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Chilly forecast for wireless HD video

At CES earlier this year, a number of companies promised products that combine high-definition with wireless. Will they make it to store shelves for the holidays?

A number of companies said earlier this year that they were working on wireless high-definition video products. Unfortunately, as shoppers head into the holiday season, few of those companies have managed to deliver.

Samsung, Philips, and Sanyo were among those announcing wireless high-definition video products at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. But of the three major manufacturers, only Samsung has released one to market--its 50- and 58-inch wireless plasma television started selling in retail just two weeks ago.

The Philips Wireless HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) kit, a replacement for running high-definition to a TV without cables , is delayed until next year, and Sanyo's wireless projector is now on track for the first quarter of 2008.

Philips declined to be specific about the reason for the postponement, and Sanyo could not be reached for comment on when the projector will be available.

So why the holdup? It can be tricky to send high-def video wirelessly at resolutions of 720p and 1080p at fast speeds and not lose the crispness or color quality. And there's always a learning curve involved when bringing a new technology to market. Both the Philips and Sanyo products are making use of different, unused portions of the radio spectrum, neither of which can be considered tried-and-true technologies in the consumer space. Samsung's TV, on the other hand, uses an accepted standard--802.11n Wi-Fi.

Though Samsung has at least been able to release its wireless video product using Wi-Fi, it's still unclear what the dominant wireless video delivery method will be. Right now, there's not a single industry-recognized standard for how to feed high-definition video between devices around the home. Not yet, anyway.

To be fair, it's not like this industry isn't known for getting a bit ahead of itself. But the lack of an agreed-upon standard is the same roadblock that bedevils most every major new content delivery method in the CE marketplace today. This creates uncertainty for other companies that hope to build wireless video products. Without a settled standard, manufacturers could be wary of picking the wrong one, which could mean they don't build a product at all, or severely delay the product's release.

A schizophrenic message
The sheer variety of delivery choices also sends a very schizophrenic message to consumers. They may find themselves wondering whether a wireless Samsung TV will work seamlessly with a TiVo, an Xbox, and a Sony digital video camera. And having to put up with the drama and uncertainty of yet another standards war over digital content is probably the last thing consumers want.

"Anytime you get that in this day and age consumers know to run the other way as fast as possible, as is evidenced by the Blu-ray (and) HD DVD fiasco," Gartner research vice president Van Baker said.

But that could all change this coming year. In an attempt to establish a single standard, some of the top-tier consumer electronics companies have gotten together under a consortium called WirelessHD. Members include LG Electronics, Matsushita (Panasonic), NEC, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and chipmaker SiBeam. WirelessHD promises uncompressed video transmissions at speeds of 4 gigabits per second at a distance of 10 meters.

Having top-tier manufacturers in the consortium is one way to push the industry in a unified direction. And though the specification is complete, before it's official the WirelessHD group has to have the approval of the gatekeepers of digital content: Hollywood studios.

The content creators specified exactly what they wanted from the WirelessHD spec before they let their television shows and movies get streamed between devices. The consortium has been working with the Motion Picture Association of America and several studios for more than a year on this, according to John Marshall, chairman of WirelessHD.

Final studio approval and security certification are still forthcoming. The studios demanded the standard use an established content distribution protocol, have strong encryption, use uncompressed transmission of content to preserve the quality of video, and include proximity controls so a movie can't be picked up by a neighbor with similar hardware.

"After it all goes through, there's potential for (member companies) to move very quickly right out of the chute," Marshall said. "But the objective is to bring the industry together."

He said he expects the first consumer products using the WirelessHD standard from member companies in 2008. This of course means to expect a slew of more wireless high-def video product announcements at this year's CES.

Whether Marshall's prediction comes true or not, there's still the question of whether consumers are even demanding this category of product. The idea is arguably very nice, but it's still unclear what kind of price premium there will be for the option for wireless delivery of video, and whether it will be too high to attract the average consumer. As an example, Samsung's 50-inch wireless plasma retails for $3,599, while the same wired model goes for $2,999, or $600 less.

Besides higher prices, many non-tech-savvy retail shoppers . Considering whether a wired or wireless delivery of video is even necessary might not be something else they want to think about. So the drive to bring the wireless delivery of video to market could very well be "a solution in search of a problem," as industry analyst Baker proposed.

"I think most consumers are struggling with trying to figure out what HDTV is and how to hook up their LCD TVs to receivers and make everything do what it's supposed to do," he said, rather than worry about wireless.