Is HDMI Enough to Unite Our Entertainment?
You’re probably familiar with the term HDMI (it stands for High-Definition Media Interface). Or, at the very least, you know there are half a dozen black HDMI cables tangled up behind your TV. Our home TV entertainment system basically wouldn’t function without HDMI. We depend on it to carry our favorite shows and movies from our many media devices to our sound system and TV.
While we think HDMI is amazing in many ways, its ability to deliver a seamless entertainment experience is not one of them. In our view, it shouldn’t matter which devices we’re using to watch TV. Everything should work together and we should be able to search across it all.
In a perfect world, the entertainment experience would be like using the internet. Regardless of which type or brand of device we choose (mobile phone, tablet, laptop), we’re able to experience the entire internet seamlessly and search it all. It just works.
News flash: Our current TV reality? It's far from seamless.
Device makers are attempting to address these shortfalls by creating a single-device solution (aka “God box”) that can do it all. While we wish them the best of luck, we believe the need for multiple media devices is likely to remain – and that it should. It gives us more choice and the flexibility to create a customized entertainment experience.
Instead of one God box, we think our devices should simply be united. But making entertainment as seamless as our internet experience? That’s going to require some big ch-ch-changes. Perhaps HDMI alone will get us there. Or maybe we’re ready for a different solution entirely. In the meantime, Caavo can be the glue that holds it all together.
When we watch TV, video content comes to us in three different ways: cloud, broadcast or physical media. Regardless of format, the video is always compressed. However, in order to move from a device (e.g. Apple TV) to our TV screen, it must be uncompressed. The most often cited reason for this is there isn’t one broadly accepted standard for compression. Uncompressing the data avoids potential conflicts. Is it just us or was this an episode of Silicon Valley?
A less common, and often-ignored, reason video must be decompressed is the user interface (UI) of our devices. All the video devices in our living room – our Roku, Xfinity box, and Xbox, for instance – put out video to our TV in addition to a very active and dynamic UI to control the device and the video.
The video must be uncompressed into a high-bandwidth signal before the UI can be added to it (just trust us on this one). Once the video is uncompressed and blended with the UI, things go downhill fast.
Re-compressing the UI blended video would cause big-time loss of quality and end-to-end delays (latency), as well as requiring lots of computing power. Not good. Instead the video stays in its bloated, uncompressed form. As a result, we have a very high bandwidth video signal requiring very low latency to be shipped around.
Enter HDMI. The standard has been very successful in defining a high-bandwidth, low-latency standard for a physical cable to carry video over short (6ft), and sometimes long (100ft), distances between devices. Gold star for you HDMI.
In a lot of ways, though, the HDMI standard is kind of a trainwreck.
Especially when we consider the modern home entertainment system, complete with TV, cable or satellite box, streaming devices, gaming console, sound system, etc, etc.
HDMI Problem 1: No Final Destination
HDMI is defined as a point-to-point connection. TV to Xfinity. Sound Bar to Roku. You get the picture. There is absolutely no routing capability. Carrying video from Xfinity to soundbar to TV? No can do.
There is no way for a source (e.g. Xfinity) to specify a final destination for the video it is sending to a receiver (e.g. TV). If the source isn’t directly connected to the receiver the video won’t arrive. The concept of a destination address isn’t even a thing with HDMI. The source puts out the video and the receiver receives it. Game over.
Let’s not forget that HDMI was introduced much later than many of our favorite protocols like Internet Protocol (IP), Ethernet, and WiFi. Those all have the ability to route any signal from one point to another, even if that point is across the world, or across multiple devices. So it’s real backwards that HDMI didn’t adopt the same principles to make it more ‘network’ friendly. Dear HDMI people, whyyyyyy?
HDMI Problem 2: Not a Team PlayerHDMI also doesn’t allow devices connected within a system to work together. Functions like device identification, device discovery, device control? No, no, and no.
Sure, there are a few basic options: InfoFrames, EDID, and CEC:
- InfoFrames tell the receiver various video and audio capabilities of the transmitter, such as source type, content type and aspect ratio;
- EDID is information a monitor provides to a video source describing its capabilities so the video source can send a video signal that is supported by the monitor;
- CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) was designed to allow users to use one remote to control devices connected using HDMI.
All the options available today are extremely limiting, and basically comparable to communicating with Morse code instead of using the internet. No offense, Mr. Morse.
None do what is required to control a device and move video around from one endpoint from anywhere other than where that one physical HDMI cable takes it. We want to connect multiple devices to our TV and search across them all, but these limitations mean they can’t all work together without some other device intervening (Caavo, anyone?).
What about CEC?
CEC sounds promising, right? Here’s the thing about CEC: It’s broken.
It requires every single device in the chain to be physically wired together with a single wire. Plus, every device implements the protocol slightly differently, which means signals aren’t sent at exactly the same speeds. CEC offers very little timing control of the various signals going between devices. Signals fire without coordination. Mayhem ensues.
There’s also a major data rate problem. We once tried putting a snail on the CEC wire, and it actually arrived before the data did. Only kidding. #nerdhumor. But that’s basically what happens. Plus, the standard can only support up to three devices in any particular category, which can quickly cause problems for more complex systems.
Is HDMI the Future?
With the current CEC standard, device makers can make CEC work only within their own ecosystem of devices. This simply won’t work in our modern living room (Apple TV, meet Alexa).
If CEC is going to solve our living room problem, it needs a major makeover – from its ‘single hardware line’ architecture to its high-level specification. Technologically it should be easy to fix and could ultimately create a seamless experience for our media devices.
Politically, not-so-easy. These changes will require device makers to all work together. Groups have tried. Groups have failed. Exhibit A, see Universal Plug and Play (UPNP). Exhibit B, see Digital Living Network Alliance (DNLA).
The trick will be establishing the proper architecture and creating an ability for device makers to protect their vantages. If this doesn’t happen, it seems unlikely devices will ever be able to work together seamlessly.
The Caavo ConnectionUntil either future becomes reality, Caavo is the glue that can connect all our devices so they can work seamlessly together. Instead of relying on HDMI alone, Caavo processes the video that’s sent over HDMI and combines with machine vision for seamless control.
It may not be an HDMI-only solution, but at last our entertainment experience is unified into one experience and one remote. All our content in one place and we can switch seamlessly between everything.