VON Visions: XBox Live ... and more
X-Box live is a vibrant part of the VoIP world.01-Mar-2005

Even simple audio applications could be revolutionized if today’s
hardware and software products were not focused on particular
application scenarios but instead acted as building blocks.

About a year ago I got my son Microsoft's Xbox Live. He tried it but it sat around unused. I was disappointed since it seemed like such a great idea. About a month ago I found some very good prices on LCD TVs so I got one for his room. It wasn't long before he rediscovered Xbox Live and I could hear him talking to his buddies as they plotted against others or just chatted on the side.

As a parent I'm concerned about the immersive aspects of this world but at least it's a social world with kids interacting with other kids scattered around the world. They don't see each other's faces, just the common playing field. They are on an adventure together.

We could think of Xbox Live as just a conference call and, technically, it is, though instead of dialing a number one joins in and finds those on one's friends list. What's different are the social aspects- it's more like going to the game arcade to meet your friends or, perhaps, the Bull and Finch (OK, Cheers for the TV crowd) for a drink.

Xbox Live is one example of how to make use of audio without being tied to "telephone thinking" or what I've called faux telephony.

Skype is another interesting case study. It's acts more like a telephone but is not beholden to the PSTN heritage. You reach people by name rather than a number. If they're available on several computers at once, then it simply connects to them all. Skype now supports outbound connections to the PSTN but that's not the primary focus.

Another example of casual audio is Microsoft's Remote Terminal Connection which remotes the audio stream. One can reconnect audio streams within a computer so it's not a big leap to extending this over an external network. Even within a single PC we can have multiple applications using audio streams for different purposes. I can have a conversation using my headset while watching a movie on the screen. It's not different than being on the phone while watching television. Of course if the TV is too loud it's a problem but we can turn the volume down and multitask.

A conversation does require low latency but over a megabit connection a few kilobits of audio is not a big problem. Early audio applications on the PC didn't perform well because the driver implementations were done without paying attention to latency. It was an implementation issue and not a fundamental problem. Unfortunately such problems and the performance limitations of slow, dial-up connections, gave people the impression that it was very hard to handle audio streams. Overcoming problems of slow, high latency networks was indeed difficult. Vonage's insight was to recognize that high speed connections were sufficiently available to allow them to take a JDDT (Just Don't Do That) approach to the problematic networks.

We should simple expect audio streams to "just work". When they don't we should treat it as a bug rather than a limitation.

Network based music players are becoming common. These products typically use a wireless connection because it's simpler to sell products that don't need installation. In fact, remote video is also becoming common. My DVD player can play video streams over an 802.11b network using an old, 16-bit network card.

Such products aren't special - they should be the norm.

When I see audio equipment with lots of wires and connectors, I'm puzzled. Now that we have gigabit networks, why not just run the streams over a common network instead of using complex analog wiring? Not only is it simpler, but analog signals get distorted while a digital signal can be regenerated. We can time stamp the packets if we need precise timing. We can also take that same stream anywhere on the Internet, albeit at "only" megabit rather than gigabit speeds, but that's not bad.

The problem is that today's hardware and software products are focused on particular application scenarios rather than acting as building blocks, and the software tools for reconnect streams are not generally available.

Now that we've discovered that telephony is just another network application we need to broaden our thinking and start experimenting. Experimenting is easiest when we have the appropriate building blocks but most tools are too smart and build in applications like telephony or listening to music.

These are fine applications but they should be whetting our appetites. We should appreciate them and then learn to want more.