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Will the New HDMI 1.4 Standard Simplify Internet-Connected Entertainment in the Living Room, or Just Contribute to the Clutter?

The new High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) 1.4 specification was recently announced and it packs a lot of power and features into this AV standard for connecting multimedia devices to our HDTVs. The question is: will HDMI 4.1 help simplify the “digital octopus” in the living room or add to the clutter? And will it play a major role in the era of Internet-connected TVs or be eclipsed by the various wireless standards that are emerging?

Cutting a Few Tentacles from the “Digital Octopus”

HDMI 1.4 is certainly going in the right direction. It allows AV devices connected to the HDTV to leverage its high-speed bidirectional Ethernet Internet connection, at up to 100Mb/s, to download apps and new bits of content. Instead of each Xbox or set-top box or Roku player needing its own connection to download Internet content, they can share the pass-through capabilities of the big fat HDMI cable and HDTVs that support the new standard (not expected for at least a year). This is a big victory for folks with a growing arsenal of AV devices in their home entertainment centers. The problem is, none of the existing equipment will work with this new standard, which needs to follow the normal development process to be incorporated into new TVs and peripheral AV devices.

HDMI 1.4 devices will have other improvements as well. Connected AV devices like Blu-ray players will no longer need separate cables for audio and video. New HDMI 1.4 cables will even surpass high-def and rival movie theatre quality video, providing resolutions four times sharper than 1080p (which of course won’t matter if your HDTV only supports up to 1080p). And for kickers 3D support is included, just in case this trend takes off when enough people agree to wear funny glasses while watching TV. If you are using HDMI for AV connections in your car, HDMI 1.4's Automotive Connection System includes features to deal with vehicle problems like vibration and noise.

Consumer Confusion Causing them to "Turtle"

The problems I see with HDMI have nothing to do with the new specification, but everything with consumer education, or should I say confusion, and competing wireless standards. First, while the HDMI 1.4 spec is very robust, it will be manifested in a variety of different cables for different AV applications. Added to the existing menagerie of cables will be a new one with 19-pin connector head that is half the size (so that should be a good visual clue as to whether you are holding a new one that will do the job). Also, some cables will continue to be Standard HDMI, while others will be High Speed with Ethernet support. Vehicle HDMI cables will be different too. I assume this is so you only have to pay for what you actually need.

The biggest challenge for HDMI may come from a range of new wireless protocols that may accomplish the same job without any new wires at all. As we have discussed before, 802.11n (WiFi N), BlueTooth 3.0, Ultra-Wideband wireless USB or VGA, Wireless HD, WHDI, not to mention HomePlug power line, are vying to become the transmission standard for the digital home. The challenge for all of these standards will come down to how effectively they deliver HD content on a point-to-multipoint basis, and cost issues which will be directly related to consumer adoption and manufacturing scale. And since consumer adoption is a measure of not only price, but how well understood a new technology is and how comfortable consumers are in opening up their wallets for it, this confusion does not bode well for HDMI 1.4 or any of the wireless standards for that matter.

The last problem I see with HDMI 1.4, and related to above, is the fact that, while sharing an Internet connection via my new HDMI 1.4 enabled TV is a good thing, it still leaves a huge elephant standing in the room— how do you get that Internet connection to the living room in the first place? Besides snaking Ethernet cable throughout the house, the other options include Coax-related solutions such as ZeeVee’s RF modulation device or MoCA and the “no new wires” solutions mentioned above. The question is, if you need to transmit HD video content 100 feet from your Internet router or PC to your living room anyway, wouldn’t it be best to leverage the same technology to also manage the last 10 feet between your HDTV and peripheral AV devices? Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell, but methinks it will take a very powerful consortium of industry players to throw their weight behind a winning horse and do what is required to educate consumers to embrace it.

HDMI Licensing, the HDMI governing body, says the new 1.4 specification should be finalized and ready for industry adoption next month.

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