The prospect of a fully digital home, controlled remotely through the Internet, is looking less and less like a fantasy, according to the folks at
Stream Machine, a company that provides semiconductor solutions for video and audio compression.
The company’s plans mesh well with Apple’s oft-stated goal of making the Mac the “digital hub of a digital lifestyle.” In fact, the Stream Machine products, combined with Macs, bring the fully digital home closer to reality, according to Brian Heuckroth, vice president of Marketing for Stream Machine.
However, few households can afford to make the transition in one step, which begs several interesting questions regarding the incremental steps to the fully integrated digital home. The immediate adoption of home networking is currently driven by the desire to share broadband access, but widespread adoption will require something much more compelling, such as “Do It Yourself-Video on Demand” from the home media server.
And that’s exactly what Stream Machine plans to offer: a plausible migration pathway that adds intelligence to inexpensive home networks and integrates existing analog viewing appliances rather than requiring their wholesale replacement. Stream Machine has recently introduced a reference design for an intelligent home media server that captures and manages media from a variety of sources (broadcast, Internet, disc, etc.) and distributes multiple, high-quality audio and video streams over the home network.
The company also offers an inexpensive media client that not only brings control of the network to remote users, but also converts the networked digital signal to analog for viewing on legacy TVs.
There were over 40 million VCRs, 15 million DVD players, and 20 million Video CD and Super Video CD players sold worldwide in 2000, according to research and surveys by such firms as DataQuest, CIBC, and IDC. This market will grow from 75 million units last year to over 120 million units by 2003 as analog continues to give way to digital.
The transition to digital media brings with it significant benefits for the consumer in terms of convenience and control. In addition, the products themselves are evolving — video players are evolving into recorders and standalone boxes are evolving into home-networked entertainment products, Heuckroth said. Personal computers will be an important part of the equation. And no computer is better suited to such tasks and responsibilities as the Mac.
“Stream Machine is uniquely positioned to provide recording and networking technology at the heart of these consumer electronic products to empower the consumer with convenience and control of their entertainment experience,” Heuckroth said. “We have pulled it all together for the digital media product manufacturers, with high video quality, a wide range of applications, low system cost, and comprehensive reference designs. Stream Machine is aggressively pursuing a worldwide market, and believes that video disk recorders, networked media jukeboxes, and high-performance AV peripherals for personal computers are on the brink of mass adoption. Stream Machine plans to be the company that drives the consumer adoption of digital media recording and streaming technology.”
There are several market trends that are catapulting digital media into “hypergrowth,” he added. CD-Audio, satellite TV receivers, and DVD players have reached critical mass of acceptance in the consumer market, so that the benefits of digital media are beyond dispute, Heuckroth said. Broadband connections are driven by rich media content, such as downloadable MP3 files or streaming audio and video.
Once there are multiple computers in the home, as is already the case in 25 million homes in America and another 17 million households in Europe according to Strategy Analytics, the first thing the operators of these networked computers want to share is the broadband connection, Heuckroth said. This drives the market for home networking, which Strategy Analytics says will top 22 million households in 2003. Recent advances in consumer-friendly residential gateways make connecting personal computers and other devices in the home simple enough and inexpensive enough for any home user to deploy, Heuckroth stated.
“What has been missing, up until now, is a means of connecting the personal computers and the home entertainment systems together in a way that empowers consumers to enjoy their content under their precise control — whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want throughout the home or beyond,” he added.
Earlier this month, Stream Machine and ARC Cores, a designer of customizable microprocessor cores and related intellectual property for integrating microprocessors with embedded-systems applications, announced that the formers new SM2288 MPEG-2 audio/video codec chip, uses the ARC configurable microprocessor core. The Stream Machine SM2288, announced in January and now available for sampling, is designed to power the next generation of digital audio/video recorders and players. It will help drive down the cost of home DVD recorders, personal digital-video recorders, advanced set-top boxes with recording capabilities, personal computer digital-video peripherals, and other advanced consumer products.
The Stream Machine SM2288 is a real-time MPEG-2 audio/video encoder and decoder. In encode mode, the SM2288 accepts video and audio to produce an MPEG-compliant transport program or elementary bit stream. In decode mode, the SM2288 accepts either an MPEG program bit stream or audio and video elementary streams and produces video and audio output.
The algorithmic and architectural innovations, such as proprietary high-performance motion estimation, allow the SM2288 to provide high quality video over a wide range of bit-rates, according to Heuckroth. Resolutions up to full D1 are supported with constant and single-pass variable bitrate to 15mbps. Both NTSC and PAL video formats are supported for worldwide applications.
Real-time encoding and decoding of digital video is performed in MPEG-2 Main Level @ Main Profile. Real-time encoding and decoding of two-channel digital audio is performed in either Dolby Digital or MPEG. Adherence to these standards is critical for wide industry support so that recorded material can be played by multiple vendors’ products, Heuckroth said.
The SM2288 is designed to provide a high degree of system integration and ease of system design. A programmable system mux/demux, an integrated 8-bit OSD, and a direct interface to video modulator and demodulator and audio A/D and D/A keep system costs low. External SDRAM requirements are low as well, at 8MB for NTSC and PAL at D1 resolutions.
The SM2288 is delivered in a 0.18-micron process technology, so the footprint is small and the power requirements are the lowest in the industry, Heuckroth said. The SM2288 combines a programmable RISC core, a programmable DSP core, and dedicated processing units organized as a process pipeline. The RISC core supports system mux and demux requirements for a variety of applications, including DVD, VCD, and SVCD. The DSP supports dual-channel Dolby Digital encoding and MPEG (all Layers) audio encoding and decoding. It’s powerful enough to support additional audio formats, such as DTS or Dolby Pro Logic, Heuckroth said. Integrated I2S support allows for a glueless interface to A/D and D/A converters.
These combined benefits make the SM2288 an ideal single-chip solution for a variety of MPEG-2 based applications such as SVCD-Recorders, he added. The SM2288 can also be used along with a standard DVD decoder to provide full-duplex DVD recording and playback functionality for time-shift or DVD-recordable applications.
The SM2288 single chip audio/video codec will be available in the second quarter of the year. Pricing for the SM2288 is under US$35 in volume.
The SM2288 codec goes beyond the capabilities of earlier chips by offering both audio and video real-time encoding and decoding in a single highly integrated device, according to Jim Turley, senior vice president for technology strategy at ARC Cores.
“Stream Machine chose the ARC core because of its versatile RISC capabilities and configurable architecture,” Turley said in a statement. “The ARC core is a 32-bit synthesizable microprocessor with optional DSP extensions, and it allows developers to customize the architecture with application-specific instructions and other features. In the SM2288, the ARC core performs overall system control and the mux and demux functions. Stream Machine plans to release the SM2288 for volume production beginning next quarter.”
Stream Machine also makes “reference designs” that it offers to other companies to accelerate product development. Its reference designs cover three areas: digital home entertainment, multimedia peripherals for home computers, and networked media for the home.
Last December Stream Machine announced a reference design that captures, stores, and streams digital media throughout the home over a home network to personal computers or other audio-visual clients connected to today’s TV or stereo system. The Maestro Reference Design is based upon the Stream Machine SM2210 codec, a MPEG2 compression/decompression chip that’s now in full production.
The main hardware components of Maestro are a x86-compatible processor, an MPEG video capture and coding card using a TV tuner and the SM2210 video codec, a DSP card, and a LAN interface card. Maestro uses an embedded Linux operating system and can simultaneously serve up to four audio/video streams.
Clients can be either personal computers (including Macs, of course) with MPEG decoding capability or dedicated “spigots” (small home appliances that can decode networked digital audio and video into analog form) connected to a TV. Maestro can stream either live or prerecorded material and its supported features include: Composite or S-Video input and output in NTSC/PAL formats, MPEG audio/video capture and playback, cable-ready TV tuner, and Web-based monitoring and control. The Maestro reference design is available for $25,000. The Spigot reference design will be available in the second quarter of the year.