Media Servers Hit the Mainstream

On the first day, electronics manufacturers created the VCR. The VCR begat the digital video recorder. The digital video recorder begat the TiVo. Now, the TiVo has given birth to the home media server. When are these guys ever going to rest?

For builders, home media servers offer both challenges and opportunities that simply did not exist with previous entertainment technologies. As long as there were enough electrical outlets and cable TV hookups, the builders’ bases were covered. Today, though, high-end homeowners are spending more than ever on entertainment systems and demanding new levels of home connectivity. Home media servers can address both these needs.

The good news for builders is there are a growing number of installation professionals available to do this work for them. In fact, most systems today are installed by professional integrators once the builder’s team has laid required wiring. But a basic understanding of how the systems work and what products are available is critical to ensuring any given installation will meet that homeowner’s specific needs.

Defining Terms

At their most basic level, media servers combine the functionalities of home media centers — packaged systems combining a DVD player with high-quality speakers to create a more theatrical home-viewing experience — with the media storage and search capability of a TiVo. These products also typically have an Internet connection, so users can access streaming media and get background information on the DVDs they’re viewing by using their remote control.

Initially, home media servers were single-room systems, and entry-level models still focus on home-theater applications. However, higher-end systems are becoming fully networked digital-media repositories, using structured-wiring systems to push digital media to any room in the house.

“Historically, [media servers] were purchased almost exclusively for entertainment,” says Matt Swanston, director of business analysis for Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association. “Now we’re seeing this shift to families who want to watch different things in different rooms, without cluttering up the house with redundant equipment.”

In addition, the structured wiring is allowing buyers of higher-end systems to access thermostats, lighting controls and other home-automation systems from any television in the home, using their remote control. Systems can be upgraded to include more controllable applications — such as window shades or outdoor spas — so long as the wiring is in place to provide network access.
“The [CAT-5] cables can support any system you care to put in,” Swanston says. “So the builder can offer good/better/best alternatives.”

High-End Home Buyers

Cheena Srinivasen, founder and chief operating officer of high-end maker Kaleidescape Inc., says custom builders are becoming a more important market driver. Where the first products were sold to early-adopting video enthusiasts in existing homes, now high-end home buyers are seeing such systems as baseline requirements.

“Retrofit installs were what paid our bills,” he says of his company’s early days. “Now, probably 60 percent of our sales come from new builders — it’s just standard fare.”

Srinivasen says Kaleidescape is unique among media-server manufacturers by providing digital storage for commercial DVD content, wheras other makers pair their servers with disc changers. With these other systems, servers store recorded television shows and home-video content, while the changer stores commercially produced DVDs and physically loads them onto a player when requested.

Kaleidescape’s system, on the other hand, actually records the DVD and stores the digital content, eliminating the need for a separate changer. The company uses proprietary, military-grade encryption software to protect the content from illegal duplication, and playback is only possible using a Kaleidescape Movie Player. The company recently won a lawsuit brought against it by the DVD Copy Control Association; however that group has announced it will appeal the decision.

The base Model Kaleidescape 1U server can hold the content of up to 335 DVDs or more than 3,700 audio CDs, and serve up to 45 independent audio or video zones. The 3U server holds up to 1,340 DVDs or 15,000 CDs. In both cases, servers can be combined to provide up to 100 TB of storage. Additional system components include the Movie Player II, required for every connected TV, the Music Player, for zones where only music will be requested, and the Speed Reader, which enables bulk downloading of DVD and CD data.

Copyright Protection

As the Kaleidescape lawsuit illustrates, copyright protection issues are a big concern for installers, manufacturers and, especially, the developers and owners of digital content. Other server makers might rather store content digitally instead of physically, via DVD jukeboxes, but fear the potential legal consequences.

“The technology is no longer the big hurdle,” CEA’s Swanston says. “It’s really the concern among installers and manufacturers about what they’re able to allow people to do with these devices.”

As a result, most manufacturers are sticking with physical disk storage and turning to the new Windows Vista operating system to help address digital rights management issues. Vista also provides easier access to stored music and photo collections than the previous XP operating system, and moving forward will provide a standard platform for connecting building automation systems.

Vista Enabling Advances

Niveus Media is one of the manufacturers building its products on Vista’s capabilities. The Milpitas, Calif.-based company offers four different server products, ranging from $3,199 to $15,999, capable of serving three or four separate television receivers. The less expensive Ranier and Denali models resemble stereo components, while the two Pro Series models feature rack-mount designs. Storage ranges from 1.5 to 3 TB, and higher-end models are HD DVD-compatible. For those who’ve bet their money on Sony’s proprietary Blu-Ray high-definition technology, a Blu-Ray player is available as an upgrade.

“There’s definitely an upgrade path,” says Tim Cutting, the company’s CEO and founder. “The life of technology moves so quickly, we try to help people out with these new features.”

Aiding Marketing Efforts

Exceptional Innovation is another company based on a Windows Vista platform. The Westerville, Ohio-based operation is making a direct pitch to builders with its Lifeware Builder Program, a five-tiered series of packaged systems developed in cooperation with Custom Builders USA.

The base-level system provides the components necessary for a single media-room installation. This $14,000 package includes a media server (the company’s products have storage capacity of 1.5 to 2.5 TB), required speakers, a 50-in. plasma display and the ability to control up to two lighting zones. Packages add functionality in $15,000 increments, topping out at $75,000 for the Premium package, which adds two more 42-in. displays, two more media centers, eight whole-house audio zones, 24 automated lighting control zones, two automated thermostats, three 200-disk DVD changers, three IP surveillance cameras, a network switch and three power/UPS conditioners.

These all-inclusive bundles are seen as a way to help builders communicate both value and scope to interested clients, without needing to completely understand the technology themselves.

“What we’re able to do is filter down a lot of information that makes it possible for builders to sell the concept of the controlled home,” says Mike Seamons, Exceptional Innovation’s vice president, marketing.

What’s Next

Ask today’s media-center market players what’s coming down the pike, and you’ll get many answers. Greater streaming-media adoption, automation control extending to individual appliances and concierge-like connectivity — such as getting Domino’s to deliver using your remote control — are all considered possibilities.

Builders can be sure that media servers will continue to evolve. Even if builders are reluctant to dive into these changing waters, experts suggest they at least install the structured-wiring backbone any system will require. CEA suggests two runs of CAT 5 data cable to every room, regardless of whether or not a builder installs a media center, will help “future-proof” their homes.

“It becomes a sales point, just like roughing in plumbing for a future bathroom,” says CEA’s Swanston. “So people can add on later as their needs grow.