We investigate two new technologies from Microsoft that could change the way we use audio and video for entertainment; plus, as video becomes more pervasive in the music technology market, we look at some of the latest announcements from NAB.
I recently went to a Microsoft press event where they were showing two new technologies: Windows Media Centre Edition, which has recently been launched in the US and will shortly be available on these shores, and Media2Go, a concept still at the prototype stage for a personal audio and video player. Microsoft have always been keen to get a version of the Windows operating system on to as many diverse platforms as possible, and these latest technologies aim to establish versions of the Windows XP and CE operating systems in the home entertainment market. In fact, should toasters ever require advanced computing components, you can be sure that Windows For Toasters wouldn't be far behind.
At the press event, Microsoft showed what they readily admitted was an early prototype of a Media2Go device, and although it looked rather like a bloated iPaq, the prototype clearly showed the direction the company is heading with portable entertainment. What distinguishes a Media2Go device from a standard MP3 player is that it can play video directly from an internal hard disk on a relatively small screen. However, the limited size of the screen is actually quite an important advantage in many ways since there's no need to store video at high resolutions, and even the proposed hard disk size of 20GB should therefore hold several hours' worth of video. Among the supported formats will be Microsoft's own Windows Media 9, and video in this format offers better quality than VHS, while taking up less space per minute than a Wave (*.WAV) file.
As with Pocket PC devices, Microsoft don't intend to manufacture Media2Go devices themselves, but rather to provide a reference platform that other manufacturers can build their products around. Among the many partnerships already established for Media2Go, Creative Labs have already announced that they will support the platform with a 'Nomad' branded device — at least in the US (the Nomad brand isn't used for Creative's Jukebox MP3 players in the UK).
However, the companies who do jump on to the Media2Go bandwagon will find themselves facing two fundamental problems. First, typical users are only just getting used to the idea of entertainment media as files rather than disks or tapes: MP3 is enough of an open standard that you don't get bogged down in issues around format or digital rights management to use them, but video is a different matter. The only tool used on a widespread basis to exchange video files is DivX, a video codec based on MPEG-4; and although the group behind the format is taking steps to legitimise itself, I suspect that the vast majority of users are currently using DivX without much regard to matters concerning intellectual property.
Secondly, I put it to Microsoft that aside from the internal hard disk, there really isn't much difference between a Media2Go device and an iPaq, for example, which is also capable of playing media files via its own version of Windows Media Player. Their response was, with all due honesty, to agree, but to add that their research had indicated that people tended to want specialist devices with a specific function, rather than one multi-purpose device to do everything. However, whether this proves to be correct or not, I think Microsoft hopes that the distinguishing factor of a Media2Go device is that it will be running Microsoft software. From my perspective, though, the reality is that in a very short time from now, you'll be able to buy a device that works as a phone, games console, PDA and media player; and the chances are that it will be running Symbian or Linux rather than Windows.
Windows Media Centre Edition (MCE) is a version of Windows XP that allows you to control your media player from a remote control while you're across the room from your computer monitor. While this might sound a little tame, I was really taken with MCE when I saw it in action because I've wanted to find a practical way to use a PC as a home media server for a long time now. It's all very well navigating through the files on your computer, clicking on the file you want to play and listening to it on 'multimedia' speakers. But wouldn't it be better if you could sit back on your sofa, in front of a decent hi-fi, and just click on a remote control? That's exactly what MCE lets you do, and I must say that it does it rather impressively, using what Microsoft call a '10-foot user interface'. This means big writing on the screen, of course, but also a rather clever change in the way that the menus work, which seems completely natural to use and is clearly related to the interface used for Media2Go.
However, MCE isn't limited to playing back audio, as it also features a personal video recorder facility, similar to the less-than-successful Tivo, letting you record programmes that are marked up in an electronic programme guide. While MCE has already been launched in the US, it doesn't work with the digital TV systems we've got in the UK at the moment, which is why Microsoft are delaying the UK release of MCE until they have a solution. Apparently MCE is selling well in the US, which is an important sign that computers are finally making it into the mainstream entertainment arena, and it will be fascinating to see how this affects the design of devices like Sony's Playstation 3 towards being home media servers in addition to games machines.
I've just got back from the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, and while Musikmesse and NAMM are dedicated solely to music, you can't beat NAB for a wider perspective on where digital media is heading — even if it does mean visiting a place where all forms of vegetation have been replaced with slot machines. This year, the biggest announcement came from Avid, the default leaders in the video editing (or 'content creation', as it's now known) industry, despite the hypersonic rate at which their main competitors, Apple and Pinnacle, are catching up.
I won't go into too much detail here because we're in the audio and music business after all, but I just wanted to mention the shift in the computing paradigm that's pointed to by the Avid developments. What Avid have done is to externalise their processing, or provide 'acceleration' as they call it, so that if you buy a copy of Avid Xpress Pro, (formerly known as Xpress DV), you'll have the option of buying a hardware accelerator box called the Mojo. This is a useful box with composite and Y/C (that's S-Video) inputs and outputs, along with multi-channel audio punch-in with low-latency monitoring plus 20-bit stereo analogue I/O, and it's connected to the computer via Firewire.
While there might appear to be nothing remarkable about this on the surface, what isn't at all obvious, until you stop to consider exactly how Mojo does its acceleration, is that it isn't DV (ie. compressed) video that's going up and down the Firewire cable, but raw, uncompressed video. If you're not familiar with video data rates, this is possibly not the most impressive thing you've ever heard, but to provide some indication of its signifance: uncompressed 16-bit stereo audio sampled at 44.1kHz has a data rate of around 1.4Mbits/s. DV, the format used by most digital camcorders, on the other hand, has a data rate of 25Mbits/s. This sounds like a large amount of data until you realise that the capacity of Firewire is 400Mbits/s, and although uncompressed standard-definition digital video has a bandwidth requirement of 270Mbits/s, this is still within the capabilities of Firewire.
So where's all this leading? Well, what this suggests to me is that the notion that within a very short time all DSP would be done by the host computer's processor has taken a bit of a side turning, and that dedicated hardware processing still has a role to play. But anyone who still makes dedicated PCI processing cards must be feeling very worried by these announcements. Consider the advantages of external processing in areas such as configuration: if your computer supports Firewire and you have the right software then you can just plug it in and know that everything will work. No more IRQ or DMA worries, no resource battles, and it'll work with notebooks and small-form computers.
What's even better, though, is that music technology has led the way. I'm thinking of the forthcoming products like TC's Firewire Powercore and Yamaha's 01X, a digital mixer so closely integrated with its host PC (with a great deal of I/O bandwidth courtesy of mLAN) that the two devices virtually merge together into one distributed computing platform. Suddenly, who cares about the PCI buss?