Convergence That Hits Closer to Home

Up until now we’ve discussed the impact of the Convergence Wave on our businesses, but primarily from a commercial application viewpoint. What about the companies out there that do much or all of their business in the residential market?

As in the commercial marketplace, technology has spurred a recent explosion of new products and solutions unavailable to the resi integrator in years past. And just like IT/security convergence, we also now field the inevitable question, “Since you’re already here installing (insert system here), can you also install a home theater and media distribution center?”

It is important in a rapidly converging marketplace that you as an integrator and installer have the flexibility to think on your feet and the knowledge to be able to respond when that question is asked.

Technology Taking Over the Home

Just like hooking a DVR into a burglar alarm system or integrating a software-based recording solution with a customer’s storage array, integration is also going to be the key phrase for homes of the 21st century and beyond.  Already we are seeing the major OS developers (Microsoft™ and Apple™) move toward a media-centric view of   the world. Products such as Vista® Media Center® and AppleTV® are providing a central hub for movies, music and TV viewing. Even Linux users aren’t left out in the cold with several commercial and home-brew media center devices and products.

Bill Gates has said that within five years we will start seeing much tighter integration between the PC and the TV. Add in to that intercom and video security systems and we can provide a powerful offering to the homeowner. So how do we prepare ourselves for this entry into the residential Convergence Wave?

Find a Common Infrastructure

Like any other technology solution we provide, it all starts at the bottom with the infrastructure. Whether it is cable or wireless, data still needs to be transferred from point A to point B … and maybe even C, D and E.

How do our traditional forms of infrastructure stack up in a residential environment?

Coaxial — Coax still has a very prominent place in the converged home. There still is no better way to get composite video or modulated RF signals distributed to many rooms in a house. New home construction today is almost always wired for cable or satellite. Remember that the coax used for CATV or satellite systems usually is not appropriate for CCTV installations.

Fiber optics — While not found too often in the home itself (with the notable exception of decorative pool lighting), the presence of fiber is increasing in the converged residence, just on the outside. Fortunately for us, the large telco providers are finally beginning to roll out FTTH (fiber to the home) projects.

These ongoing projects, like Verizon’s FIOS product, will allow fiber runs all the way from the provider to the home’s back door, bringing with it all the bandwidth goodness that fiber has to offer. While not everywhere yet, the future looks bright.

Ethernet — Ah, now we’re talking. This is what the converged home is all about, right? That integration between the network and all the other appliances in the home is what we are all waiting for. Remember all those “home of the future” movies prevalent in the 1990s that   showed refrigerators and stoves with built-in Internet browsers? While the concept is developing, we still don’t see too many of them around. But trust me, there are plenty of network connections left to be made in the home.

We touched on one such need for an Ethernet wired home earlier when we talked about a media center. As hard drive storage becomes cheaper, more people are seeing the benefits of storing their music and movies (legally acquired, of course) on some kind of storage device.

To take full advantage of the increasing speed and capacity of network-based storage devices, no home installation today should be done with anything less than Cat-5e Ethernet cable. In fact, for future-proofing, I would recommend Cat-6 at a minimum. As in any commercial installation, make sure that your installed cable plan meets any specifications for that type of cable.

As it stands today, Ethernet remains the winner for whole home distribution of content to display devices from a central storage device like a NAS (network attached storage) box.

Wireless — Can we go wireless in a converged home? Sure, as long as you’re willing to do the homework and expect some issues. As wireless technology advances, these issues will start to dissipate, but it is still a fact of life today. For music or movie streaming, wireless may not be the best option just yet. The constant, high-bandwidth requirements of media streaming will tax even the best 802.11G connection. 802.11N will provide better data rates, but as with any wireless technology, it is still subject to interference.

A more appropriate use of wireless technology in the residence is for system control devices. Companies such as Crestron and AMX provide central controllers that can integrate multiple systems and give the owner control at a touchscreen on their lap or wherever they are in the home.

Composite cables — One development that is making it much easier to provide infrastructure in a converged environment is the increase of composite cables in the marketplace. Companies such as West Penn Wire and Belden now provide cables for multiple technologies in a single jacket. With coax, Cat-5e and usually some other custom cable for use with a control system, being able to pull one cable and hit any device at the endpoints really makes your job easier.

A/V cables — While the majority of infrastructure is going to be one of the above types, it’s important to look at a type of cable we don’t normally run into on the commercial side, but is rapidly becoming the go-to for A/V systems: HDMI (high definition media interface). HDMI is a relatively new cable technology making a big splash in the home theater market. With support for resolutions up to 2,560 X 1,440 of uncompressed high def video and eight discreet channels of digital audio (for 7.1 surround systems), it will be around for a while.

There are two issues to keep in mind when thinking about HDMI. The first is that it is DRM (digital rights management) dependent. This means that in the future, content can be developed to only play on certain, approved devices, and only if they utilize HDMI cables. The other problem is on a more immediate scale. That fantastic video and audio support comes at a price … bandwidth. HDMI can provide up to 10Gbps to reach those limits, but at a severely reduced distance. Due to this distance limitation as well as limits imposed by the DRM schemes, HDMI, as it currently is today, is not really suitable for whole home media distribution. 

Use a Systemic Approach

The most important thing we can learn as we work toward providing a converged home is to think of everything as a system, not several different products hooked together. As mentioned above, companies such as Crestron and AMX have both worked with manufacturers of all different products and have hooks or drivers to many different types of systems.

A high-end home project I just learned about had not only a central media center and a home theater, but the integrator worked out an interface to Pelco’s DX8100 DVR, providing the ability to switch from whatever movie the owner was watching to views of the cameras around his home. This is what
convergence is all about. 

Think Differently

As we have seen on both sides of the Convergence Wave, new opportunities open themselves up everyday. Changing our thinking from being a CCTV provider, or a burg installer, or even a network or A/V company to being a systems solutions provider is more than just a marketing gimmick.

Once you open your mind and learn how all these systems can work together, you will see new streams of revenue open up in front of you, both in the commercial space as well as an exploding residential market.


 

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