If It's Good Enough for PlayStation 2 . . .

You might not have noticed that next year is 2004. Cancel that. Of course you know what next year is. What you might not have noticed is the supercomputer recently made from home video games. I am not making this up.
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You might not have noticed that next year is 2004. Cancel that. Of course you know what next year is. What you might not have noticed is the supercomputer recently made from home video games. I am not making this up.

Scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois built it from 70 off-the-shelf, under-$200-each, Sony PlayStation 2 games connected by a Hewlett-Packard network switch. The time-consuming part of the construction, according to Craig Steffen, was having "to cut all these things out of the plastic packaging." Amen to that!

They ain't even using the main game processors -- just the graphics co-processors. Good-looking video-game pix equals high-speed calculations in quantum-chromodynamics simulations.

"That's nice, Mario, but what's your point?"

My point (not counting the one at the top of my head) is that the consumer electronics industry is perfectly capable of building amazing stuff when it wants to. And 2004 is when we'll discover more about just how much it wants to.

That's when, according to Our Beloved Commish, a/k/a the FCC, anyone selling products with NTSC tuners needs to start adding broadcast digital-TV receiving circuits. Next July 1, it's TVs 36 inches and up. In 2005, TVs at 25 inches and up start to fall into the mandatory-DTV category. And, in 2007, it's all TVs 13 inches and up, VCRs, DVD recorders, computer tuners and so on.

The theory (as lawyers are wont to say) is that the mandatory DTV reception will jump-start the DTV transition, which sure as heck has had a dead battery since 1997. Not even one percent of U.S. homes are currently equipped to receive broadcast DTV signals.

That's the theory. Next summer the practice starts.

I'd like to enter a few items in evidence:

1. Less than one percent of U.S. homes are equipped for broadcast DTV. I know I said that already, but the more often I repeat myself, the fewer new words I need to come up with.

2. Each year, manufacturers point to the poor performance of previous U.S. broadcast DTV receivers and say those were an older generation, and the newer ones are much, much better. So far, there's no end in sight for that procession of progress.

3. U.S. set-top broadcast DTV receivers cost more than $400 each. NTSC tuners are piddlingly cheap.

4. 36-inch TVs sometimes sell for less than $600. 25-inch TVs often sell for less than $200. 13-inch TVs sometimes sell for less than $70. VCRs often sell for less than $50.

5. High-end TVs have picture-in-picture, requiring two tuners. Even cheapo TV/VCR combos have dual tuners.

6. Picture-and-sound monitors equipped with tuners cost more to import than the ones without tuners. It ain't just the cost of the set; the import duty is higher if there's a tuner.

7. TVs used with satellite or cable set-top boxes usually don't need tuners.

Methinks I'll stop at lucky 7. And now for something completely different.

AUDIO OPTIONS

The ATSC takes a lot of flak for its DTV standard. That's a little unfair. A whole bunch of engineers sweated long and hard over it, and it's mostly one heck of a document.

For instance, I'm going to zero in on the flexibility of the audio system. Shazzang!

You want to transmit just plain old mono? You go right ahead and transmit just plain old mono.

Stereo? No problemo. Four-channel surround? Send it around. Six-channel surround? Sounds great! Two front channels and two rear, old-time quadraphonic style? Have fun! You can stick just about anything you want into the main, complete mix (CM). And there's more!

Want to transmit one CM in English and another in Spanish? Sure enough! Want to add French, Russian, Tagalog, and Amharic? Why not?

Why not? Here's why not.

Suppose you're multicasting four different programs. Divide the roughly 19 Mbps payload of a U.S. broadcast DTV channel by four, and you've got maybe 4.75 Mbps per program. Call it 4.5 after subtracting some bits for PSIP and stuff like that.

A single mono channel can squeeze into maybe 64 kbps. Six-channel surround runs closer to 0.4 Mbps. So, 4.5 Mbps minus six-channel English is 4.1, minus six-channel Spanish is 3.7, minus six-channel French is 3.3, minus six-channel Russian is 2.9, minus six-channel Tagalog is 2.5, minus six-channel Amharic is just 2.1 Mbps left over for the video. Oops.

The ATSC audio geniuses came up with a solution. In addition to CM, you can also do ME (an up-to-six-channel music-&-effects mix) + D (a mono dialogue track to be added to ME in receivers). With ME+D, each additional language adds just 0.06 Mbps instead of 0.4. Six languages can fit easily into the space of two.

That's only the beginning. That "plus" sign offers a lot more. Want commentary on a sports game? CM+C. Surround-Sound plus audio description for the blind? CM+VI. There are lots of possibilities.

There's just one problem. The plus sign means there have to be two audio-stream decoders in the receiver, one for one side of the plus sign and one for the other.

That ain't a lot of circuitry. You don't need more speakers or power amplifiers or wires or connectors or controls, all of which cost money. All you need is a square millimeter or so of chip surface for the second decoder and mixer-and whatever fee Dolby feels like charging for the license for the second decoder in the same receiver.

You know the teeny addition to the chip ain't going to cost much on account of that PlayStation supercomputer. If Sony can stick a multi-gigaflop graphics processor into something retailing for under $200, the company can sure-as-heck stick a second audio-stream decoder into a broadcast DTV receiver. But it ain't. No manufacturer has.

Why not? On account of they don't have to.

You can get a bright, shiny DTV logo on your product without a second-stream audio decoder. You prevent broadcasters from ever going to big-number multilingual programming, or commentary channels, or, effectively, even Surround-Sound described audio, but you save a penny or two somewhere or other.

CURIOUS BUREAUCRATS WANNA KNOW

What does it all mean? On May 21, W. Kenneth Ferree, chief of the Media Bureau of Our Beloved Commish, sent letters to TV-set manufacturers asking them five questions. I'll paraphrase most of them:

1. What are you doing to promote DTV and educate consumers?

2. How do you plan to meet the DTV-reception schedule that starts next year?

3. 5. What do you plan to do about digital connections?

"But, Mario, what happened to 3 and 4?"

Nothing. I just thought it'd be worth doing those as direct quotes.Manufacturers are to state:

"[3.] Whether you will include an ATSC over-the-air tuner in all digital television sets you produce with an integrated QAM tuner for 'plug and play' cable compatibility and, if not, why not;

"[4.] Your current and planned efforts to provide adequate reception of over-the-air digital signals, including, for current and planned DTV tuners, information regarding average tuner noise figures, performance in such areas as rejection of RF signals on adjacent TV channels, IF-related TV channels and image-related TV channels, and performance in the presence of multipath."

I'd like to believe that, with set makers selling supercomputing graphics processors as just a tiny part of $200 packages (not to mention sub-$50 DVD players), they'll come up with spectacular broadcast-DTV-reception circuits in everything they make, and still keep the cost of a VCR below $50. But then there's that glaring lack of any dual-stream audio decoders.

So an honest manufacturer might answer number 3 by saying, "Sure. We'll stick off-air reception in anything we make that has QAM reception, but we really won't put in any reception of anything so we can save import costs and because most people will use cable or satellite boxes anyhow."

As for question number 4, "You've got to be kidding."