The battle for the last 30 feet, to wirelessly deliver high definition (HD) video between the set-top box and the TV set, is now underway. Consumer electronics (CE) vendors are lining up behind three HDMI wireless replacement contenders: wireless HD (WiHD) 60 GHz technology, wirelesss home digital interface (WHDI) and ultra wide band (UWB).

HDMI wireless replacement is distinct from the approach developed by Ruckus Wireless, which is targeting the distribution infrastructure within the home with its newly released solution for delivering HD video to various set-tops via Wi-Fi.

Each approach has its theoretical merits and drawbacks, but none has proven itself commercially and technologically. It’s one thing to look good on a trade show floor and another to achieve consumer satisfaction in terms of video quality, reliability and ease of use. Furthermore, although standards are being hammered out to allow some degree of interoperability, the first generation products will not necessarily be compatible.

Cable and peripheral manufacturers like Monster Cable, Belkin, Geffen and all of the major TV makers are getting into the arena by releasing products based on at least one, if not multiple, technologies. At the moment, these efforts have the feel of concept cars, to be demonstrated at trade shows to see what kind of enthusiasm they generate. Vendors have been putting on wireless HD dog-and-pony shows for years without much to show in terms of actual market penetration.

For example, in 2003, Magis Networks of San Diego wowed investors and electronics manufacturers with its Air5 chip for transmitting HD video over wireless Ethernet. Investors and customers included Motorola, Hitachi, Sanyo and Panasonic. The company ultimately burned through $48 million before shutting its doors a year later.

Standard interfaces?

It’s wise to maintain perspective. While vendors likely will eventually discover the key to unwiring the last 30 feet, significant challenges will need to be met. Some already have. The cost of HD equipment has dropped significantly. Satellite and cable set-top providers all offer reasonably priced HD options. CE vendors have standardized on Blu-ray for movies on disk, and the gaming platforms are starting to incorporate HD video as a standard feature.

What has not been addressed is standardization within the interfaces for delivering the video, both between technology choices and to some extent even within a single technology platform.

For example, Amimon has created the WHDI specification and an interest group of major CE vendors and chip manufacturers to deploy its video modem technology. Vendors like Geffen, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Sony are all shipping pre-standard WHDI products today, and Belkin is planning a rollout in early 2009. However, none of these products interoperate today. Amimon is hoping to have this worked out by next year.

Another contender is WiHD, a 60 GHz technology being championed by SiBeam. It is the only technology that can support the native bit rate of HDMI without compression or modulation as it operates across 7 GHz of spectrum. It’s been challenging for vendors to create consumer products in the 60 GHz spectrum because normal CMOS silicon manufacturing techniques did not scale into this range. Recent innovations by SiBeam, pioneered at UC Berkeley, could finally make 60 GHz equipment cost-effective.

A number of manufacturers including Broadcom, Intel, LG Electronics, Matsushita (Panasonic), NEC, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba have announced support for the WiHD specification.

60 GHz technology does not penetrate walls very well, which means less interference, but also shorter range. SiBeam claims that sophisticated beam steering technology built into the chips will keep the signal strong as people walk around the room.

Meanwhile, other vendors like TZero and Sigma Designs are betting on UWB technology, which is becoming the standard wireless USB interconnect for PCs. The economies of scale of the computer industry could help drive the cost down.

Time will tell which approaches succeed, and it is by no means clear there will be room for more than one. Just like HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray and VHS vs. Betamax, the CE manufacturers are likely to pick only one winner.

George Lawton is a free-lance writer. Reach him at glawton@gmail.com.

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