Computing

Intel Inside Living Rooms

The “Viiv” PC is Intel’s bid to put itself at the center of the home digital entertainment industry.

Thanks to the digital revolution in entertainment and the proliferating number of homes with high-speed Internet connections, Americans are acquiring, storing, and consuming vast amounts of media using desktop computers. But there’s a hitch: most people still much prefer to watch a movie, listen to music, or play a video game from a couch than a chair at a desk. So it’s not surprising that companies from Microsoft to Apple are eager to successfully merge PC-based digital content with old-fashioned home entertainment venues.

Now Intel is entering the fray, too, with a chipset designed for an advanced PC that will connect to televisions and audio systems, as well as the Internet. In theory, at least, it will also make it easier to download and manage digital content on a range of devices, such as portable audio and video players. What’s more, like a TV or stereo, this new kind of PC will turn on instantly, rather than requiring minutes to boot up.

The design, called “Viiv” (rhymes with “jive”), had its coming out at an Intel press conference in San Francisco on December 13. It will be built around a chipset, called Digital Home Express, that contains two separate processors – Intel’s first dual-core processor for a consumer-level product. This design will allow the machine to run multiple information-intensive tasks simultaneously, such as downloading music while playing a movie.

But Viiv is also more than a chipset. Intel itself describes it as a “platform” – akin to Centrino, the company’s hugely successful chip for wireless broadband networking on laptops, which combined an integrated processor, Wi-Fi radio, wireless chipset, and networking standard. Just as millions of laptops with a “Centrino” label on them were built by other companies, Intel expects manufacturers, software makers, content providers, and portable device makers to release Viiv-compatible products, starting with PCs in early 2006.

Of course putting a PC in a living room and making it the hub for digital entertainment requires a user to see the computer in a different way. “The PC started out as a really expensive typewriter,” says Bill Leszinske, director of the Viiv program. Today’s desktops offer “more of an interactivity and creation experience,” he says, but it’s still in “two-foot interactivity mode,” meaning the user must be sitting at the computer. Viiv is designed to provide a “10-foot local experience,” Leszinske says, so that consumers can download media and watch movies, television and photo slideshows, listen to music, or play video games from the comfort of their couches.

But, in several ways, creating the digital living room may be a bigger challenge for Intel than unifying wireless technologies with Centrino. Viiv depends on three disparate components: a powerful computer containing the Digital Home Express chipset and other technology, devices that can connect to a Viiv-enabled PC, and Intel’s partnerships with companies that will provide content.

The heart of the Viiv platform, says Leszenske, is an advanced PC that might resemble a standard bulky tower, a sleek book-sized box, or an all-in-one computer/screen combination similar to Apple’s iMac. Whatever it’s outer design, though, a Viiv computer will run the Windows Media Center Edition operating system, a special version of Microsoft Windows XP designed for managing content from cable TV, DVDs, and other sources. Rather than using a keyboard, Viiv PC menus can be navigated with a remote control.

According to Merlin Kister, program director of Intel’s Digital Home group, the Digital Home Express chipset is specially designed to support high-definition video and surround-sound audio. Additionally, Viiv PCs will include Intel Pro Client local area networking hardware, allowing Ethernet networking at a gigabyte per second, so media can stream smoothly between devices.

A powerful computer is only part of the package, though, according to Leszinske. The Viiv platform also includes driver software to make it compatible with many peripheral media devices, similar to the way a Centrino-enabled computer can easily connect to a Centrino wireless hub.

But going a step beyond Centrino, which was about integrating wireless products rather than the information that flowed over them, Intel is assembling special content for Viiv. To that end, the company has announced partnerships with more than 40 content providers; in early 2006, Viiv users will be able to rent and download hundreds to thousands of movies via subscription-based services from companies such as TiVo. Music from the likes of Napster will also be available for purchase and download to portable devices. Game providers and online photo services are also partnering with Intel.

Digital rights management – the creation of protocols to keep content from being pirated – will be the responsibility of the providers, Intel says. For instance, if a movie source wants to allow video to be transferred to a portable video player, it must encode the media appropriately.

Even with the backing of content providers, though, Viiv’s success will hinge on whether consumers can accept the idea of one-stop shopping for digital media. It sounds like a simplifying tool – but with so many options for content to sift through, people could be overwhelmed, at least at first. Not to mention the hurdle of needing to buy another PC strictly for entertainment purposes.

Not surprisingly, so far Viiv’s marketing strategy seems to have been taken straight from the Centrino playbook. The company plans to affix a Viiv sticker to enough “verified” devices so that people become familiar with the logo. And Intel no doubt will argue that living rooms are full of disparate boxes and therefore need to be simplified with a unifying device and brand.

Most importantly, though, the platform will have to work well right away (as Centrino did). If it does, Viiv may become a fixture in many living rooms – and even change the way we perceive entertainment.

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