Coming Soon to a Home Near You: 3DTVs, 3-D Cable Channels

Well how about that. We knew 3-D would be a big topic of discussion at CES this year, but with new 3-D capable HDTVs and new cable programming slated for release this year, it looks like 3-D could be the topic of the show.

Consumer electronics manufacturers say 3-D is finally ready for prime time, and are making big bets on the technology over the next few years. Top CE companies Sony (s SNE), Panasonic (s PC), LG Electronics and now Vizio will all be showing off 3DTVs at CES, following previous product launches by Mitsubishi, Philips and Sharp. While 3-D display market is still nascent, research firm DisplaySearch forecasts that it will grow from 0.7 million units and $902 million in revenues in 2008 to 196 million units and $22 billion in revenues in 2018.

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TZero Falls Victim to the UWB Curse

[qi:004] Ultra-wideband startup TZero Technologies has shut down, according to a story posted today by EETimes.  The chipmaker, which raised $18 million back in March, joins at least two other defunct UWB startups that had hoped to use the wireless technology to transmit large amounts of data short distances. This leaves UWB startups Alereon, Wisair, Radiospire and the recently funded combination of Staccato Communications and Artimi left fighting over a shrinking opportunity.

UWB  was pitched as ideal for delivering HD video wirelessly, or as a wireless docking station for computer peripherals. But because of false starts and the high cost of UWB chips, it never gained a foothold in the consumer market. Now, established technologies such as Wi-Fi, and new ones such as WirelessHD, have rendered UWB moot. The remaining startups are pitching UWB for mobile phones, but because of cost, space and power consumption reasons, the mobile market is far less forgiving than the PC market when it comes to taking on extra silicon. I’m not holding my breath.

Ultra-wideband Decline Proves Perils of Chip Investment

istock_000006321317xsmallFive years ago, the promise of a new networking technology known as Ultra-wideband was a living room without wires, where DVD players, set-top boxes and video accessories could connect with TVs over the air. Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a wireless personal area networking technology that can transmit large amounts of data for short distances using very little power. Over time, its promise expanded from the living room to the home office, as backers used Ultra-wideband as the basis for Wireless USB and the WiMedia standard.
So far, this dream hasn’t materialized, and the technology has failed to find a mass market. Today, we still have wires in both the office and living room, and a host of competing standards have whittled away UWB’s opportunity. In the last week, we’ve seen players exit the UWB business, and Intel announced that it has halted research on the technology. For venture firms who have invested nearly $400 million in the space, the fate of Ultra-wideband offers a cautionary tale about the perils of betting on semiconductor standards.
On Oct. 31, five-year-old UWB chipmaker WiQuest shut its doors when it was unable to raise more money or find a buyer for its technology. That led to heralds of doom for Ultra-wideband, with analysts and media blaming long-delayed product launches, expensive chips and a hostile regulatory environment. This week, Intel said it had discontinued its UWB efforts, saying the market wasn’t worth its R&D efforts. If the technology somehow manages to revive, Intel says it could buy up one of the six remaining startups in the space.
The plan makes sense for Intel because UWB, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and WiMAX, is a standardized technology. That means any UWB chipmaker will have the basic set of characteristics Intel needs to play in the market. Standards are a double-edged sword for venture investors. On one hand they are good for consumers and electronics makers because they enable multiple devices from different vendors to work together. Any Wi-Fi router should talk to any Wi-Fi chip in a computer, phone or camera. This helps drive consumer adoption and can lead to the creation of a huge market. Venture capital firms love this, because if a standard takes off it can build a company like Broadcom or Atheros that can generate rapid returns in a relatively short amount of time.
The other edge of that sword is that chipmakers who adhere to the standard can do little to differentiate their chips, which makes it easy to switch vendors and effectively commoditizes the product. This happened for the Wi-Fi standard back in 2000-2002, when venture firms put more than $2 billion into more than 40 Wi-Fi companies, only to see a few rise to the top. There is also the risk, inherent in all technologies, that the market won’t adopt it. This seems to be what’s happening for UWB.
Instead of seeing the technology completely die out, Eric Broockman, CEO of UWB chipmaker Alereon, argues that Intel’s retreat from the technology and WiQuest’s failure mean a shakeup similar to that experienced by the Wi-Fi market is happening with UWB. “Typically in this type of semiconductor investing there is a win-place-show mentality,” Broockman says. “One wins big, one gets acquired for a good price, one gets acquired for a not-so-good price, and everyone else goes away. That process in UWB is being accelerated by the current economic downturn.”
There were at least seven UWB chipset companies formed in the 2003 time frame. Now, many appear close to failure. WiQuest, which raised about $54 million, was one. Two others, Artimi and Staccato Communications, are both rumored to be running out of cash. Artimi has raised $31.5 million and couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. Intel Capital invested in Staccato when it was pushing UWB. That could position Staccato to end up being the company in the show category, because Intel might buy it for its intellectual property at a cheap price down the road. 

Fighting for the win and place spots are Alereon, which has raised more than $70 million with a small amount coming earlier this year from SKTelecom; TZero, which raised $18 million in March led by CID Group; and Wisair, which raised $24 million in February led by Susquehanna Growth Equity. Radiospire is another player in the UWB market, but it appears to be shifting gears — or at least hedging its bets — by also making chips for transferring wireless HD video using a different standard.
Competeing standards are one of the reasons UWB is having such a hard time finding a toehold. For desktop personal area networking, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are becoming more prominent — and have the benefit of cheaper chips. In video, UWB has conceded to Wi-Fi and specialized standards such as Wireless HD and WHDI. Those left on the playing field are quick to point out that UWB still has legs — and it might, if it finds the type of killer application that can drive adoption rates and increase chip sales to the point where they cost less to embed. But the shakeup happening here proves that chip investment isn’t for the faint of heart.
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The Myth of Uncompressed Wireless HD

Earlier this week Gefen announced a $700 replacement for an HDMI cord based on ultra-wideband chips from startup TZero. Yes, a $700 replacement for a $43 cable. Did I tell you it was wireless? That it will deliver uncompressed HD content to the TV over 20 meters? Maybe that will make you rush on over to Best Buy, but my guess is that the majority of consumers will hold back, hoping that the price will go down. And that means most of the multiple flavors of wireless HD video transfer are in trouble, as are the companies behind them.

The startups hoping to make their chips the star of the wireless HD revolution have two huge problems to overcome. The first is that there are too many different standards all trying to do the same thing, which could confuse consumers. The second is that the costs associated with buying wireless HD equipment are astronomical, which could alienate consumers. In addition to the pricing example with UWB chips above, televisions containing Amimon chips using the WHDI wireless HD standard so far cost about $875 more than their counterpart TVs without the chips.

There’s not much anyone can do about the multiple standards and hordes of chip firms attacking the market, but the pricing issue could be tackled by giving up on the marketing trope of pushing uncompressed wireless HD. The content arriving in your home via Blu-Ray, the web or your cable box is already compressed making it kind of silly to uncompress it before it reaches the display, where it is normally uncompressed. Transcoding and encoding the HD content just to send it in an uncompressed format adds a higher cost to the chips, as does the processing power needed to handle all those uncompressed bits quickly.

Push the prices down to a more reasonable level and then consumers will undoubtedly fork over a premium for wireless technology. As more do so, the chips become cheaper to produce, lowering costs further. Then all we have to do is figure out if we want UWB, Wi-Fi, WirelessHD or WHDI equipment to enable wireless video.

image of Amimon router and a new Mitsubishi WHDI TV courtesy of Amimon

More Money for Ultra-wideband Startups

I was home yesterday with a sick toddler, so when I noticed the $18 million Series C funding for ultra-wideband chipmaker Tzero Technologies, I was powerless to blog it. Anytime the computer comes out, my daughter wants to hit YouTube for her favorite Teletubbies and Dan Zanes clips, so no WordPress for me.

But it was a development worth noting, even a day later. Tzero’s funding follows on the heels of $24 million for Wisair last week. Although the hefty amounts aren’t a surprise (these are, after all, chip startups), the belief by their investors that UWB is still going to be a large market is. So far, I’m not convinced.

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Too Many Signals: Delivering Wireless HD Video

Like Everest, the goal of wirelessly delivering high-definition video without compression may not be necessary, but it’s there, so technologists have to attempt it. Here are the three biggest wireless technologies aiming to deliver high-def video to your TV.