Goodbye Component Video?

High definition television has been slow to gain traction in consumer markets, partly due to ongoing struggles between the content providers and equipment manufacturers. Movie studios wish to restrict the consumer's use of an HDTV signal while manufacturers recognize that consumers will be slow to embrace any technology that becomes too cumbersome or restrictive to implement.

In an effort to find a way to ease the movie studio's fears, it was announced last week that Hitachi, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), Philips, Silicon Image, Sony, Thomson, and Toshiba have formed a working group to define the "next-generation" digital interface specification for consumer electronics products. The group is calling the new specification the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) and says it combines high definition video and multi-channel audio in one digital interface. "This interface builds on the success of DVI, offering new features while maintaining full backward compatibility." Also supporting the group are several movie studios, DirecTV, and Echostar.

The group says it hopes the HDMI specification, if adopted, will be implemented in future designs for digital televisions, DVD players, set-top boxes, and other digital A/V products. No mention has been made of how HDMI will or can be integrated with the several million HDTV products already in use that sport only analog video connections.

Although it restricts consumers' use of high-def video signals, the group notes that HDMI does offer consumers advantages over existing analog A/V interfaces: "Its uncompressed digital format transports high definition video and multi-channel audio without processing or degrading them. By combining audio with video on one cable, HDMI offers a convenient connection alternative to the maze of existing analog A/V cables."

The group adds that the new format uses a small connector, which it claims is suitable for portable products like digital camcorders. "HDMI also ensures compatibility between products. Capitalizing on the interoperability standards created in CEA (EIA/CEA-861x), HDMI assures that the best video format is always sent from source to display. In addition, HDMI will support many capabilities of the interoperability protocol, popular in Europe."

To date, motion picture studios, as well as satellite and cable companies, have supported the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) use restriction protocol developed in part by Intel. The working group says that HDCP will be combined with the key underlying technology already developed for the Digital Visual Interface (DVI) as the basis for the new HDMI specification.

Fox Group's Andrew G. Setos explains the movie studio's point of view: "It is basic market dynamics that as mechanisms are introduced which will protect digital content, consumers will find their choices of content ever increasing. HDMI with HDCP is just such a mechanism, providing designers with a cost-effective, protected digital solution to replace legacy component analog connections."