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Software to Channel Films From PCs to TVs

Entertainment: BroadQ product will use Sony's PlayStation 2 to show downloaded files via digital home network.

September 23, 2002|JON HEALEY and ALEX PHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As media companies start piping music and movies through the Internet, their wares reach millions of personal computers--but few of the living room stereos and TV sets most people turn to for entertainment.

Those companies--including Vivendi Universal and Warner Bros.--count on the Internet to be the next-generation conduit for digital entertainment on demand. But without a simple path to the living room, music and movies from the Web may never find their way to mainstream audiences.

Some computer and electronics companies have tried to bridge that gap with specialized devices that connect computers to home entertainment gear, but consumers have shown little interest. Nor has there been much demand for TVs and receivers that hook directly to the Net.

"This is the single biggest technical issue facing Hollywood: Moving the content off the PC and into the living room, where people are used to having their entertainment," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with GartnerG2.

In the latest effort, an Austin, Texas, company is trying to bridge the gap by piggy-backing on Sony Corp.'s popular PlayStation 2 game console, which is plugged into 40 million TV sets worldwide. New software by BroadQ connects a PS2 console to a PC through a digital home network, enabling the box to play MP3 files, digital movies and TV shows stored on the PC.

This approach may not fare any better with consumers than previous attempts to unlock entertainment from the PC, but it's a harbinger of things to come as Sony and Microsoft Corp. tinker with ways to expand their game consoles into digital media centers. It's also a preview of the kinds of products that several large consumer-electronics companies plan to roll out--devices that can ferry all kinds of entertainment around the home through high-speed wireless digital networks.

The goal is a home where music, games and movies travel freely from room to room, letting consumers enjoy them on whatever screen and speakers are nearby. Microsoft, for example, added storage and Internet capability to its Xbox game console with the idea that consumers eventually will want to use it for all sorts of entertainment both inside and out of the home.

Some analysts say BroadQ is jumping the gun. Most consumers aren't interested in such a complicated solution, they say, and the next generation of game machines will be better equipped for the job.

"This is something the average consumer isn't going to do," McNealy said. "This requires a high level of computer sophistication."

The same hurdle has tripped up previous efforts to integrate PCs into home entertainment.

Gateway Inc., Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., among others, have tried in recent years to sell audio-visual gear that piped programming from a computer or the Internet to TV sets and stereos. But these devices worked only in homes with digital networks--typically, the kind that required consumers to run high-capacity wires from room to room.

Only about 6% of U.S. homes have any kind of digital network, according to Parks Associates, a Dallas market research and consulting company. With too many competing technologies and not enough compelling programming, consumer electronics companies have been reluctant to push home networking, said Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks.

Many consumers have come up with a simple alternative to home networks: They record digital music or movies onto CDs or DVDs, then carry the discs from their computers to their living-room stereos and DVD players. In fact, many new disc players come with the ability to play homemade CDs with MP3 files, the most popular form of downloadable music, and many DVD players are adding support for digital video in formats developed by Microsoft and DivXNetworks Inc.

BroadQ's software also requires a home network, but its approach is different from its predecessors' in that it takes advantage of a device that's already sitting in one out of 10 U.S. homes--the PS2. BroadQ's solution requires PS2 owners to buy Sony's broadband adapter and network the PS2 by connecting the box to a hub via Ethernet cable. Users then would pop a disc into their PS2 and another into their PC. The software would let the two machines talk to each other and share movie and music files. In this fashion, the PS2 becomes a conduit to the television or home stereo.

But today's console owners have demonstrated little desire to do anything more with their boxes than play games, much less buy peripherals for their machines and hook them up to a network. Sony, knowing this, plans to ship just 400,000 of the adapters needed to connect the PS2 to the Internet or a home network over the next seven months.

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