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Digital home entertainment hits the road

Theater-quality entertainment systems are coming to the car. Is rush hour ready for wireless file swapping? Photo gallery: Consumer gear takes a test drive

DETROIT--Your digital home entertainment system is about to take a road trip.

Consumer electronics makers are racing to find new offerings, from wireless music downloads at gas stations to digital TV, to entertain American families when they're stuck in traffic, driving home for the holidays, or just out for a ride.

Some of the efforts to transplant digital media technology from PCs and home entertainment centers are still on the drawing board, companies said at a technology conference here Monday. But other changes are likely to start appearing in new cars and SUVs as early as next year.

Prospective buyers of new vehicles should expect to see larger LCDs, up 2 inches from the current standard size of 5 inches, that will appear in more places around a vehicle's interior. In a few years, manufacturers hope to switch to organic LEDs because of their improved color quality, response times and viewing angles.


What's new:
Consumer electronics makers are racing to find new ways to entertain American motorists and passengers, like offering wireless music downloads at gas stations, and building more and better LCDs into sport utility vehicles.

Bottom line:
Among possible stumbling blocks: How do you bring three-dimensional, movie-theater-type sound to a car? And what about upgrades--do you have to rip out the interior of your SUV every couple of years? Still, some changes are likely to start appearing in new autos as early as next year.

More stories on digital entertainment

"The car is an extension of your home network," said Kumar Ramaswamy, an engineer at Thomson, one of the largest manufacturers of electronic components. "It's like having another room. The car can get (video) from your computer. It can get it from a TiVo device that's sitting next to your television set."

Even with average U.S. gas prices topping $2 a gallon, Americans seem unwilling to break off their long love affair with the open road. Federal government statistics show that the number of miles driven in passenger vehicles has zoomed from 1.97 trillion in 1970 to 2.5 trillion in 1980, 3.3 trillion in 1990, and 4.3 trillion as of 2002.

Digital video may be perfect for those long road trips, but it's still unclear what the best mechanism will be for transporting hefty video files into a dashboard hard drive. A full-length movie can be many gigabytes, a stretch for all but the speediest home wireless networks. And running Ethernet cables along the driveway may not be entirely practical.

Thomson believes that the new compression standard known as H.264, or MPEG-4, will shrink video files enough to let wireless networks handle the home-to-car transfer. Another factor: Because of the small sizes of automotive LCDs, video resolution can be resized so it looks acceptable but consumes even less space.

The new debate: Hard drives vs. wireless
Pioneer, a $3.6 billion Japanese company known for its car stereo gear, is betting on hard drives. Wi-Fi wireless links are "too slow to transfer reasonable quality video over," said Niall Berkery, an engineer with Pioneer Electronics. A hard drive will let you "take your TiVo menu into the car."

Because of the high ceilings and ample space inside sport utility vehicles and minivans, many are now offered with LCDs visible from the rear seats. Pioneer believes hard-drive-based video players make sense for parents because they can store hundreds of movies and can be controlled from the front seat if parents have young children who can't yet manipulate DVDs.

Pioneer, which sells car navigation and satellite radio systems, also has high hopes for television reception inside cars. But because broadcast TV reception is prone to static and noise, said Berkery, consumers probably will opt for digital satellite TV instead.

The automotive system can receive "the same satellite signals you get at home," he said. Currently, the satellite antenna weighs 40 pounds and rests atop a roof rack--making it more practical for an RV than a car--but the size is expected to shrink over time.

"In two years, nearly 40 percent of a vehicle's value will reside in software and electronics."
--Nick Donofrio, senior vice president, IBM

The digitization of cars is not limited to video. Car owners are beginning to demand the same high-definition sound they enjoy from their Dolby 5.1 home stereo system--which has five channels of normal audio and one low-frequency channel that DVDs use for floor-thumping special effects. So too can new audio discs, in DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD formats, that offer significantly better quality than the venerable CD.

Six-channel sound, which uses rear speakers for a three-dimensional, movie-theater effect, is tricky to do in a vehicle. The seats aren't positioned properly, the speakers are too close together, the recordings were designed to be played back in living rooms, and road noise is always a problem.

Still, said audio engineer Henry Blind, more creative use of digital signal processing (DSP) technology will make it possible by inserting minuscule delays that trick the brain. Video games with three-dimensional effects are also of increasing interest among vehicle owners, said Blind, who works at Visteon, a $918 million auto products maker.

"Just as stereo replaced mono and CDs replaced vinyl, DVD and DSP are replacing the two-dimensional world of stereo with a three-dimensional one," Blind said.

Avoiding a Napster-on-the-road
Not only will your car download video wirelessly, but you might be able to buy online music or video games without leaving the driver's (or passenger's) seat. "We are moving very quickly to this world where I can have everything I want to listen to right now," said Richard Lind of Delphi, a $4.6 billion Michigan company that sells navigation, video and satellite radio systems.

Before long, Lind predicted, consumers will be able to play a "video game downloaded at the last gas station" or enjoy the "ability for vehicles to communicate with each other as they go down the road."

Wireless networks that encourage file swapping in, say, rush hour traffic jams probably wouldn't be taken lightly by Hollywood's well-practiced lawyers. That's why electronics makers already are planning to avoid the Napsterization of the road by pledging to adopt digital rights management technology. Lind said that his company will ensure that digital content is transferred from home PCs to the car "with all the appropriate rights management in place."

An influential standard is being created by the Japan-based iVDR Consortium, a collection of companies that includes Canon, Fujitsu, Hitachi and Pioneer that is drafting requirements for an encrypted removable hard drive. iVDR members are required to keep the specification confidential.

An April 2004 release from iVDR said its members had adopted an iVDR-Secure specification for digital rights management that is intended for "home servers, video recorders, vehicle-mounted AV equipment and PCs." Other members of iVDR include automakers Nissan and Toyota, and electronics makers Alpine, Clarion and LaCie.

Technology being yanked from PCs and implanted in dashboards has caused problems when it's been buggy or unreliable, said IBM Senior Vice President Nick Donofrio. Sometimes it's "driving a vehicle's complexity up, and in many cases quality down," Donofrio said. "Faulty software in navigation and control systems is tarnishing the image of automotive icons."

Donofrio, who oversees the arm of IBM that includes its research labs, said that Detroit is being forced to re-think its traditional way of building cars. "In two years, nearly 40 percent of a vehicle's value will reside in software and electronics," Donofrio said, predicting that in five years the figure will be closer to 90 percent.

Another danger is technological obsolescence. Americans are used to replacing their computers every few years, but modern cars can last up to 10 years--a problem if the hardware has to be ripped out and replaced to stay current with the latest standards or network technology.

"You're starting to install PC-like devices in an automobile you may use for seven or eight years," said Ramaswamy, the Thomson engineer. "How do you keep up with that? It's important you have some kind of an upgrade path."