Thursday, January 17, 2008

30 Minute Music Hour

My friend Andy Moore has a very cool new show on the Wisconsin Channel (WPT 21.2) called "The 30-Minute Music Hour." I don't know quite the best way to describe the show. It's kind of like Austin City Limits without the studio audience. It's a bit more intimate because Andy talks a little bit with his guests between songs.

For those of you in the Wisconsin viewing area, be sure to check this out. Here's the current schedule:

#101 30-Minute Music Hour – Pat MacDonald

Digital (20.2, aka The Wisconsin Channel),

January 18, 10:30 am and 5:30 pm.

January 19, 6:30 pm.

January 20, 6:30 pm.

Analog (WHA, etc.)

February 9, 10:30 pm (lead-in to Austin City Limits)

30-Minute Music Hour – Robbie Fulks

Digital (20.2, aka The Wisconsin Channel),

January 25, 10:30 am and 5:30 pm.

January 26, 6:30 pm.

January 27, 6:30 pm.

Analog (WHA, etc.)

February 23, 10:30 pm (lead-in to Austin City Limits)

#103 30-Minute Music Hour – Willy Porter

Digital (20.2, aka The Wisconsin Channel),

February 1, 10:30 am and 5:30 pm.

February 2, 6:30 pm.

February 3, 6:30 pm.

Analog (WHA, etc.)

February 27, 10:30 pm (following American Masters: Pete Seeger)

For everyone else, you can watch it streaming from their website. Here's a writeup on Andy's program in Isthmus' 'The Daily Page'.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

CES - Day 3

I spent a little more time viewing HTPC solutions during my third and final day. I started at the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center where there are a few really large booths for the big electronics and computer companies. Sony was there showing their Blu-ray technology and acting a bit smug about Warner's recent announcement that they will exclusively support Blu-ray from now on. The Sony guys were careful not to say anything about what this means for them, but it was pretty obvious that they think the format war is coming to an end and they will be declared the winner. They mentioned that the HD-DVD camp was scrambling to figure out what to do next. Like I said in a previous post, since an HTPC owner can purchase a dual format (Blu-ray & HD DVD) drive, it doesn't really matter what format a movie is on. However, I'm a little concerned because it sounds like people have more problems trying to play Blu-ray discs and less with HD DVD with their dual format LG drives. Microsoft doesn't seem too happy about these recent events, but they are also saying this doesn't really effect them that much. Microsoft certainly would have benefited if HD DVD came out as the winner, because they developed and license the interactive layer (HDi) for HD DVD. A Microsoft guy said they will still move forward with HDi and offer it with downloadable content. A lot of people, including Microsoft seem to be saying that the real winner in a few years will be downloadable and streaming content and that optical disc media will be unnecessary. I've got mixed feeling about this because HTPCs are the perfect device to use with downloadable content and our business currently depends in large part on the success of HTPCs, but the bandwidth is pretty limited (at least in the U.S.) and it currently isn't real practical to download content with quality comparable to HD DVD or Blu-ray (1080p video and lossless multichannel 24bit/96KHz audio). If they downrez and lossy compress the video and audio to 720p and 16bit/48KHz quality and people are content with this, just like they've accepted compressed audio formats like MP3 and iTune's AAC, then we've taken another step back in quality. Hopefully, since people seem to be very excited with the latest 1080p display technology, they will demand content that takes full advantage of its resolution. Once they experience high quality video from their new 1080p displays, they might just invest in an audio system with quality to match, like the products were are developing.

Speaking of new display devices, I stopped by the booths of Sharp and Samsung. While standing and gawking at the big Sharp LCD displays, I had a conversation with a technology guru from Disney. He recommeded that I should take a look at Samsung's OLED displays because he is confident that within 5 years it will be the dominant display technology. He thinks it will be cheaper to manufacture, provide higher quality and be the most green technology, which is very important for all products from now on. He might be right, but I was still pretty impressed with the panels Sharp was demonstrating in their booth. The LCD technology has evolved over the past year. Last year the big deal was 1080p. Now everyone does 1080p. Another big thing last year was panel size and that hasn't changed much over the last This year it seems to be 120 Hz or higher refresh rates. The other thing is style. Many of the manufactures are showing off their ultrathin panels and the high quality finish of the frames. Sharp was showing off their 108" (or was it 120") monster. The photo on the right is one of their ultrathin 120 Hz displays (sorry about the quality of the pic, I prefer to turn off the flash, but since it's relatively dark in the exhibit hall, I have to keep the aperture open for up to 1/4 sec. and sometime they come out blurry).

Samsung had a huge booth at CES this year. They seem to be into everything. A guy at their camcorder area said they (Samsung) wanted to reach the same level of success in camcorders as they have with LCD televisions. Speaking of camcorders, Canon was demonstrating their compact HD camcorders they plan to release this Spring. Wow! Being the owner of a 3 CCD DV camcorder, I never would have expected such great colors from a single sensor camcorder when compared to my Sony TRV900 DV camcorder. On top of that, you get great HD resolution, a very convenient, portable size and instead of using tape, you can use SD flash memory. I'd tell you the name and model, but I seem to have lost the brochure. Oh well, back to Samsung and their display screens. Samsung was also showing off their big 120 Hz displays. And of course they had the stylish ultrathin technology as well. They even had a big ultra high resolution (3840 x 2160) screen which they claim is 4 times the resolution of conventional LCD. I don't quite follow their math if they are comparing it to 1080p because it comes out to twice the resolution (maybe since it is 2 dimensions, we are getting 4x the number of pixels). Either way, it is pretty impressive looking. Finally, I made my way over to the OLED displays. Samsung was demonstrating their 31" OLED. After looking at this, I hope the Disney guy is right and we get to buy inexpensive 60" OLED displays in the near future. These things are beautiful. The colors seem to be really great without looking over saturated like some LCDs. And the contrast ratio, 1 million to one, that's as good as your eyes can see. These really are great looking. Oh, and they're thin as well.

I also wanted to check out the Nextgen Home Experience, but the lines were too long and I had places to go and people to meet.

Then I went over to the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center to talk to a few more companies. BridgeCo is a manufacturer of FireWire and USB interfaces for audio and video. The guys manning their booth (or meeting room) weren't very helpful. I explained what I was doing and they responded that they didn't support multichannel surround playback with either technology. They said their solutions are really geared to pro-audio and this isn't going to change in the future. ArcSoft also had a meeting space in the South Hall. They are the developers of another Blu-ray/HD DVD software player that many people on AVS Forum have been raving about. They currently have a trial version of their Japanese version and are planning to release the English version in the very near future. It may have already been released. They gave me their Product Licensing Guide with a DVD full of evaluation versions of all of ArcSofts applications, including TotalMedia Theatre, which is the player everyone is excited about. They also gave me the business card of the VP of Sales and Marketing and told me to contact him to get a full version sent to us.

While walking around the South Hall, there were a couple of TechZones I wanted to check out that sounded interesting. One was the Sustainable Technologies area that was said to "explore the pioneering technologies that benefit the environment, sustain the global economy and improve daily life in developing countries." I wanted to see if they had more ideas of how we could improve in this area in addition to what we already have with highly efficient Class-D technology. Unfortunately, they weren't located where they were shown on the program map. There were a bunch of lounge chairs, which are shown on the map, but nobody was there except a few people grabbing a bite to eat. Nearby there was the Advanced Display Technology TechZone. I didn't find it very interesting because it was mostly displays for mobile devices.

Walking between sections of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I ran into a jazz performance sponsored by MusicGiants. These are the folks that offer high resolution downloads from their online music store. Their booth was suppose to be at the Sands Convention Center, but as it turns out they were really located here. I was planning to stop by and talk to them, so I was glad I didn't search for them at the Sands. I told them about my business and how potential users of my product would probably appreciate their higher resolution audio. The guy I spoke with recommended I contact Elliot Mazer, who is a pretty well known audio producer/engineer who is trying to encourage high-end audio manufacturers to develop technology that will be compatible with their downloads.

Next, I headed over to the Sands Convention Center to visit the booths of MusicIP and SiliconDust. MusicIP has a software application that can generate playlists from your music library by analyzing a song and finding others that are a close match. They just came out with a plug-in for iTunes and are working on one for Windows Media Player. It's pretty cool technology, but not as flexible as what I can already do with J.River's Media Center. SiliconDust are the folks who provide the HDHomeRun. They said they are working on adding functionality to support satellite dish and encrypted cable (cablecard) in future products.

For the remainder of this day, I spent time back at the Venetian to listen to more high performance audio. I'm not particularly impressed by a lot of the expensive stuff on display in many of the suites. Many of them just seem to be ultra expensive monstrosities. This is where I think the "emperor has no clothes" tale is really true. I don't like to bash other products, but I pretty much share the viewpoint of Gene DellaSala who wrote this report for Audioholics. I too was impressed with Dali's on-wall speakers. I didn't think you could get such great sound out of these type of speakers.

Okay, that's about all I have to report on CES 2008. The fourth day was basically a travel day, so nothing to talk about there. All in all it was a pretty good show. I had the opportunity to talk with several potential partners that specialize in industrial design or manufacturing. I got several recommendations for high quality manufacturers in Asia, which is very important at this stage.

Friday, January 11, 2008

CES 2008 - Day 2

On Tuesday I walked up to the Sahara Hotel to buy a monorail pass and travel to the Las Vegas Convention Center. I visited the Microsoft booth and talked to some of the people involved with Media Center and some others with Windows Home Server. I'd really like it if Windows Home Server were part of my TechNet subscription, so I tried to find someone that could forward my request. I also wanted to find out why there isn't better integration between Vista Media Center and Windows Home Server. It sounds like better integration between the two is definitely in the plans. Microsoft's eHome Program Manager told me that adoption on Vista Media Center has been very good and based on EPG (electronic program guides) downloads, the data supports this assertion. I gave him my card and he is going to send me this data if he can.

I also visited the DTS booth. They were demonstrating their Surround Sensation technology that creates a virtual surround from only 2 channels. I listened to the headphone demonstration, which played the same clips from the original 2 channel mix and the enhanced virtual surround version. I think it did a pretty good job, at least it seemed better than the surround headphone technology that Lake Technology licensed to Dolby a few years ago. I still wasn't very impressed with DTS's demonstration because the levels were so much different between the stereo and surround samples. It's pretty hard to determine which is better when the volume level is so different. Of course the Surround Sensation sample was much louder than the stereo sample, so it seemed to be much better.

After talking to DTS's Director of Product Management about licensing, I walked toward the next exhibitor on my list, Dolby Labs. My left show felt very loose, so I look down to see if my laces untied. I noticed the laces were still tied, so I lifted my foot to get a better look. The sole of the shoe was separating from the upper part. It was falling apart with every step. I realized that I couldn't continue walking around with my shoe coming apart, so I headed to the exit to get a cab to drive me back to my hotel so I could get the only other pair of shoes I had with me, my Nike running shoes. I must have looked like thump-drag because I had to drag my foot on the ground so the shoe would hold together. That didn't really help. The shoe came completely apart just before I reached the elevator to go up to my room. The pic on the right is what they looked like just before I threw them in the trash. Anyhow, that wasted a good chunk of my day.

From there I went to the Venetian to check out the "high performance audio". More and more of these vendors are realizing that computers are pretty good at storing and playing music. Many of them had their equipment connected to PCs. Some of them were just using a S/PDIF connection to their high end processors or preamps. Others had USB connections. Most were limited to 2 channel stereo sound. The only ones playing surround were playing off of stand alone players. If you want to see some pretty pictures of some of the equipment at the high performance audio exhibits, check out Steve Guttenberg's blog.

For those of you that are frustrated with audio playback of HD DVD or Blu-ray discs using Cyberlink's PowerDVD, I wish I had some good news. I stopped by Cyberlinks suite at the Hilton to see if I could speak with them to learn what we need to do with our products to support high resolution playback (with no downsampling, etc.) and the whole protected path. Since I didn't schedule an appointment, they wouldn't speak with me. I tried setting up a later appointment, but they weren't interested. I was also interested in speaking with representatives from TC Electronics. They sell the DICE chips, which are suppose to be pretty good IEEE1394 (FireWire) chips. When I went to the TC Electronics booth I learned that it was a different company. There was another booth for a company called Dice Electronics (you never know, maybe they are changing their name to match their flagship product). Both of these companies were selling something related to automobile electronics.

I did spend some time speaking with representative for HDMI, USB and IEEE1394 technologies. The USB folks had a section of the exhibit floor with several companies displaying their solutions. None of them were dealing with USB audio. I did get a chance to meet with the Chapter leader for the USB3 spec. He mentioned that they've received several requests for allowing clocking from the host system over USB3. That's currently a big problem with USB1.1 and USB2 because you have to reclock everything if you use USB. Anyhow, he said they are considering adding this to the USB3 spec. I also met with the people that are promoting IEEE1394 at the HANA Alliance. Obviously, they think we should stick with FireWire and they made a pretty good case. They also seemed to endorse the DICE technology as our best solution.

CES 2008 - Day 1

My flight arrived in Las Vegas at around 2:30 PM. Then it took at least 30 minutes to get my luggage. I also had to wait another 45 minutes for the shuttle bus to show up. By the time I got to my hotel room at the luxurious Circus Circus Hotel and Resort, it was about 5:30 PM. There wasn't enough time left in the day to visit any exhibits, so I just stayed in the hotel. Las Vegas traffic really sucks, especially when they have a big event like CES. So after I got unpacked, I called home to let my wife and kids know I arrived safely. Then I went downstairs to eat dinner and watch "The Ohio State" Buckeyes lose to LSU in the National Championship football game. Oh well, another let down for the Big Ten. How can Ohio State lose 2 years in a row?

CES 2008 Overview

I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas again this year. As usual it was big, crowded and flashy. The main reason I went to the show was to network with people that might be able to help us with our development. Since CES isn't really a developers conference, there was limited opportunities to meet with some of the people or companies that can really help us. Many of these companies only send their sales and business development people, so you usually don't get to speak with the engineers. However, sometimes the business development people can be fairly helpful. Some of the chip manufacturers were there, but many of them don't have exhibition booths and instead only meet with people by appointment in their meeting suites. Unfortunately, some of them don't really want to take the time to talk with small companies like ours. I also enjoy seeing the latest and greatest electronics, so I try to save some time for browsing the big companies booths. There weren't any significant announcements, so it didn't seem to be all that exciting.

I decided to attend CES Monday through Thursday. This actually worked out to only two productive days, because I arrived late Monday afternoon and had to leave early on Thursday. Prior to leaving Madison, on Sunday night I watched Bill Gate's opening Keynote address streaming live over the Internet. This was suppose to be his last keynote since he is stepping down from his full time position with Microsoft to work full time on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I thought he might include some big announcement, but there really wasn't a lot to really get me excited. They showed a pretty funny video clip of Bill contacting a handful of celebrities and asking them for help or advice on what he can do after retirement. BTW, the image quality of his address was much better than this link's archived video. You'd think Microsoft would want to promote the highest quality video to help promote online streaming or even provide a high quality video for download.

I think it was a good thing that I didn't fly in earlier just to see his last keynote live. I was able to save a little money. Besides, it's nearly impossible to get a seat in the hall. I think it must help to have some good connections to get tickets to these sorts of things. Since it was his last keynote it might have been cool to be there...