Linux Opens Up Your TV

by Rick Lehrbaum

Indrema's web site (http://www.indrema.com/) proclaims, “The future of Linux is on your TV.” Reading on, I was soon informed that the Indrema entertainment system would be a “revolutionary product built on a revolutionary operating system, Linux”. An easy-to-use entertainment appliance: “Just turn it on, and sit back on your couch.”

Not a PC, mind you. “This is no desktop Linux system,” continued the website pitch, “this is Linux for TV, for game addicts, for total entertainment. Out of the box, you can hook it up and begin playing unbelievably realistic 3-D games, browsing the Net at high speed, or just enjoying personal TV or MP3 favorites.”

“This is not your normal consumer electronics company,” I thought. Indrema clearly seemed to have wrapped itself around Linux—in a big way. Questions like “Who are these guys?”, “What are they up to?” and “What's their angle with respect to open source?” were coursing through my brain cells.

Desiring answers to these and many other questions, I quickly phoned up Indrema's CEO, John Gildred to request an opportunity to chat. A week later, Gildred and I spent an intense hour exploring his new start-up's dreams, strategies, product ideas and open-source philosophy. Here's what I learned.

Who is Indrema?

“It was sort of a brainchild that my partners and I had, while playing Quake late at night,” said Gildred, looking back at the genesis of his year-and-a-half-old start-up. “We were thinking: wouldn't it be great if somebody created an open-source game platform so that a guy like John Cormack (of Quake fame), or the next great developer of a new gaming paradigm, could get it to market a lot quicker and could get into the [game] 'console space' a lot easier?”

Gildred and the other Indrema founders observed that there were lots of innovations taking place for PC-based games, but not much for consumer game consoles, due to high barriers to entry for individual developers, which kept them from breaking into the console market. So, they resolved to create a new game console. One designed from the ground up, to provide a game development environment and infrastructure capable of enabling any level of developer—from an individual to a large corporation—to bring products to market easily, and without huge barriers to entry. And they decided that the keys to accomplishing this mission would be open-source software, open APIs and the Linux operating system.

The concept quickly gathered momentum. Developer interest was high. Best of all, the required technologies appeared to be available.

What Will Indrema's Product Be?

The Indrema Entertainment System (IES) is packaged in a sleek enclosure with the look and feel of a top-of-the-line VCR.

The Indrema Entertainment System

“You don't know that it has Linux in it,” said Gildred. “You turn it on, and it runs like a consumer electronics device. You can watch TV as you normally would. But you can also pull up a screen and start playing your MP3s. Or start the web browser and begin browsing on the Internet.”

The device offers a choice of broadband access, via its built-in 10/100-megabit Ethernet interface, or a dial-up connection. It comes with a game controller and will have at least one pre-loaded game so the user can begin playing right away. There are two ways to add games: by using the built-in DVD drive, or by downloading games purchased on-line.

“Isn't it, basically, a multifunction set-top box?” I naïvely asked.

“Set-top box,” replied Gildred, “is a term that we run away from!” Gildred went on to explain that Indrema is determined to avoid having the IES positioned as a set-top box. “First and foremost, it's a game console,” emphasized Gildred. “What the IES does best is play games. It plays games very well, is extremely fast, and offers an open development environment.”

Nonetheless, that's not all the IES will do. After all, it's a fully functional multimedia Linux computer. “You will see applications that are designed for an IES platform that go beyond gaming,” added Gildred, “because it has a lot under the hood that allows additional audio/video capability.”

Some likely possibilities, mentioned by Gildred, include providing enhanced HDTV capabilities and downloading and playing music, video, and TV from content partner sites. Oh yes, and “Personal TV”. Users will be able to download and play specific TV programs on demand. Not all IES capabilities will be available with the entry-level game console system. Personal TV, for example, will be reserved as a high-end (extra-cost) option.

What's in the Box?

Let's take a look at what's inside that sleek Indrema box. The core computer consists of a 600MHz x86-compatible processor combined with a dedicated, and relatively customized, graphics pipeline. The graphics subsystem includes MP3 and AC3 encoder/decoders, digital-to-analog converters, and a specialized graphics processing unit (GPU) made by NVIDIA.

Memory is fixed at 64MB, but the hard drive can vary from 8 to 50GB depending on the console model. Of course, there's a 100MBps Ethernet port for fast Internet connection, plus a slew of USB ports (4, in the baseline model) making game controllers—and other devices—a snap to connect.

TV outputs will drive standard composite video, S-Video and component HDTV. Inputs for composite video and S-Video are also provided. On the sound side, there are stereo analog audio outputs and inputs, plus a digital audio output port.

What CPU will Indrema use in the IES? That hasn't been finalized yet, as far as the production models are concerned. Gildred says it's going to be an as-yet-unannounced next generation Intel or AMD processor—“something new, very fast, and really catered to what we're trying to do.”

The system's internal electronic circuitry is modular in just one respect: there is a slot (on the rear of the unit) for a user-replaceable “GPU card” that houses the NVIDIA GPU and associated video frame-buffer memory. Corresponding to this modularity, Indrema has abstracted the GPU functionality in a software driver, so that the system can adapt to future plug-in GPU upgrades.

The four USB ports provide the main means for hardware expansion. Since the IES represents a fully functional multi-media, Internet-connected Linux computer, it's no surprise that Gildred expects those ports to accommodate a wide assortment of interfaces—beyond just game controllers. High-end models will offer even more USB ports on their rear panels.

What Makes It Tick?

What makes the IES tick is, of course, its software. Basically, there are three layers of software involved:

  • an open-source Linux-based operating system, called “DV Linux”

  • proprietary software components that are unique to the IES platform hardware (these are distributed in binary form only, and not open-source)

  • various application programs and games

A free software development kit (SDK) will be distributed on-line at the Indrema developer web site. That SDK will include OpenGL, OpenAL, OpenStream and Extrema. The first three are open source while Extrema, which is one of Indrema's proprietary software components, will be offered in binary form only.

Why Open Source? Why Linux?

Despite the fact that Indrema intends to keep certain software modules proprietary, the company is plainly a strong advocate of open-source software. Indrema participates in several open-source projects—including the Linux kernel, OpenAL and Mesa 3-D (the open-source implementation of OpenGL). In addition, the company is pioneering a new open-source streaming video architecture called OpenStream.

One of the most important Indrema projects has been to create DV Linux, an open-source Linux distribution targeted at devices using TVs for display. “We want DV Linux to be the standard, and we want people to realize that DV Linux is truly open source,” explained Gildred. “That allows us to standardize on a game platform so we can get a distribution [pipeline] going for all the game developers. We're taking steps to be sure that this is something that is supported by several players, not just Indrema. DV Linux is a tool that enables the IES platform, including our development environment, to be very open.”

Production Plans

Although earlier announcements indicated a target delivery date of the 2000 end-of-year holiday season, the current plan is to begin shipment next spring. The target retail price for the entry-level IES is rumored to be $299. Developers won't have to wait as long. Indrema expects the free game development SDK to be available for download by game developers this fall.

Rick Lehrbaum (rick@linuxdevices.com) created the LinuxDevices.com “embedded Linux portal”, which recently became part of the ZDNet Linux Resource Center. Rick has worked in the field of embedded systems since 1979. He cofounded Ampro Computers, founded the PC/104 Consortium and was instrumental in launching the Embedded Linux Consortium.
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