRM).

DRM is, in essence, copy protection that can be supervised digitally — plus, of course, access authorization. Do you have legitimate access to a digital cable channel such as Fox Digital or HBO? DRM decides. Can you make a temporary time-shifting copy of, say, 24 or The Sopranos? DRM decides. Can you make a permanent archival copy on a computer hard drive or a home-brew CD? DRM decides. Can you upload your copy onto the Internet for other people to download? DRM decides.

DRM extends to "hard" digital media such as DVDs, HD DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. CDs don't use it — which is why they were so easily "napsterized." The digital copy protection on DVDs has, meanwhile, been compromised, which is how HandBrake allows you to create legal archival copies of your DVDs.

DRM also extends to online content. If you buy a song at the iTunes Store, it plays back only on your authorized computers, or on the iPods sync'ed to them.

DRM also extends to over-the-air digital TV broadcasts. By law, anybody can access OTA content, but can that content be recorded? If so, how may those recordings be distributed and used? Here is where the infamous "broadcast flag" rears its ugly head. Until struck down by a federal court, a mandate by the FCC was bout to require that TV makers build into their TVs the ability to respond to a set of bits (a "flag") in a digital broadcast that could (optionally, at the behest of program originators) block or hamper digital recordings of the content in the home of the user.

Digital content, unless access or copying is blocked somehow, moves easily from device to device — say, from a Blu-ray disc player or a cable box to a TV. If the receiving device can capture it in the form of a digital recording, content owners would like to be able to limit such recording activity to that which is legal under copyright law. Modern digital copy protection schemes typically allow them to place their digital content into one of three categories:
  • copy freely
  • copy one time
  • copy never
This is done by "flags" inserted in the digital content. These copy management flags are separate from but akin to the broadcast flag. Since over-the-air TV broadcasts are "free," they themselves do not typically invoke such copy management flags. But when your local cable-TV company retransmits these broadcasts, the copy management flags may come into play.

A "copy freely" program sent out by a cable-TV company can be copied at will as many times and for as many generations as you like. A "copy never" program cannot be copied, period. A "copy one time" program lets you make as many first-generation copies of it as you like, but the copies will be flagged "copy no more," or "no more copies," so copies of the copies cannot be made.

The same kind of flags can be used with content on HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. Plus, copy protection flags can be brought into play whenever you try to transfer digital content in your home from one device to another in your home: over a computer network, via Firewire, via DVI or HDMI, etc. If you try to transfer a "copy never" program, the source and receiving device may collaborate to keep you from doing so. The same with a "copy no more" program.

At this point, I don't think anybody really knows how well DRM and copy management work in the real world. There are two potential problem areas. One, DRM might be too "leaky"; it might let copyright violations occur too easily. Two, DRM might be over-strict and keep consumers from exercising their legitimate rights. In fact, it's possible that DRM might be both too leaky in some respects and too strict in others.

We have yet to find out how well DRM works because today, before we run into DRM, we typically run into "brute force" methods of copy protection.

If you have a cable box today that has a built-in DVR, chances are it simply does not provide any way to export a digital signal — with the obvious exception of HDMI, or its predecessor, DVI. HDMI/DVI use uncompressed digital video signals only; these signals require too much bandwidth to be shunted into a recording device.

Recorders need digital video that is still compressed, the way it comes into the cable box before it is decoded and sent out over HDMI to the TV. Some cable boxes do offer the ability to send compressed digital video out over Firewire to an outboard recording device. I have heard surprisingly little about this, and I do not know whether my own cable boxes can do it. As yet, I have no recording device which could capture the Firewire output.

That's exactly what I would like my anticipated Mac mini to do. Now you know why I feel like a pioneer, when I'd much rather feel like a settler!

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