Domestic freestyling: the home PC revamped

Home computing is on the brink of a revolution. A revolution that will bring to the domestic realm an approach to computing where mobility, flexibility and possibility reign supreme. Microsoft is leading the throng with its promising new technologies, Mira and Freestyle.

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By  Kate Concannon Published  May 1, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|By the end of this year, using a PC will not necessarily mean sitting at a desk. Rather, it will move with the user. This is part of a new digital lifestyle that is designed to make life — and many of the business and pleasure pursuits it entails — genuinely more flexible, genuinely simpler, and palpably easier.

The magic set to make this digital dream come to life lies in two new key technologies announced by Microsoft, combined with the widespread adoption of wireless networking in the home and at work.

From Microsoft come Mira and Freestyle, technology sets that allow the user to project the power of the PC anywhere in the home. And from the IEEE comes the 802.11 wireless network standard, which has been adopted with enthusiasm in both domestic and commercial spheres.

What form the display takes is unimportant: it could be a TV set; a mobile phone; or it could be a purpose-built flat-panel display that is Mira enabled. It could double as your main PC display and allow you to enjoy audio-visual entertainment through DVDs and CDs, browse the web, or access your email from anywhere in the house. Or it could just be a simple application on the fridge door that tracks what everybody is doing in the family today, and perhaps even the state of the larder.

Microsoft wants to make the PC the device that you use for everything that you do; “a device that is fun and entertaining,” described Bill Gates in his keynote address at Consumer Electronics Show held earlier this year in Las Vegas. The home PC should form the centre of a digital lifestyle.

Driving this vision forward is the wireless breakthrough currently unfolding. Home internet connections are improving too, with the uptake of cable modems and digital subscriber line services. According to Gates, “those wide area infrastructures will switch over to facilitate more data and higher bandwidth. But before those infrastructures can support video and audio, the wireless infrastructure in the home will have incredible bandwidth. And that means that distributing the information won’t require going out, running new wires, or carrying media around from one place to another.”

This technology combination will mean that people are going to “expect to deal with their information in a digital form. It totally changes their ability to share it out with other people; share the family photos; organize it in the ways that they care about,” explains Gates.

Users will want to be able to adopt a digital lifestyle through the PC in ways that are probably not yet thought of. To take one example, imagine the digital lifestyle ‘alarm clock’. Today, you might wake each morning to an alarm clock that activates a radio tuned to your favourite station.

That was the 1990s. Now is the era of PC, which is capable of recording the content of the radio station, arranging purchase of content, and capable of building lists of stations and programme content that reflect personal taste. The same functions apply to movies or any other form of digital entertainment, and Microsoft has plans to take its Xbox games machine onto the internet as a first step.

||**||Data: sort, centralise and synchronise|~||~||~|This new digital lifestyle is going to mean lots of new ways of accessing data, which is going to mean lots of new hardware and software to furnish these needs. Gates says, “one of the key elements — and you won’t be surprised hearing this from me — is that software is the key to this. Software defines that communication experience. Software is the key to making sure that you don’t have islands of information”. Sorted, centralised and synchronised data is thus paramount: users need to be able to access the information they want, where and when they want it.

The operating system also needs to understand that a computer might need to cope with multiple personalities. People need different things on their desktop at work to what they require for their home PC. To achieve this ‘oneness’ with the PC, computers will have to be made much easier to use.

“Setting up a new PC is still too hard,” says Gates. “If you want to transfer data from an existing PC onto a new PC, — or simply have them work together and co-ordinate the information between each one of those — you’ll find it is a very complex process. In fact, you have to think it through for files, for email, for favourites lists and so on. For every different thing you have on the machine there’s a different set of commands to move it around, and that’s simply overwhelming.”

But just what constitutes information has changed too. Music and movies delivered in digital format are just information now. However, Gates thinks that people are “pretty satisfied with the way they’re doing things right now. You need a breakthrough to make them want to come and do it a different way. I think that communications will be a very, very big part of that.

“When people work with information, they don’t just want to look at it, they also want to organize it, they want to edit it, they want to share it. And that’s where having that full screen, the power of the PC and the incredible disk capacity that goes with it, really gives the PC a very unique role. We’re taking the PC and using the wireless infrastructure to make it available throughout the home.”

You will not need CDs or even DVDs in little plastic cases. The data for your entertainment will be stored centrally on your PC and then distributed where you want it when you want it.

Just what the hardware will look like is starting to emerge too. Imagine a cable-free monitor that moves with you, bringing PC access and connectivity with it. “Some of those screens will be very rich in terms of the kind of interaction they offer, some will just be simple, passive display devices.

||**||Freestyle and Mira|~||~||~|A refrigerator might have a display with limited touch-screen capability. In the den, however, users might make use of a display with far more sophisticated functionality. This display may feature adequate resolution for reading greater quantities of text, a touch-sensitive screen that allows for note-taking and editing, and which connects back to the PC, thereby providing all the tools that you’ve come to be used to there,” said Gates.

Microsoft is working on two projects to help bring this vision about: Freestyle and Mira. Freestyle is a set of technologies built on Windows XP, and its audio and video capabilities, to create a complete media centre on the PC. It will provide a new interface for music, other audio sources, and for a “new TV experience”.

Freestyle will allow you to search for TV shows with a built-in electronic programming guide, and watch, pause and record live television, much like TiVo offers today, but without the need of a separate box. Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Samsung are working closely with Microsoft to develop the first wave of media server PCs. Once the media server is established, the next step is to distribute the experience around the house. That is where Mira comes in.

The system depends on two MS operating systems: Windows XP, which provides wireless support and Remote Desktop Protocol, and Windows CE.NET, the operating system Microsoft is offering that supports 802.11 wireless networking, accelerated graphics, multiple CPUs and Remote Desktop Protocol client.

“Mira builds on CE.NET’s foundation to support fast, simple device set-up and easy-to-follow wizards, ensuring seamless connectivity to the PC with auto-log-on and auto-reconnect, and enabling multiple input methods.”

Beta 1 versions of the software have been released, and companies including Intel, National Semiconductor, ViewSonic, and Wyse Technology are co-operating to deliver Mira-enabled screens. Mira is scheduled to ship in the second half of 2002, which means the first displays should be widely deployed throughout the market in time for Christmas this year.

The aim behind the technology is to provide a more relaxed style of computing for the home, with all the power of conventional PC computing. A range of input methods — stylus input with handwriting recognition, on-screen keyboard, corded or cordless keyboard and mouse — need to be facilitated, as well as speakers and headphone jacks, to deliver the PC experience — and more.

Actually, all data and applications will sit on a central PC, and then be sent wirelessly to the display, made smart by Mira technology. The display will therefore have the personality that users themselves define on you PC, including My Favourites, My Pictures, folder settings etc. Thus users will be able to browse the web, communicate by email and instant messaging, and use productivity applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and personal financial software.

||**||Future products and devices|~||~||~|Access to existing PC services, like printers, CD and ZIP drives, will also be made possible, just as the onerous task of synchronising and managing data over multiple storage locations will be relieved.

What’s more, according Microsoft, the devices will require little or no maintenance “thanks to an operating system that is tuned to maximum reliability; the absence of a hard drive to manage, minimal local applications to update, and minimal exposure to corruption by viruses.”

ViewSonic has been quick off the mark. It has a Mira enabled product that it says will be available from May this year. The product is called the ViewSonic Airpanel 100 and it uses MS Windows CE.NET as its operating system.

Although product information currently available indicates that the Airpanel is very much geared towards the businessman, it claims to do all the things that Microsoft is advocating for the home: “experience always on, any time mobile connectivity to your business PC; get instant access to email, internet files or corporate data with a tap of a stylus; use optional network cards to connect to 802.11a/b LANs, 2.5G/GPRS WANs or Bluetooth PANs.”

Possibly the most futuristic devices will come from a collaboration between Hitachi, Shimadzu, Colorado MicroDisplay and Xybernaut — of poma (personal optical mobile assistant) fame. The companies intend to work together to develop wearable internet devices, which will give hands-free mobile access to the internet. It projects the equivalent of a 14” display onto the right eye, at an apparent distance of roughly 60cm from the eye.

All of which begs the question: how long before the display is bionically implanted? How long before the Terminator walks among us? And will we all fry with the amount of microwave energy flying about the ether?
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