It has been quite a while since our last installment. Ian and I pick things up again after several months by taking a look at what has been going on in the industry and how it impacts our custom installs. Naturally, we want you to listen to the Podcast, but here are some of the topics we cover.
HOW ARE YOU GOING TO EMBRACE ALL OF THOSE “NEW LITTLE BOXES” THAT HAVE STARTED FLOODING THE MARKET
There has been a barrage of media/content/streaming/web/search/set top boxes that have hit the market recently. Not that there is anything wrong with a little competition, but it is becoming overwhelming – and the announcements just keep on coming. Not only are there all of these new pieces of hardware we may have to manage and support somehow, but there also seem to be firmware and software updates for each one rolling out constantly. How are we, as custom integrators, embracing them and keeping up with the idiosyncrasies of each one? I imagine it is with a lot of difficulty.
There are several other podcasts and blogs delving into the particulars of each device, so Ian and I do not address those aspects here. Instead, we discuss the potential impact the popularity of these boxes has on our designs and installations.
It used to be that we were in control of the hardware driving the displays and audio systems. We could dictate the devices we could integrate, control, and support and our clients pretty much went along with our recommendations. But now, the times, they are a changing.
My view is that there is going to be a huge influx of these little boxes starting this holiday season and our clients are going to expect them to just “plug and go.” We have seen some of this previously with devices like the Xbox 360, PlayStation, and Wii, but what is about to happen is different. There were only of few of these options with wide-spread adoption and we could plan for and support them without jumping through too many hoops. The market space has started to get crowded already and there is no consistency in form factor, connectivity, functionality, control, or integration between them.
Some require the box to sit “in line” with the HDMI runs. Some require cabling them to separate inputs (and some still are component video only). Some really could use features like the Audio Return Channel for HDMI as a way to get the audio back into our surround sound or distributed audio systems, but we have not seen any with HDMI 1.4. Some require (proprietary) RF remotes and others use IR. Some will understand IP-based control commands, but few supply documentation on how to do it. More and more now require keyboards of some type, too. Others now integrate with mobile phones or tablets over Wi-Fi, while others use docks as a way to leverage mobile devices. Some could fit in racks while others are designed to sit out in the entertainment area – and a few make it impossible to mount them at all! You get the picture. All in all, none really are designed to integrate with a custom installation or complex systems. And it does not look as if it is going to get better anytime soon.
We do not provide many solutions in this Podcast, but we do offer some suggestions:
1) I think the most relevant one is to appoint a Product Champion for each of the major products. You need at least one person who understands how each product works and what it takes to connect it up and make it deliver on its promises. It would be great if that champion also could create templates for your control/automation offerings, in addition to documenting what you will need to configure and support it. That person then trains the staff and becomes the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for that device. There will be an initial outlay to purchase the devices and dedicate the time to know them inside and out, but it will be a good investment as part of a strategy for keeping abreast of these new trends in the marketplace. It surely beats being blind-sided when your clients call up needing help the day after Christmas. Naturally, you want to plan on recouping your investments by offering your design and integration services for this new wave of entertainment devices.
2) An often overlooked option is to look at ways to provide the same functionality with what you already have in place. One of the advantages of a platform like Windows Media Center (or any other HTPC solution) is that it is extensible. There are some great new add-ins that give you the same features offered by using these separate boxes with more being developed constantly. While it used to be questionable whether you should install additional software into WMC, Windows 7 has provided a much more stable platform that allows you to offer these packages reliably. Once again, appointing a Product Champion for these may be a good approach.
3) Get on the front-end of these purchases, especially before the holiday season really kicks in. There never is a bad time to have an excuse to meet with your clients again. You know their tastes, lifestyles, and purchasing habits. Find out if they are planning to make any “impulse” purchases for one of these boxes and take advantage of a reason to “enhance” their system to support it. Of course, if you have designed the structured wiring and connectivity platform with flexibility in mind, you probably already have the connection points sitting in the walls or baseboards just waiting for a new box to be plugged in. All you have to do is incorporate your new control templates into their current automation systems and you are ready to go!
There is so much momentum in the industry that you no longer can ignore this trend. It is time to start getting on board and finding new ways to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. The worst thing you can do is simply ignore it. Your customers will be expecting you to know how to integrate your systems with their shiny new play toy – and if you cannot deliver, you may lose out on some great new money-making opportunities.
What an awesome device. I think the Kinect is going to usher in a new generation of interactivity, gaming, and content consumption (maybe not for Windows Media Center, but definitely for other services Microsoft is starting to deliver). At first, it seems innocent enough and just another gaming peripheral. However, from an integrator’s perspective, it opens a lot of possibilities – and a lot of potential problems.
Kinect really could drive the need for multi-purpose and/or game rooms – in addition to “video chat areas” throughout the home. For gaming, it definitely takes a lot of space to play – more than the Wii or Move, for sure. It is an all-body workout for multiple people and it gets pretty crazy in the room (as in no breakable equipment nearby). The ideal distance from the players to the Kinect device is somewhere around eight to twelve feet. Everything, including furniture, needs to be out of the way. Currently, that eliminates its use in most home theater environments unless you have designed in motorized seating and platforms tiers that easily can be tucked into the walls or at least out of the way. This could change the whole way you design the area in front of the screen and the types of furniture you use. Additionally, it works better with some decent lighting. Most room lighting systems we design do not have “audience-facing” lights nor do the existing lights cover the area in front of the screen very well. You should consider adding an extra circuit or two worth of lighting at the front for illuminating the play area.
From a Windows Media Center perspective, there is not much new. Kinect does not control that experience. However, you can start to see where Microsoft is taking the technology via the Kinect Hub from within the Xbox Dashboard. They do give you the ability to control the Zune Marketplace, Last.fm, Netflix, and some other content resources. It is not quite there yet, but it definitely removes the need for a controller or remote for those experiences. It also might be worth considering as a control interface for those clients with accessibility issues.
Another “feature” is the ability to do teleconferencing (or Telepresence/video chats) using the built-in color camera and microphone. This feature also takes the Xbox 360 out of the multi-purpose gaming room and into other parts of the house. We see this as an excellent alternative to the video chat capabilities being built into some of the newer TVs and displays while there definitely are some new avenues of business opening up for those integrators who start getting into it early. This especially is true for those clients who work at home and need to communicate with the office or for small businesses who do not want to invest in some of the more expensive video conferencing alternatives.
There also are great possibilities for “add-on sales and services. As mentioned, the lighting becomes critical to pull this off successfully, but there are some other things we can sell if we start getting creative. What about the backdrop? How distracting are the piles of clutter or walls behind most couch areas or home offices? What about putting in some automated screens that drop down from the ceiling with painted nature scenes or even using video screens with a rear-facing projector and some nice backdrop scenes? Many clients would see a lot of value in that, even for chatting with the grandkids in some other state.
Yes, the Kinect is ushering in a whole new playing field for gaming and entertainment interaction. I look forward to the first automation controller applications written using the XNA developer’s toolkit for the 360. And, by the way, the same applications will run on Windows Phone 7.
One last area to consider is how the Kinect impacts your equipment layouts. If you have the Xbox 360 located in the front of the room near a “standard” TV or display, it is no big deal. What about those installations where it resides in a rack, at the back of the room, or in a console between the theater seats? How will you connect it up? Since it comes with a USB adapter and power supply, you may want to consider using a USB extender, although many integrators currently have not worked much with these. What about the majority of theaters with screens instead of flat panel displays. Where are you going to put the Kinect unit itself? It does have some definite placement limitations that need to be considered as part of your designs.
Get to know this device. You are going to be seeing a lot more of them and you need to be prepared. Take advantage of the new opportunities it offers.
We also spend some time discussing the integration of various content platforms. This whole wave of mobile device integration in with tablets and other portable devices tied to more and more on-line services in with the ability to purchase content from various sources while being able to play whatever your clients want on any device from anywhere really taxes our ability to make the whole concept of content consumption transparent. I will not try to write up all of the permutations and some approaches to making the various experiences seamless here. We do discuss some of the issues in this podcast, but it is going to take a series of Installments to cover this topic. Stay tuned.
One last area I wanted to touch on is the Ceton tuner cards that finally are making their way into the wild. As you will recall back in our earlier installments around Installment 00B (http://thedigitallifestyle.com/cs/TDL/b/custom/archive/2009/04/16/pre-cursor-to-installment-00b.aspx) delving into the guts of CableCARD, we talked about the MCIA Digital Cable Tuner Diagnostic Tool and how great it is for understanding and troubleshooting CableCARD-based installations using Windows Media Center. I wanted to remind everyone that the DCT Diag Tool now is available to download for anyone from The Green Button at http://thegreenbutton.com/files/folders/wmc_installers/entry451891.aspx. Do not forget to check out the help file. It is very informative, if I must say so myself (since I wrote it). This tool has been tested with the Ceton CableCARD tuners and is a great way to optimize your setups and to make sure all of the channels work as subscribed.
That about wraps things up for this Installment. Next time we will cover some more industry news and then start on power designs and their implications. Thanks for listening and reading.