'05 Radio Trends: Connectivity, Portability

Making devices 'talk' to one another in car is seen as key
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Making devices 'talk' to one another in car is seen as key

Making devices 'talk' to one another in car is seen as key

This year, consumer electronics experts predict, we'll see more receiver manufacturers debut HD Radios and add more capabilities, such as the ability to decode multi-channels. Prices also will start to come down on HD Radios.

The story in the satellite radio product category last year was plug-and-play; this year, expect portables to be hot.

For radio in the car, surround sound is on the horizon.

We're still waiting for the receiver that can also make coffee in the car. In the meantime, consumer electronics experts are working to manufacture car radios that have more capabilities than they do now.

In the big-picture sense for mobile audio, integration and connectivity are the overarching goals for the consumer electronics industry. Experts interviewed by Radio World say they want to integrate all forms of radio - analog, and both terrestrial and satellite digital radio and their attendant text data displays - with entertainment options such as CD players and MP3s, and marry all that to a navigation system and a vehicle diagnostic display - and add telephony capabilities.

The idea is to incorporate all of these functions in the car, many in the dash.

While some of these capabilities are combined in vehicles now, the devices don't always all "see" each other.

'Digital ring' is big

"That's going to be our big campaign this year, looking at developing our standard to get this gateway so people can easily drop things in the 'digital ring,'" said Megan Pollock, the mobile electronics spokeswoman for CEA.

"CEA 2012" is the standard to help connect products. Currently, connections vary depending on manufacturer and product, she said. The idea of the so-called digital ring is to standardize connections so all digital products can connect to the same bus, without regard to product or manufacturer.

"So they can all see each other and realize what's going on in the car. Now, they don't see each other. So, you put your iPod in (the car connection) but you can't control it if some of those controls are in the steering wheel."

Pollock and Jack Morgan, senior director of automotive marketing and sales for Philips North America, said connectivity is a trend as manufacturers have begun to include USB ports on auto radios. BMW has an iPod connection in the glove box in some models, Morgan said, an example of how consumers can listen to their own songs over the car audio system.

A short-range wireless connection example available in some cars is Bluetooth technology. Some handheld PDAs and cell phones have this capability. A user could upload a phone list to a cell phone, take information such as an address and download into a navigation system. Or, he said, another possibility is to use Bluetooth for hands-free phone capability in the car using the audio system, mounting a microphone in the visor area.

Delphi has been delivering a Bluetooth system for Saab's automotive radios in Europe for two years. "It allows you to have an ear bud or headset and allows you to use voice recognition to dial numbers," said Dr. Robert Schumacher, business line executive for wireless for Delphi.

Automotive radio supplier Delphi sees "integrating everything into the radio" as its strategy. For example, a high-end Cadillac radio features AM/FM with a CD changer, a navigation system with a 7-inch color display, voice-recognition control and a diagnostic vehicle system.

"Going forward we'll add HD Radio, satellite radio and Bluetooth," said Schumacher. Delphi plans to show the concept at CES.

WiFi coming to the auto

Taking a longer view, Delphi sees WiFi coming to the car radio as well. Schumacher predicts we'll see consumers downloading music, or movies for rear-seat viewing, then using WiFi to store that material on a hard drive in the car radio - not touching any media.

"Instead of going to a store and buying a plastic disc, you go to a high-speed Internet provider and download directly to your car."

In other words, goodbye CDs.

What trends are we likely to see in radio in the near term?

For satellite radio, expect to see more portables, which the consumer electronics world defines as a device carried by a person or in a docking station in the car, said Pollock and others.

Satellite radio has a 75 percent awareness rate among consumers polled this summer by the Consumer Electronics Association.

In that same poll, CEA notes that the "satellite radio subscription base equals 3 percent of consumers." Owning a satellite radio does not exclude analog AM and FM, said Pollock, because satellite radio is another option on the same headunit.

AM/FM radios are installed in 95 percent of vehicles, according to the trade group.

CEA predicts 6 percent of consumers plan to buy satellite radio within the next year.

Further, of the 39 percent of consumers who indicated they would not purchase satellite radio, most cited subscription fees as a reason, the trade group said.

HD Radio needs more broadcasters

HD Radio is on a slower upswing, experts agreed. When the survey was conducted in July, 58 percent of those polled were aware of HD Radio before participating in the survey. That compares to 73 percent awareness of satellite radio.

The results are not surprising, CEA states, "given the presently limited availability of compatible products and the relatively small number of radio stations broadcasting HD Radio signals." Manufacturers and retailers need to beef up their consumer education efforts and more stations need to convert to support the technology to achieve "critical mass," states CEA.

But consumer interest may be higher for HD Radio. Almost half - 48 percent - of those polled were interested in owning an HD Radio-capable car stereo even if it meant buying new equipment. CEA notes a possible explanation is that HD Radio requires no subscription fee.

But a hardware purchase was a barrier for some 20 percent who said they weren't interested in IBOC at all if they needed to buy a new headunit.

Apart from aftermarket and home IBOC radios available, Boston Acoustics plans to introduce what it says is the first tabletop radio for HD Radio this spring.

"To the user, it will seem as if we adapted the Recepter," said Stephen Shenefield, senior director of product development for Boston Acoustics. However, while the acoustic design remained the same, the radio needed new circuitry, display and remote control, he said.

The Recepter Radio HD will be able to decode multi-channel HD Radio. "We're trying to make it transparent" for the user, Shenefield said. "We're going to come up with a straightforward way of doing it. You won't be able to choose 5,000 options."

Boston Acoustic also recognizes that stations that split their FM digital signal into two or more channels may not always want to program all of those channels, and may sometimes chose to use the full 96-kilobits-per-second FM bandwidth for the digital signal. In that case, if set to a supplemental channel, the Recepter would default back to the main station so the listener won't hear dead air.

Mobile surround is a trend

Surround sound is another trend to watch in the car.

"The prevalence of inexpensive surround systems, including Home Theater in a Box, have put surround systems into a huge number of homes," said Mike Bergman, director of R&D/Digital Broadcast for Kenwood USA. "Many cars have four speakers. You can do surround with four speakers. We're just waiting for content." Some of the recording labels are experimenting with surround content to see if the time is right, he said.

Schumacher agreed auto companies want to see the record companies put out more 5.1 content.

At least a few broadcast stations are doing just that, and four surround technologies are being adapted for the HD Radio transition in the hopes of attracting many more.

Yet, Schumacher notes the audio environment in a home theater is different than a car, where lots of glass and metal can create an environment he calls "an acoustic cavity," making speaker placement for optimum surround sound tricky.

Delphi is talking to the surround sound companies and keeping an eye on developments, he said.

The company has sold more than 3 million satellite radios. Delphi plans to integrate digital tuners to decode HD Radio in future models.

Another prediction: We'll see satellite and HD Radio technology migrating to cell phones and other personal devices. While Ibiquity Digital has long felt its technology could eventually be used in devices that include a radio such as a PDA or a cell phone, XM Satellite Radio President/CEO Hugh Panero now says satellite radio can, too, and recently predicted it could happen within five years.

The technology exists to make that happen, experts said, pointing to the so-called Microsoft theory of "invisible technology" in which you carry your watch, cell phone and key ring everywhere. Experts say that, according to this theory, manufacturers should place their technology in these devices in order to increase market penetration.