What’s the next big trend in home systems, the wave that will follow home theater and whole-home audio?

You may already know the answer, since it’s something you see every day: video. And more precisely, multi-room video systems.

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Just to be clear, multi-room video means a lot more than having cable or satellite TV in a few rooms around the house. The true multi-room system allows a viewer in any room to access any video source in the home – cable and satellite TV, streaming channels, DVRs, PCs, media servers, disc players, personal players, door and security cameras – and play a chosen program in any one room or multiple rooms. It lets different viewers in separate rooms watch different selections simultaneously. It integrates with the home’s audio and theater systems. And, technical complexity notwithstanding, a well designed and properly installed multi-room system is as easy to use as a microwave.

While it has taken Americans more than a decade to really catch on to multi-room audio, most industry insiders think multi-room video will catch on far more quickly, driven by some megatrends – namely HDTV, digital convergence, and flat-panel displays – and by more subtle market forces, including decreasing costs, growing consumer awareness, and changing lifestyle trends.

Video’s 21st Century Resurgence

We all watch television, but the combination of flat screens and HDTV has re-ignited Americans passion for TV and all forms of video. Although we’re still ramping up for the transition to all digital TV (analog broadcasting will continue until 2009), the typical American household already has more video screens than occupants. Meanwhile, flat-panel TVs – plasma, LCD, even the new breed of ultra-slim DLPs – are flying off the shelves at a faster rate with every passing month.

The convenience of these trim monitors, with their brilliant, vivid pictures, has made it easy (and visually satisfying) to integrate video screens in just about any location, and it is leading many people to install TVs throughout their homes, often with more than one screen per room.

(One of the more impressive applications is the video screen embedded in a mirror: when the monitor’s off, all you see is a mirror, with no hint of TV screen. And when it’s on, a beautiful, clear picture appears in one section of the glass, while still giving someone ample area to primp.)

As TVs and monitors proliferate around the house, people want choice in what they can watch, and, as we’ve seen clearly with audio, they will want access to all their content –the show airing on network TV, a DVD, or a download on their PC – regardless of where they are in house. The way they’ll get it is with multi-room video.

As video continues to integrate into interior design, people will increasingly use video for both decoration and entertainment: the monitor used for home theater one minute works as a digital picture frame once the movie’s over. Multi-room video systems make this scenario possible, too.

The proliferation of video screens is really only half the equation in understanding the coming boom in video systems. The other half, alluded to already, is the proliferation of video sources: network TV, the Internet, DVDs, computers, and videocams are already places people have or keep content they want to watch on TV. Having all these sources connected to a multi-room system will make it easy to find and watch favorite selections.

Without doubt, some people will want multi-room video for its impressive and indisputable ‘wow’ factor (“Have you seen Bob’s den recently? It’s like Sports Center in there…”), but most people will want it for the choice and convenience it gives them in enjoying video entertainment. Why shouldn’t you be able to watch the shows you Tivo’d downstairs on the TV in your bedroom? Or in the family room? Or both? What about the video of your daughter’s college softball game that you download to your PC? Why shouldn’t you be able watch it in the kitchen while making dinner?

Multi-room video is hardly a new concept, but until recently the cost and complexity of a system made it impractical for most homes. And many systems still sold today were developed prior to the introduction of digital TV and simply aren’t capable of conveying the rich content of current digital formats.

Recent developments, particularly the ability to distribute high-definition video over conventional computer network cable (CAT5e), and the emergence of Internet Protocol (IP) as standard for distributed entertainment systems, are making it less expensive and simpler to install systems in both new and existing homes. The use of IP technology also makes system maintenance easier and less costly, since technicians can perform many diagnostic and remedial processes via Internet, without a service call.

Other factors will serve to increase consumer awareness and interest in distributed video systems, not the least of which will be the manufacturers and installers of the systems ratcheting up their market efforts to reach key segments in the residential housing market: builders, architects, interior designers, and of course, consumers.

We’re still in the early stages of this video trend, but rest assured that it’s well on its way. And stay tuned: the technology and products coming down the pike are going to be as fascinating at the content they carry.