SOC Design

Saturday, January 07, 2006

CES Update: The Revolution Will be Televised

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.
- Gil Scott-Heron

I have just returned from the 2006 CES in Las Vegas. It was packed with people. As the volume driver in the electronics industry has switched from personal computers to consumer electronics, CES has taken the mantle as the industry's leading light into the murky future from Comdex. The mantle had previously passed from the National Computer Conference (NCC) to Comdex around 1981 when PCs started to dwarf mainframes in market dominance and NCC refused to heed the change.

The big news at Comdex, er CES, this year was a 100-year-old idea called television. New-millennium television is becoming a when-you-want-it, where-you-want-it, how-you-want-it affair. Dick Tracy had this capability in his wristwatch exactly 60 years ago. Now it seems that it's time for everyone else to have it too.

The "when you want it" phase started with VCRs in the 1970s and it has evolved into today's DVD recorders and PVRs (personal video recorders). However, all of these devices are tethered to coaxial cables tied to stuck-in-the-wall cable sockets and immobile satellite dish antennas. Also, these consumer products are only time-shifting devices; they don't jimmy with the image format and resolution. How-you-want-it and where-you-want-it boxes such as Apple's video iPod and other personal media players are just starting to appear.

As CES 2006 demonstrated, the industry is full of companies working on place-shifting and format-shifting video products. Two new classes of video place shifters I saw at CES are mobile phone handsets capable of receiving video broadcasts and boxes that cram video into IP packets and unleash them onto the Internet. LG seems to be way ahead on phone handsets that receive terrestrial and satellite video. The company was showing several video-capable handsets at CES. They just wouldn't let me shoot photos of them. So only the 140,000 other people at CES got to see them.

The other place-shifting product is epitomized by the Sling box from Sling Media. This oddly shaped box (looks like a large silver-colored bar of candy or a silver-colored gold bar to me), takes in video and spits packets out of an an Ethernet port. What you do with those packets is your business. Receive them on your computer at work, your laptop at Starbucks, or your Treo wherever you happen to be.

Both the mobile handsets and the Sling box need to reformat video to fit a target playback device that clearly isn't a conventional television receiver. Their ability to reformat images must satisfy three conflicting goals.

  • The video should look good.
  • The compression format used to send the video should consume very little bandwidth.
  • The amount of power required to encode and decode the compressed video should be small.

Companies that master video-compression algorithms supporting these goals will be in high demand.

Gil Scott-Heron clearly got it right in the 1970s. But in the 21st century, the revolution will be televised.