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Pioneer Unveils A/V Network Devices

Pioneer unveiled the first of its home A/V network devices, which will distribute audio, video and still pictures to multiple TVs and audio systems in a house.

The introduction, which took place at CES, is part of a new strategic direction intended to bring new digital technologies to a broader range of consumers. The network devices, and new plasma-display TVs, are said to be suitable for sale through dealers lacking sophisticated systems-integration capabilities.

The network devices, designed exclusively for A/V entertainment uses, will use high-speed wired Ethernet connections and no-new-wires home-network technology to distribute multiple simultaneous streams of audio and video content on demand. Pioneer is demonstrating working preproduction prototypes and is targeting late-year shipments.

Pioneer said it is technically possible to expand the network to include networked DVD megachangers that could incorporate multiple laser pickups, enabling multiple movies to be viewed simultaneously. The Library could also cache movies to allow for multiple users to watch different movies simultaneously or watch the same movie at different start times. Pioneer, however, isn’t announcing plans for networked megachangers.

The networked products include a Linux-based Digital Library server targeted to retail for “significantly less than $1,800,” said spokesman Chris Walker. The hard-drive-equipped Library stores compressed music, full-motion video, and digital still images for playback through a main home A/V system, but it will also stream audio and video directly from select, but as-yet unspecified, Internet streaming services. The Library, however, must be connected to a separate cable modem and router.

The content will be accessible in other rooms through remote controllers, or clients, connected to the Library via 100Mbps Ethernet wires or via one or more no-new-wires network technologies. The clients, in turn, will connect to TV sets and audio systems.

One client will be dedicated to audio playback, the other to audio and video playback. The audio client will feature LCD screen to display a content menu. The audio/video client will display a content menu on a connected TV screen. The devices’ remote IRsensor will allow for remote control of the Library through supplied IR remotes.

The device stores and streams audio in MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) formats and stores and streams full-motion video in MPEG-1 (VHS-quality), MPEG-2 (DVD quality), and Windows Media Video, which Walker said is used by content providers providing the most compelling free and paid-for video content.

Stored music and video can be downloaded from the Web or transferred from a networked PC. Music can also be ripped from the Library’s CD drive. Digital still images in multiple formats, including JPEG and BMP, can be added to the hard drive from the unit’s CD drive or from a networked PC.

The hard drive’s capacity will be at least 60GB at launch.

Although the device will be able to pause streaming Internet video, it won’t pause or time-shift TV content as a personal video recorder does. In addition, because Pioneer is focusing on A/V entertainment market, the device doesn’t offer Web browsing, e-mail or CD-burning functions that Walker said are best left to a PC.

Via 100Mbps wired Ethernet, the Library is capable of simultaneously distributing three DVD-quality video streams at the same time that it distributes 21 compressed audio streams. The capability diminishes with lower speed no-new-wires network technology.

At CES, the company demonstrated wired Ethernet and wireless 11Mbps IEEE 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, network technology, but it’s considering the inclusion of wireless 54Mbps 802.11b and 802.11g technologies as well as the HomePlug Powerline Alliance’s 14Mbps powerline technology. The final product might include multiple plug-and-play no-new-wires technologies, said Walker. For Ethernet connections, the device will use Microsoft’s Universal Plug and Play home-network technology.

At launch, Pioneer will package the Library with free Internet audio and video streaming services and possibly with free downloadable music and video services, including music videos and movies. Optional paid-for services at launch might include the subscription-based PressPlay music streaming and download service. The service, owned by Sony and Universal, uses the WMA and ATRAC3 codecs to stream and download music.