Rants & Essays

The Entertainment PC

By Marcus Pan

As buzz words like information superhighway and movies like The Net and Hackers proliferate, computers are becoming more of a household item than ever before. While once relegated to corporate and business use, the entertainment industry has taken the modern PC in its grasp and is turning out a new breed of systems. Chip Makers like Intel and Chromatic are making it easier to achieve high-end graphics, sound and multimedia power in today's PCs at still affordable prices. Microsoft is pushing multimedia specifications to its current limits by creating stricter guidelines on their Multimedia PC specification to keep PC manufacturers in line with the most advanced technologies.

Pitfalls

To move the personal computer into a more entertainment oriented arena would require a number of enhancements on it's current design. Computers have always been unwieldy and arcane beasts, the likes of which are only fully understood by high-level technicians or engineers. As the technological revolution moves on and takes hold, however, novice users are taking up arms and are now learning the technologies as best they can; and they're doing quite well. While there are still a number of individuals who are not computer literate, years of technological growth in schools and campuses have bred a community who has some level of computer knowledge. This computer knowledge these individuals possess is not high enough to open up computers and swap out motherboards, but it will suffice to get them on the road to where they want to go after they get a running system. That brings us to the first pitfall…

Usability

Society will not accept any changes that require high learning curves or years of experience. They want something simple and up front. If they can't push a button and start moving, there is a chance they won't bother coming near whatever the button is on. Computers are very prone to this because of all the hype they have received as business machines only for professional use. They will adapt to the movement of the household center of entertainment to computers only if it offers them something as simple as the television, a true point-and-click appliance. If it involves any higher degree of learning than a simple manual can show them, they will be reluctant. Currently, computers require multiple connections, ports, and a collection of cables that are difficult to understand even to some non-novice users. The keyboard has it's own connection, mouse another and then there's the monitor, printer, etc. We haven't even looked inside the case.

Any home user who wants to be simply entertained, and not have to work for that entertainment, will refuse to settle for something of this nature. An easier type of bus connection without as much confusion has to be created. Something that can replace the connections for a number of devices that are currently taking up multiple and different connections. And because it will be taking on multiple devices and peripherals, the bus has to be a quick performer, transferring data quickly in a parallel, bi-directional way.

Universal Serial Bus

One option to the ease of use problem with connecting computer equipment is the new Universal Serial Bus. Computers with USB capabilities built onto their motherboards have begun coming to market, though the peripherals for this bus type have yet to be seen save a few joysticks and mice as well as a few items of their simple nature. USB promises to replace the bus system currently being used by serial and parallel devices. It also plans to take on other equipment such as the keyboard as well. It will solve the cabling problems currently associated with a computer by using the keyboard as a hub where other devices connect. Devices outside this reach are can be attached to devices connected to the keyboard hub in a daisy-chain fashion. In this manner, one type of port will be utilized, cable clutter will be minimal because items can daisy-chain to each other instead of all into the back of the system unit and it does offer a bandwidth that should suffice for most typical peripheral appliances as it can carry data at a rate of 12MB/second (currently) and do so in a bi-directional manner. This type of interface would suffice for keyboards, joysticks, modems, printers, mice and a slew of other typical computer devices.

Integration

For a computer to become the home's main entertainment platform, the integration of a number of non-computer peripherals will be necessary. Items such as video cameras, VCRs and laserdiscs will need some way to connect with the computer/entertainment unit. Considering that peripherals of this type will undoubtedly require high transfer rates because video and related applications require timed isochronous data transmission in order to keep frame rates at an acceptable level, a very high speed bus will be required for integration of this type.

FireWire

Known as IEEE1394 by the computer industry, FireWire promises the high transfer rate required by video-related applications. The bus is capable of transferring at a rate as high as 400MB of data per second and there are plans to have a 1GB or more transfer rate by 1998. Such a high transfer rate will be capable of transmitting the video and related peripheral's data and keep the frame rate at acceptable, 30-frame-per-second levels to match that of current television. This will allow for full movie playback with acceptable frame rates, combination screens containing television and Internet transmissions and the like. Another enhancement of using the FireWire standard is the use of one universal connection type (similar to USB), and the hot-swapping of peripherals. This will greatly enhance the system's usability as consumers will be able to connect and reconnect at their leisure without having to reset the system every time a new connection (or disconnection) is made. And with the ability to connect as many as 63 devices to this single bus, there is ample amount of room to connect virtually as many devices as any consumer would want or need.

What hurdles FireWire will face as the standard becomes integrated into home computer systems is still unknown. The use of a VCR or video camera will require other peripherals such as a TV tuner card and the like. Exactly how this will be done is still under consideration. The FireWire bus is still, after all, only a connection to the system. While it can handle both analog and digital data at high speeds, the usage of this data is still limited by the computer's ability to interpret it.

Power

The computer industry is still facing problems with power and speed issues. The problems of transfer rates and getting data from outside a system to inside for use can be solved by the above two methods. But the computer itself must still be fast and powerful enough to handle the data. If you can transfer 30 frames per second from your VCR to your computer, that in no way means the computer will be able to display 30 frames per second. Advances in the speed of computers are becoming commonplace, but a few have shown to be more than today's clock speed increases and mandates further attention.

Accelerated Graphics Port

Controlled by Intel, the Accelerated Graphics Port is set to take over typical graphical tasks. The current 132MBps transfer rate of the PCI bus will bottleneck the high-speed graphics and 3D rendering required for the next generation of fast computers. AGP has promised to resolve that bottleneck, transferring video data at a very high rate. By utilizing a direct, point-to-point transfer of video data to memory, AGP is able to overcome the PCI bottleneck which is caused mostly by the PCI bus's usage restrictions and controlling of the data to allow multiple peripherals to access and transfer across it. Slight modification to this should allow most other video-related peripherals such as video cameras and laserdiscs to take advantage of this speed with minimal modifications to the architecture.

Downsides to the use of AGP is similar to that of FireWire; it's too new to know the hurdles that will have to be defeated. AGP also must be built into the chipset itself, making upgrading difficult. Whether graphics chip makers supporting AGP will do so on an accelerator card or on the motherboard of the computer itself also remains to be seen.

MMX

Built into the next generation of Pentium processors, MMX is Intel's addition to their CPU architecture. Extensions to current instruction sets on the CPU, MMX is set to enhance multimedia and related applications. Performance increases for communications, sound, video and other multimedia applications will result. However, current applications will see only a moderate benefit by using an MMX-enabled CPU. It won't be until future applications that are MMX-aware and utilize the MMX instruction set become available that the promised increases in performance will become apparent. However, the usage of MMX on the CPU itself, while helpful, is very minimal compared to the power that is required to run a home entertainment system that will be attractive to the public. Faster CPU's capable of performing instructions in the billions-of-operations-per-second range will be required in order to perform on a level that society will accept as the new medium of living room entertainment.

Media Processors

New high-speed media processors such as Mpact that are just starting to come into market may make a bigger difference that MMX in processing multimedia functions. Currently being introduced on multi-function cards, the Mpact chip is expected to be borne on motherboards to help the CPU in processing high-level graphics and communications functions. The current problem with Mpact is because it handles a multitude of instructions, the acceleration of any single function is minimal. It is not powerful enough to be utilized as a stand-alone video/sound/graphics/modem card. It may find itself better used as a helper to these functions, not as a single solution. However, the high speed of processing done on this chip gives hope to the idea that fast, billion-instruction chips can and will be produced in the near future. Until this time, however, Mpact may find itself locked into a level of the market where a cheaper solution is needed, and not necessarily a high-speed one.

Digital Video Disk

Originally planned to take over the current job of laserdiscs and VCRs, the Digital Video Disk standard is a high-capacity, high-speed solution to the entertainment and computer market. It's most important feature is it's ability to store as much as 17GB of data on a single disk, much more than today's CD-ROM disks are capable of holding. This capacity will be able to bring full-length, feature-rich movies to market, and the integration of the DVD standard into both the computer and entertainment markets will further bring the two closer together as a combination machine. The acceptance of DVD further hinges on it's current status as "vaporware," following it's continuous postponement as the entertainment industry and the computer industry haggle on various features. With the combination of DVD laserdisc units which can play back entire feature-length movies from a single disk, the usage of FireWire to connect these laserdisc units to the computers and AGP to transfer this data between the computer and it's monitor or screen, DVD is poised to become the new movie and multimedia distribution standard.

Operating Systems

Advancement in Operating System standards that utilize plug and play and APIs to enhance various functions will be important in the future. As USB and FireWire take hold, an operating system capable of utilizing automatic detection and setup of peripherals when hot-swapped to these bus systems will be needed to promote this vision. Consumers will not be satisfied if they have to install drivers and setup peripherals themselves. Drivers and the like can be complicated at times, and ease of use will be mandatory to capture the position owned by the television. Plug and play integration will play a major role in this matter, as the ability to plug devices in and turn the system on without any other functions to perform will become mandatory to such an audience. The OS will also play a major role as the interface itself. Point and click, and nothing more advanced than that, will be something that consumers in the market for entertainment will want.

DirectX and other APIs will be more important than industry watchers think. These interfaces help accelerate and promote various functions, helping them run as smoothly and quickly as possible. Porting through DirectX and not through proprietary drivers as industry vendors make DirectX compatible hardware commonplace will ensure that the newest peripherals, regardless of their manufacturer, will be fully compatible and identifiable by Windows 95 and any future OSs of its type. The elimination of separate driver installation will enhance the ease-of-use that computers will need in the entertainment industry to succeed. Drivers that enhance the peripherals usage in various functions can be used by those wishing to use the advanced functions the device provides, but for typical installation by inexperienced users just wishing to plug and play, DirectX combined with plug and play abilities built into the OS will be a prerequisite.

Media Availability

Nobody will be interested in purchasing something that can be used for nothing. The availability of media and peripherals for all of these technologies will be important. Acceptance by hardware and software vendors, as well as entertainment industry vendors in this instance, will be something that can make or break the entertainment PC idea. As advanced as AGP, USB, DVD and FireWire are, if they are not accepted and supported in the market they won't amount to anything.

Movies and Interactive Entertainment

Movies are an integral part of the entertainment PC. But very few DVD movies have come to market and it's becoming questionable if they will make it there fast enough to support DVD and all it offers. Industry analysts expected there to be at least 250 DVD titles on the market's shelves by this Christmas, but there seem to be less than 50. And there is currently one PC title on DVD format from Phonedisc. While DVD movies are still expected, this will support the laserdisc player function of DVD entertainment. But without PC titles on DVD disks, the melding of computers and television will become a tough thing to do. The main promise of PC's in the entertainment market is it's interactivity. The ability of the audience to interact with what they see on their screen is one of the few things that computers offer and television does not. Without PC entertainment titles on DVD disks, this promise of interactivity becomes a lie and the entertainment audience at large will stick to their television.

Games and Multimedia Titles

Gaming has become a common part of entertainment and typically plays a role in every household, whether it be Sega, Nintendo or any of the other platforms available today. PC's have the ability to play a multitude of games, and these games are only getting more and more powerful. The usage of media processors combined with high-speed and more powerful CPUs is only going to accelerate the games people currently play. Constraints of today's gaming market are disappearing. DVD will allow more data to be held on a small, compact medium so they will become more powerful yet. Fully rendered, 3D playback combined with movie clips will turn video games into interactive movies, and DVD provides a platform on which it can all be stored. AGP allows the playback of such material at a high speed and acceptable frame rates, USB allows simplified joystick and game playing implements to be attached, and all of this can work together to provide a level of game playing that will make Sega and Nintendo look like Pac-Man in comparison. But without the game titles in the market, what's to prove this?

Peripherals

Currently, there's fewer than a half dozen USB peripherals on the market; a couple of joysticks, keyboards, and I do believe there is a sound card (although if that is actually available for purchase yet, I do not know). USB is still not getting the support from hardware vendors it will need to succeed. FireWire is also having the same problem, as the only peripherals that support the IEEE1394 specification is a couple of video cameras in Sony's digital camera line, currently priced beyond $2500. Without the needed support, USB and FireWire can end up going the way of the Beta-Max standard for VCRs.

DVD, however, has a necessary amount of support from CD-ROM and entertainment companies. However, DVD has been promised for months now with no release into the market, regardless of past promises, as of yet.

Internet and the World Wide Web

The "information superhighway" has become very important to everybody, including home users, because of all the media hype it's getting. The World Wide Web itself, the most available and popular Internet portion, is becoming a standard everywhere from home PC's to business users and on down to the living room. Sony has just released WebTV, for example, a decoding box that connects to your television screen and allows you to surf the World Wide Web with a remote control. Combination television/Web efforts, such as Intercast, started moving quickly earlier in the year but are now dying out. It seems the Web has been divided into two groups, those that use their computers and those that use their televisions. The combination of the two will allow the entertainment users to better utilize the World Wide Web and it's services. Intercast has support from a number of cable companies, but limited support in the computer arena. The two sides have as of yet been unable to connect their vision well. The entertainment PC, if garnering support from all sides for it's bus designs and peripheral abilities, will be able to mold these two together as the World Wide Web and the Internet itself garners more popularity in the entertainment as well as the computer industry.

Affordability

While computers are accepted as being normally high-priced for business needs considering it still remains a machine for professional users, the entertainment community expects technologies they use in their living rooms to be affordable. Otherwise it will find it's way into the more expensive living rooms and not become a part of the entire community at large, missing an entire market in the interim. Sony's digital camera line, for example, which are priced over $2500 is a professional device not intended for the home audience. FireWire capable VCRs and cameras can not have a price tag that is much above the prices for current items of it's nature if they expect to become integral in the home entertainment solution. The computer itself must be low priced and affordable just the same. Consumers are not going to pay hefty amounts for the bells and whistles that entertainment PCs offer if they can still get enough fun out of a combination TV/Sega system for half the money. The technology matters not if the price makes it unattainable to a large share of the community.

A Glimpse at the Entertainment PC

The entertainment PC will include most of the technologies discussed here and utilize them in various ways. FireWire can provide the fast data transfer required for video playback and 3D rendering, while USB will be used for typical devices like mice, joysticks and keyboards. Both should have a universal connector and will reduce the cable clutter and confusion surrounding many PCs today. This will make it's usability more attractive to the less-technically-inclined home entertainment buyer. And both should have numerous devices and peripherals available, allowing this buyer to pick and choose the entertainment options and abilities that are important to him or her. AGP will allow the video data to be transmitted quickly enough to keep movie playback and video abilities at acceptable levels to whatever screen or display is used.

Options with the display unit of such an item vary. A television type screen with a split view for a small monitor-like display in one corner, or the opposite, with the computer display taking up most of the screen? Or will mixture of the screens not be used, instead keeping the computer and the television on separate displays? The most attractive position I can perceive would be the separation. Playback of any movies or advanced games on the television for the home user as well as World Wide Web and Internet surfing, while the computer can have a separate screen for computing functions like word processing and number crunching. The melding of the entertainment and business sides into the entertainment PC will require both sides to be utilized as the first group of people to get involved in the purchase of such a device will most likely be those already familiar with computers. While multimedia and interactive games and entertainment, as well as playback of feature rich movies and Web surfing would feel at home on a large television screen, tasks currently related to the computer will still be done on a small, high-quality monitor. Nobody will be interested in word processing when letters are as big as their hands. Therefore, a slight separation of the two in this manner would serve best.

The computer itself will be simple yet powerful. Inside the system unit itself will be found a high-speed processor for typical computer tasks and most likely processors designed as helpers or solutions for the newer, entertainment integration of the computer. Video playback and high-speed 3D, for example, may be processed by a chip that will perform the job of what a TV Tuner card and video card does today. Similar to Mpact, but I think not as broad on abilities. These few processing abilities along with the ability to receive and decode data from the USB/AGP/FireWire connections, may be all that's needed in the central unit itself. The computer will need only to receive, manipulate and send the information. There will be no more installation of different peripheral cards, drivers, etc. Everything else will connect to one of the three types of connectors on the front of this central unit. Sound, monitors/televisions, cameras, speakers, keyboards, mice, joysticks, floppy disks, hard disks and all the peripherals used today will be connected to one of those peripheral busses. The PC unit itself may never need to be opened. This will provide the simplest, customizable solution for today's entertainment consumer and will contain a large collection of technologies just coming to market. The less configuration a consumer will have to perform, the easier it will be to use and the more likely they will be to purchase one.