HDMI: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

New Hi-Def Spec could render existing HDTV monitors obsolete


The announcement in late June of the completion of a draft specification -- version 0.9 -- for the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is another indication that secure interfaces for HDTV are on the way. Backed jointly by Hitachi, Matsushita, Philips, Silicon Image, Sony, Thomson multimedia and Toshiba, HDMI is not simply a supercharged offspring of Digital Visual Interface (DVI) v 1.0 which has its roots in the Digital Display Working Group (DDWG).

DVI almost came out of nowhere last summer. Hollywood found it exceedingly attractive because, among other things, DVI's immense uncompressed data stream is virtually impossible to record using today's technology. The adoption of DVI by various consumer electronics and DBS companies is well underway. With the very dark shadow cast over Hollywood, advertisers and the TV networks by recent products such as PVR's and SonicBlue's Replay 4000, DVI increases its importance in the DTV industry.

DVI coupled to Intel-developed High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is popping up everywhere. Rear projection HDTV monitors from Hitachi with a line of SWX and UWX products, for example, will offer only DVI, for example. Hitachi's XWX-integrated HDTV sets will offer both DVI and IEEE 1394 with DTCP. The new RCA Scenium HDTV sets and HDTV monitors feature both DVI and IEEE 1394 in the form of DTVLink, while Scenium monitors use only DVI.

Pace Micro Technology's 550 HD home gateway features DVI 1.0 and IEEE 1394. Samsung's Tantus lineup includes models that sport DVI as well as HD component video inputs. In addition, cable industry consortium CableLabs Inc. and DBS companies DirecTV and EchoStar's DISH network have embraced DVI.

And the list goes on and on.

However, the uncompressed DVI datastream handles RGB video only, and omits digital audio. With HDMI/HDCP running at 5 Gbps, CE manufacturers could run either RGB or the YCbCr video format to HDTV displays as well as digital audio on a single connector smaller than DVI.

"We expect the transition to secure interfaces such as DVI and HDMI to go pretty quickly," says Thomson multimedia spokesperson David Arland.

This is the one step forward, now for the two steps back.


Prior to 2001, unprotected component analog interfaces were seen as a DTV market enabler, a way to get signals to the display. It was really the only game in town. IEEE 1394 with DTCP barely got its legs going prior to 2001. Out of the three million DTV devices in American homes, there is an enormous amount of legacy equipment, deemed so by the mere presence of DVI, and not by DVI's actual standing or degree of market penetration to date.

"What consumers will and will not see in terms of HDTV content is up to Hollywood. Will legacy set consumers be deprived of content? That is up to Hollywood, too," says Jenny Miller, a CEA spokesperson.

"Incredible consumer backlash is possible," she adds. "Disenfranchisement will simply not occur. Congress will not allow it."

"We are concerned about the promises made to consumers by CE manufacturers and retailers about the wide range of HD programming that would be available to analog HDTV displays that had no protected digital interconnects. Our member companies never made those promises," says Brad Hunt, CTO at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

"You cannot abandon the 300,000 to 400,000 CEDIA clients out there. You cannot burn them with a Beta-like scenario," says Joel Silver, president of the Florida-based Imaging Science Foundation. "I see home theater dealers in particular becoming increasingly concerned for their client base."

Silver describes an unsettling scenario. On Monday night, an HDTV home theater early adopter is watching his HDTV and loving it. On Tuesday night, he is staring at a blank screen or watching a down-res-ed HDTV signal on the same channel, and not loving it. On Wednesday morning, he is calling his lawyer and his Congressman.


Robert Perry, vice president of marketing at Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, is one of the most vocal critics of DVI and HDMI. He paints the migration to these protected digital interfaces as part of a much larger Hollywood agenda aimed at greatly restricting if not eliminating home recording and home networking altogether. Among other things, Perry points to intrusive selectable output control mechanisms with broad remote command capabilities - enabled by DVI and HDMI and reinforced by the new encoding rules in both the HDCP and Pod Host Interface Licensing Agreement (PHILA) - as a way to further exploit pay-per-view and video-on-demand opportunities.

"If there is no way for people with legacy sets to upgrade to digital inputs, they are going to be hopping mad," Perry says. "What the average consumer does not realize is that if things keep going the way they are going, every time you hit the play button, you will automatically hit the pay button as well."

While all TV households have a stake in the outcome here, no consumer has been exposed to any potential financial penalty to date - not yet anyway. Now, this could all change with severe repercussions for everyone involved. The interface issue and the potential rapid migration away from unprotected analog interfaces driven by the relevant licensing agreements in particular, raises the possibility of penalties - huge financial penalties in many instances - on scores of early adopters and eager DTV enthusiasts.

Is the DTV industry prepared to cope with a horde of irate customers who have been transformed from big time backers and endorsers of HDTV into owners of an unexpected and unwanted category of impaired or dysfunctional HDTV systems?

"It is confusing for everybody," says Joel Cohen, vice president of engineering for Hi-Rez Projections Inc., a home theater supplier based in Framingham, Mass. "What is compounding the confusion is that most of the big consumer electronics companies today have developed enormous entertainment or software revenue streams which they are more inclined to protect."

One step forward, two steps back? How about three steps back? Consider what one large CE retailer in California told TV Technology as he put a very different spin on what is actually unfolding.

"There are few if any products with the new DVI digital interface available today. All the previous DTV products are not compatible, and the consumer out there today buying lower cost DTV products is being misinformed," the retailer said. "He is purchasing hardware, and doing so completely unaware that it may be a deadend.

"My recommendation to FCC chairman Powell is that he ought to go up on Capitol Hill and call for what I would label as an HD depletion allowance. That would allow all the owners of obsolete DTV sets to throw them out, and take a $5000 write off," he adds.