Wireless systems: Wireless magic

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Consumers have long enjoyed the benefits of wireless technology – infra-red remote control units have been around for years. But now, a new generation of wireless systems has arrived, offering even greater freedom and flexibility when it comes to listening to music or watching video around the home. In the computer world, technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have transformed the way people use PCs and associated devices, and the same thing is happening in the consumer electronics world.
The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is an association of computer, telecoms and electronics companies which aims to make products interoperable – and that includes using common wireless technology standards. And Ofcom has recently given the green light for another wireless technology, Ultra-wideband (UWB), which opens the way for high-definition video and high quality multi-channel sound being piped around the home. The forthcoming 802.11n Wi-Fi standard will also offer longer operating ranges and higher data rates for carrying high quality audio and video.

Embracing wireless technology

So what are consumer electronics companies doing to embrace the wireless world? The answer is: quite a lot, as Adam Williams, Sony’s audio business unit group product manager, notes: “Sony were one of the first companies to offer a DLNA wireless video streamer several years ago with the VGPMR100, and since then, the offering has grown substantially with the majority of our consumer VAIO devices now DLNAcertified. Within our audio division, we now offer Wi-Fi music streaming with the CPF-IX001 audio cradle device, which offers the convenience of wireless audio without compromising audio quality by utilising our S-Master technology. Sony’s range includes various Bluetooth devices including, the CMT-HX5BT Bluetooth Micro System. These allow you to stream audio to headphones, speakers or even an in-car head unit.”

This autumn, Sharp is introducing the DK-V2 wireless stereo speakers, which use Bluetooth A2DP technology (which supports wireless stereo sound). It will allow users to play MP3 music tracks from their mobile phone without using wires. Paul Scott, marketing assistant for Panasonic’s Home AV Group, says: “We have a number of products in this area, for example, the SC-PTX7 home cinema system offers a new way to enjoy music. With an integrated hard disk drive jukebox, the SC-PTX7 can wirelessly stream content through the sound system.” Panasonic’s SC-PT350W home cinema system offers wireless rear speakers for convenience – the wireless unit can be placed out of sight behind a sofa. The company’s SC-PMX2DB DAB micro system offers wireless connection via an optional SH-FX570 wireless audio kit so that MP3 content on a PC can be played on the system. And Panasonic’s SC-NS55 DAB micro system can also play music streamed from a PC.

Robert Kapteijn, Philips’ ES business manager, adds: “The WACS7000 package rips CDs to MP3 and stores tracks on its 80GB hard disk. The tracks can be streamed wirelessly to a client device and you can have up to five clients. However, for consumers that already have a wireless home network, we offer dedicated audio and multimedia wireless link products in the form of the SLA5520 and SLM5500. The audio-only SLA5520 streams music stored on a PC to a hi-fi and it’s also possible to stream Internet radio stations. The SLM5500 streams music, video, photos and pictures from a PC to a TV. We also recently introduced two new Bluetooth headphones. The on-ear SHB6102 and in-ear SHB7102 headphones enable wireless music and calls from compatible Bluetooth devices. Users can simultaneously connect their mobile phone and MP3 player, and switch easily between the two, using the integrated controls.”

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

More and more products are using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies and Sony’s Williams explains their different uses. “Wi-Fi gives you a far greater range and is therefore more suitable for the home environment where you might want to push content beyond ten metres or so. Bluetooth is great when on the move with its low power consumption making it ideal for mobile phones, headphones and so on.” Panasonic’s SC-PTX7, SC-NS55DB and SC-PMX2DB, audio systems, for example, offer Bluetooth through the optional SH-FX570KE-K accessory.

Consumer benefits

Consumers are quick to recognise the potential benefits of wireless, says Ning Ning Chang, Sharp’s product manager for DVD and audio: “Ease of use, less clutter, no wires – people like convenience of wireless. You can connect it fairly easily and away you go.” Panasonic’s Scott adds: There’s no need for cables around the sides of the room; this is especially convenient in a room with hardwood floors, where hiding cable is not so easy. The wireless unit can be placed out of sight behind a sofa and hidden without a problem. Similarly, wireless connectivity through Bluetooth offers many benefits. With our SC-PTX7 system, MP3 and WMA files can be downloaded from a PC and played through the SC-PTX7’s speakers. Users can even listen to tracks from their mobile phone or laptop via Bluetooth”.

For Philips, wireless technology plays a key role in the convergence between computers and consumer electronics devices: “The benefits for the consumer are simple – to enjoy content usually locked on the PC on other devices around the home,” says Kapteijn.

The disadvantages

But using wireless technology does have its drawbacks. Wi- Fi and Bluetooth, for instance, can be affected by the physical characteristics of the home, with thick walls and metal causing interference or even blocking the signal. As a result, the operating range of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth products can be severely curtailed, causing frustration. And while there are set standards, mixing and matching products from different manufacturers can sometimes be a chore, especially when using Bluetooth devices.

And setting up a wireless home network is not always as straightforward as some manufacturers might claim. Some of the so-called ‘plug-and-play’ home networks turn out to be more like ‘plug-and-pray.’ “The wireless home network has not evolved as fast in the UK as in the US or the Far East,” explains Sharp’s Chang, “but it is catching up. One of the things that have helped is that it is getting easier to set-up a wireless network and once people discover the convenience of wireless, they don’t want to go back to wires. It’s a mix of scenarios – you need products that are easy to install and which work together easily, and you need an ISP [internet service provider] which provides a complete package to encourage the take-up of wireless.”

Sony’s Williams notes that: “Wi-Fi is becoming easier, as devices are now capable of automatically connecting/pairing when they come into range, rather than having to manually connect each time. Bluetooth is easy thanks to simple ‘pairing’ functionality on almost all devices.” Philips Kapteijn agrees that wireless products can be complicated to install, but adds: “Our Connected Planet products are designed to be as simple as possible to set-up and use. The WACS7000 is a perfect example of this implementation, as it delivers a plug-and-plug wireless solution out of the box. There’s no need for the consumer to have a PC or even an existing wireless network.” Axel Kutschke, Hitachi’s senior manager for presentation products points that there could be consumer resistance regarding the health scares over wireless technology, but Wi-Fi and Bluetooth emit much lower signal levels than mobile phones.

Educating the consumer

Wireless technology has been promoted for some time by the PC industry and consumer electronics companies have had to play catch up, but are they doing enough to promote it? “We work closely with retailers to ensure they are fully knowledgeable on the product features and benefits – for example the SC-PTX7EB-K offers the capability to network wirelessly with a PC. A number of our independent retailers have set-up the SC-PTX7EB-K instore to demonstrate the benefits of wireless technology to the consumer. The consumer shows a really strong interest when they understand how easy and convenient it is to store and playback music via wireless technology,” says Panasonic’s Scott.

“Sony are a prime example of an AV/IT company who push the concept of the total ‘Digital Home,’ where the PC is at the heart of your entertainment system and this then streams content to a multitude of devices around the home. There is no longer the clear distinction between AV and IT devices as convergence devices become more common, for example, audio streamers with Wi-Fi,” notes Sony’s Williams. Sharp’s Chang says that consumer electronics companies are gradually promoting wireless. “The market is growing and as standards develop, it’s getting easier to integrate into products. Wireless is definitely something that consumers want.”

Coming next…

Looking to the future, Philips Kapteijn, notes that: “It’s long been mooted that a large central server/hub feeding various entertainment devices all around the home is the future. Things are moving towards this although it is still some way off. For the immediate future, there is likely to be greater integration of devices and products to those that already exist on the market, adding more functionality and features. Sony’s Williams also sees greater integration: “The possibilities are endless. The digital home concept is here to stay and will allow you to utilise as much wireless technology as you need. The technically astute entertainment enthusiast may want the ability to stream1080p HD content to various devices in various rooms, whereas a broader group may want to listen to MP3s in the garden or simply work wirelessly on a laptop. So yes, moving forwards, you’ll see a lot more devices with this kind of technology integrated.”

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