Blackbird is About to Sing

It's hard enough to transform one facet of the consumer-electronics industry, let alone three or four. But if Motorola's recent gamble with their new set-top box technology (code-named "Blackbird") pays off, they could accomplish just that.

Working with VM Labs and their ProjectX Media Processor, Motorola has put together a complete package that could replace your video-game console, Internet computer or WebTV, cable/satellite box, and DVD player. According to Motorola, Blackbird is the first open platform to support interactive 3-D graphics, Java, MPEG digital video, high-fidelity audio, Internet access, electronic commerce, and broadband networking in a single integrated unit. And that's just the start.

Motorola describes Blackbird as an extensible, open architecture that allows quick and easy upgrading and fast connections to other devices in a digital home network. In addition, it includes networking support for ATM and IP protocols and for bridging between broadband networks and the attached IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and Ethernet ports. Blackbird is capable of downloading new protocols, APIs, and applications on the fly to provide exceptional adaptability.

Also worth noting: Microsoft has nothing to do with the project. "Microsoft does not want hundreds of companies developing proprietary services that don't need Microsoft software," says Motorola's Jim Reinhart. "But they're at least a year behind, if not more. For example, Windows CE theoretically will have all the capabilities to do what we're doing, but they don't exist yet."

Powered by a programmable CPU with associated communications and multimedia engines, the Blackbird platform is able to quickly change its role from one function to another in order to suit the consumer's immediate needs or adapt to new requirements. According to Reinhart, "This is an important milestone in the industry's transition from its legacy of islands of unconnected appliances to its future of seamless, friendly, and powerful interconnectivity. Not only will we provide users with an extraordinary interactive experience, we will also establish the hub for tomorrow's in-home networks. This enabling technology should prove exciting to anyone involved in the design or development of multimedia applications."

The use of VM Labs' ProjectX Media Architecture gives Blackbird interactive-gaming capabilities that Motorola claims exceed today's dedicated game machines. At the same time, it provides a unified content base that will extend from entry-level consumer systems to high-end theater products. With an insertable security module, Blackbird is also capable of supporting the emerging North American and international standards for point-of-deployment security.

Motorola says it already has commitments for a million units and will begin commercial introductions in early 1999. The first applications will likely be seen in hotels offering movies on demand, Internet browsing, and other applications. Home versions are planned to retail between $300 and $700.