IF THE ATTENDANCE AT AND scale of the annual trade show of the Custom Electronics Designers and Installers Association (CE DIA) were an accurate barometer of consumer interest in the digital home, the industry is poised for remarkable growth. The CEDIA show, which drew more than 26,000 attendees to a packed Indianapolis venue in early September, seemed nearly as daunting as the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which draws more than 100,000 to Las Vegas each year.

Far fewer manufacturers choose to introduce new technology at the CEDIA show than at the Las Vegas show. Still, there were significant product releases at CEDIA this year, most having to do with functionality, ease of installation, and convenience.

ISSUES AND PRACTICES However, the most important developments at the show had little to do with what was displayed on the floor, argues Joel Silver, president and founder of the Imaging Science Foundation, an organization that sets standards and best practices for video quality. Instead, Silver believes the show was dominated by two issues: digital rights management and the continuing convergence between audio/visual and information technology.

PERSONAL CHOICE: Crestron's whole-house Adagio audio system controls up to six sources and ports those sources into six different rooms.

On the first issue, Silver has some advice for builders who offer home theater systems: Install conduit that has plenty of excess capacity. That's a good idea, he explains, because studios and networks that own the content viewed on A/V equipment don't want to allow even the most remote possibility that some enterprising gearhead might connect a computer or a DVD burner to the system to duplicate and distribute copyrighted content. Therefore, they are forcing the industry to adopt new wires and connectors that make connection to these types of devices difficult.

The second issue is the continuing movement into consumer electronics space by Microsoft and Intel. Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) is showing up in more and more control systems and servers. Intel is touting a concept dubbed “VIIV,” of which Silver says, “It's not a chip, per se. It's a platform. Think Centrino.” The technology, which Intel says would permit consumers to access their content anytime, is slated to be unveiled early next year.

Builders should stay wary of the Microsoft and Intel push, however. Many CEDIA members are not enthused about PCs running the digital home, because they're susceptible to the same viruses, worms, and glitches as any other PC using Windows and Intel. Thus, they recommend systems that, if they run on or interface with Windows, keep the operating system embedded to the extent that no outside access to other computers or the Internet is possible.

CONNECTING TO THE IPOD One feature that nearly every vendor on the floor was touting was connectivity with Apple's nearly ubiquitous iPod. While this feature was to be expected from the companies that make whole-house audio systems, there were iPod docks for home theater setups and traditional whole-house control systems on display as well. The ubiquity was especially surprising because most whole-house audio gear is designed to deliver high-quality sound, which the iPod can provide but in most cases does not. Most consumers want to pack as much music as possible onto their iPods, so they use the AAC data format rather than WAV, which is what CDs employ and which requires much more disc space. The result of any compression format is poorer sound quality. An iPod hooked through a high-quality sound system is roughly akin to an early digital camera linked to a high-definition plasma screen—a waste. Builders should be aware, however, that using an iPod to demonstrate a good-quality audio system to consumers is not going to sound as good as playing songs from a central server, computer, or CD player.

GET CONNECTED: At the CEDIA show, Liberty Wire and Cable introduced its EZLINX connections, which require no on-site soldering, and dressed-up wall/switch plates designed to blend into a home.

One of the companies that featured iPod connectivity was Crestron, a provider of home automation systems. The iPod Connect, as the company has dubbed the product, is an element in its Adagio system of whole-house audio components. This system is an off-the-shelf audio distribution setup that requires no programming to recognize and control up to six sources and port those sources into six rooms (per controller). Tuners, amplifiers, and multi-zone functionality are built into the box.

For builders, this should mean an ease of installation not available before in Crestron products, which have required sophisticated on-site programming in the past. Some Crestron equipment uses Windows XP as a platform and interfaces with MCE. “We keep the computer aspect of our systems locked down,” says Jeff Singer, public relations manager. “We don't recommend someone using a home computer to control their A/V, security, lights, and HVAC, but we do understand that there is a trend toward A/V and information technology convergence.” All Crestron equipment must be purchased through a dealer.

More important, the Adagio system incorporates the Crestron Control Processor, which means it can also act as the central brain for a whole-house control system. By adding various control modules, the system can also run lights, shades, home theaters, security systems, and HVAC as well as port music throughout the home. It can be controlled internally from a Crestron wireless touchscreen or wall panel or externally from any PC or PDA.