For years technology firms have been talking about convergence and finally some of that talk is resulting in products, which until recently, were only available at high cost. The result? Having the connected home needn't mean re-mortgaging.
Walking around this year's CEDIA show at ExCel it wasn't hard to be amazed by the vast array of technology on display. CEDIA is very different because it showcases applied technology, not the raw bits and bytes you find in CeBit. However, peel away the positivity that hangs around every show and you are left with an industry that is under threat.
The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) members are the companies who are involved in designing and fitting high-end audio visual automation and climate control systems in some of the most expensive homes in the country. Some are contracted out by large scale home builders to design and implement systems for new housing builds.
These immensely experienced workers are under threat because the once specialised art of integrating audio and video into houses has gone mainstream.
Nowhere is this shift more obvious than in the IT distribution channel, where the digital home is now near the top of many distributors' agendas. More traditionally known for software and computer games, Gem exhibited its digital home offering for the first time at this year's event. Marketing manager Neil Handa explains the appeal: "CEDIA is a driving force for the future of connected home technology and we wanted to introduce ourselves as an integrated distribution partner to the independent custom install sector."
"Our stand gave us the opportunity to promote our commitment as a distributor of connected home solutions as well as our relationship with key vendors like Buffalo, Linksys, Microsoft and Philips. The result has been very encouraging and we have made a significant investment in our AV team this year to support the growth opportunities."
According to Ian Appleby, business group manager at Computers Unlimited the AV business has changed significantly over the past five years, with their traditional customer base moving and having to alter their offerings. "The product mix has shifted for many from Hi-Fi equipment to selling flat screen TVs, surround sound systems. This has meant a shift in the margins available. Hi-Fi dealers have had to adapt to this new market and get into new areas to survive in the industry."
Handa agrees. "The AV market has grown significantly over the past few years, especially over the past 18 months," he says. An explosion of affordable new technology has created a lot of consumer interest. Our vendors, who were producing primarily networking or leisure based products in the past, have added digital lifestyle features and interfaces to their ranges. Products we stock such as the Linksys/Kiss 1600, Meivo TV, Logitech Wireless DJ and the Xbox 360 now play an important role in the Connected Home/AV sector and we see this product growth increasing in the coming months and years."
When you consider features such as streaming audio are no more impressive than buying the latest computer processor, you can understand that why specialists feel a little cramped in an fast expanding market. While the idea of having everything controlled by one remote control or having a central place for all your videos, music and photographs aren't new concepts, where once the only financially privileged could sample, the retail channel has brought it to the masses.
Manufacturers are realising that as consumers are becoming more tech-savvy, they are expecting more from their equipment. With the proliferation of wireless networking, the ability of computers and devices to be connected without digging up plasterboard to hide cabling has become a reality. Other technologies such as Powerline have meant that those who don't want the security worries of wireless networking can still get connectivity at most places around the house.
One area where there has been tremendous growth of consumer devices is music streaming, however there are still relatively few systems which offer an easy solution to multi-room listening. Sonos were one of the first to market with their then next generation product, the Digital Music System. The system provides multi-room music streaming through either wired or wireless networks and allowing the user to control any unit through a colour LCD remote with an iPod-esque clickwheel. Sonos distributor Computers Unlimited have had considerable success with this premium product and Appleby was quick to point out why "consumers tend to want to buy whatever is easy to use and easily gives them entertainment in each room. Sonos is an easy-to-use system so consumers are willing to spend and add more Zones players as required."
While multi-room streaming and central control is still a relatively premium feature, there are a number of products which will sit underneath your television and connect wirelessly to your network discovering if any shared music, video or pictures are available. One such device is Freecom's Network MediaPlayer. Like most devices of its ilk, it uses the network, either wired or wireless, to find content. The difference with the MediaPlayer is that it can also act as a high-definition media player too. While wireless technology is currently incapable of supporting high-definition video, the MediaPlayer has an optional hard disk drive, which can store and playback up to 500Gb of video, music or pictures. Most impressive of all is that this storage space can be shared amongst the network so the MediaPlayer can end up being centre of your entertainment library.
Experiencing it Live!
Hardware and software manufacturers are building on top of the growing availability of wireless technologies and products are coming from companies not typically associated with AV. Two of the World's largest chip makers have already set out their vision for the connected home. Last year both Intel and AMD launched their entertainment PC technologies called Viiv (pronounced vive) and Live! respectively. While Intel's Viiv is more of a hardware specification for system builders, Live! is altogether a different kettle of fish.
Unlike Intel, AMD's Live! technology doesn't focus on the hardware as Dave Everitt, European product and platforms manager, AMD explains: "AMD Live! is to build an open environment upon open industry standards. These standards are common to both the PC and consumer electronics worlds, enabling AMD Live! PCs to work with the widest possible range of partner devices and providing the consumer with maximum choice and flexibility." According to Everitt, Live! isn't even about the PC but rather the experience. Everitt reiterates AMD's goal of user experience within Live! software "AMD Live! Ready partner products have been tested for ease of use, yet they have an intrinsic function." This move away from the hardware towards the overall user experience is exactly what custom AV installers and the kit they supply have been doing for years.
While both audio and visual devices separately have come a long way, combining the two has been a harder recipe. meivo.tv from the highly regarded UK notebook manufacturer Rock aims to transform an LCD television into a media centric computer. The meivo is aimed as a television first, PC second according to Nick Broadman, Managing Director Rock "The meivo is a TV with a PC functionality, we made it look like a television so it won't look out of place in the lounge." According to Broadman it was a natural progression from making notebooks "we take technology which high-end customers are already using in their high-end notebook and package that into a ease to use format."
Their new product impresses in all the right areas. Good aesthetics, simplicity coupled to good functionality under the blushed aluminium surface. There's also room for expansion, something bespoke systems of the past often lacked. The ability to plug in external hard drives via the USB socket means that when friends or family come they can easily share their media. Broadman has got the support of heavyweight retailer including Scan and Laptops Direct.
The shift towards going to the local PC shop instead of the Hi-Fi dealer is summed up perfectly by Appleby. "It is clear that the traditional Hi-Fi guys are used to offering a high level of personal service. They want to ensure that the user gets the right system for their needs. In this way they are old-fashioned (in the best sense) Value-Add Resellers. This is different to the technology retailers who see the product as a box rather than a solution." With greater functionality and ease of use coming straight out of the box and extensive pre and post sale information available on the Internet, the need for a shop assistant or installer is disappearing quickly.
As the AV industry harnesses the power of networking and computers there's little doubt the winner will be PC retailers. It would be wrong to blame the PC retail channel for a decline in the custom installation and automation industry. Should any blame be administered then it should lie with the installers as they have failed to harness the power of distribution and retail. While their solutions where out to market years before current implementations, their view that low volume high margin sales would win through is taking its toll.
As Appleby said, adapting to changing markets was the key for Hi-Fi retailers and it could be for installers too. Products are being designed not only to be technically impressive but to enrich the user's experience from the moment they open the box. It's the sound of the future.