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Japan Makes Home Networking A High Priority

CHIBA, JAPAN -Preparation for the next great revolution in consumer electronics, digital home networking, is firmly on the minds of many Japanese manufacturers, if you took a close look at the CEATEC 2000 show held here last month.

Bluetooth, HAVi, iLINK (aka IEEE 1394) and dioramas of home networks were the order of the day. Matsushita, for example, underscored its commitment to digital networking with the theme of its main booth, “Digital Networking For Life.” But before many manufacturers can make digital home networking a reality, myriad new and existing formats must be coordinated to work together.

Matsushita and other Japanese manufacturers use the term “end-to-end network solution” to explain how broadcast, communications and packaged-media providers will deliver programming to homes, and how the programming will easily be accepted and digested by proposed home-networking systems.

One configuration will not fit all. Many options will be offered as the market and the technology for home networking develops.

To promote technical development and standardization, Matsushita opened the Home Information Infrastructure House, or HII House, about two years ago in the lobby of one of its Tokyo offices. One of HII’s key technologies is the Home Gateway, which connects home communications products to the Internet via a high-speed broadband connection, said Thomas Asabe, general manager of Matsushita AVC’s HII Promotion Team.

Home Gateway is also able to receive satellite and terrestrial broadcasts, wireless and landline phone transmissions, and optical fiber and cable TV feeds and distribute them through a home’s phone lines, power lines or Ethernet wiring to electronics, communications, computer and major appliance products.

In a presentation to foreign journalists during CEATEC, the Matsushita executive presented separate “TV-centric” and “PC-centric” network models for the home to illustrate their potential configuration and uses. In both cases, several communications and storage formats would be used together to link parts of a home network.

In a TV-centric network, people will use an HDTV set to view HDTV programming, Internet content, digital satellite programs, or programming stored on a home entertainment server. Through IEEE 1394 or Secure Disk (SD) memory cards, programming could be transferred between the HDTV set and a DVD-A/V player, DVD-RAM recorder, digital camcorder, video printer, HD-VHS deck, digital camera and the home server.

The HAVi, or Home Audio Video Interoperability, standard will be a key technology to make all of this happen, Asabe said. The standard is backed by Grundig, Hitachi, Panasonic, Philips, Sharp, Sony, Thomson and Toshiba. HAVi will also enable users to centrally control A/V devices connected by IEEE 1394 wires.

In the PC-centric network, SD cards and IEEE 1394 wires would be used to link the PC to Internet audio devices and to many of the same audio/video products in the TV-centric configuration. In addition, USB, optical digital links, PCMCIA and wireless communications ports will be part of the system.

Bluetooth, which seemed to be everywhere at CEATEC, will also be part of an “end-to-end network solution,” as Matsushita calls it.

Aside from working on the HAVi standard, among others, Japanese CE companies are trying to standardize other potential home-networking functions. Yoshiaki Kushiki, a top Matsushita executive in multimedia R & D, pointed to the development of an “e-platform” working committee for digital TV in Japan. The committee, formed in July, includes Hitachi, Matsushita, Sony and Toshiba, as well as Japanese broadcasters, advertising agencies and others.

The committee will develop a business plan for establishing a planning and operational company that will develop a DTV system using interactive data broadcasting and services, such as integrated Web content.