Wireless multi-room audio is radically increasing in popularity, but with it comes a problem for manufacturers – how to quickly develop a solution in a fast-moving market that requires expertise in areas far removed from traditional audio products.
And then there's the issue of solving the inherent problem with Wi-Fi-dependent multi-room audio; how do you get multiple speakers in sync?
Onkyo has just been announced as UK-based Imagination Technology's first partner for its licensable Caskeid (pronounced 'Cascade') multi-room tech.
Onkyo will use the technology in as-yet unannounced products. And it won't be alone; Imagination promises more partner announcements in due course – the technology is designed to be robust with multiple nodes and deliver high quality audio to each.
The fundamental idea is that Caskeid is robust enough to replace wires. Imagination subsidiary Pure has already used the technology in its Jongo multiroom speaker system.
One of the keys to the technology is that it's interoperable, so Caskeid enabled speakers will be compatible with each other.
The potential market for wireless audio gear is huge, with 57% of consumers already listening to music on their phones. Analyst Futuresource suggests that wireless speakers and speaker bars will account for 80% of home audio shipments by 2017 – a market of 97 million total units.
Caskeid delivers content to speakers using a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but because of the varied networks in people's homes, one of the big challenges is trying to get the audio synchronized. Imagination is promising synchronization accuracy of less than 25µS for Caskeid devices, whatever the manufacturer of the system or type of Wi-Fi network.
Imagination says that while competitor products require proprietary technologies or software timing methods to achieve synchronization, Caskeid uses the Wi-Fi's own timing signals, thereby preventing the latency of the Wi-Fi itself from being a problem.
In a multi-speaker network, there is always one device that is master, acting as both the media server and renderer, which is responsible for both acquiring and 'broadcasting' the stream to the other nodes.
According to a whitepaper on the technology, Caskeid compensates for network latency by calculating a future timestamp that incorporates sufficient delay to allow the audio stream time to arrive at the client devices. The client devices then buffer the audio and "use the timestamp broadcast from the access point as the regulation mechanism to deliver microsecond accuracy of synchronization across all devices."
Music can either be stored locally or sourced from the cloud. Everything is controlled from your mobile device, also connected to the same network.
Licensing the tech
Imagination is a long-term licenser of technologies, and Tony King-Smith, VP of marketing at Imagination, explained to TechRadar why Caskeid is a perfect fit in terms of the other tech the company owns.
"Everything we do is all about intellectual property (IP). That's where the value of the company comes from. And it basically means we design stuff - we don't usually make it, we get as many people as possible to make it.
Imagination is behind the PowerVR graphics found in a huge number of mobile devices (making it the world's biggest supplier of video encode/decode technologies) and has just announced a renewed agreement with Apple to use its technologies in the iPhone and iPad.
"We've also acquired [CPU architecture] MIPS," explains King-Smith proudly. Imagination bought MIPS Technologies a year ago. "It's one of the world's top CPU architectures, so two out of the top three are owned by British companies [also ARM] and most of the world's software is running on British owned CPUs.
"MIPS is very exciting for us. It's the original granddaddy of RISC CPUs. We're creating a tremendous dynamic in terms of what we can do there. And then there's Ensigma, which is our communications technology.
"Ensigma was powering all our DAB – that's why Pure moved to DAB. We broke that [market] with Pure, because we could bring it before the market numbers supported the price, because we wanted to legitimize it. It's strategic for us.
"As a result we have more like 80% of the global market for DAB. It does all Wi-Fi up to 802.11ac, it does TV and radio and it does more than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth [more than 30 standards].
"People are saying we'll get squashed like a fly because there are people like Atheros and Marvell and TI. But we know we will be successful because the industry can't stop moving toward one chip that does everything because it's cheaper.
"So Caskeid is an example of taking some of these technologies and creating solutions that do useful things. We have a long history in audio and we have put a lot of investment into our Wi-Fi technologies, so we understand how everything works down to the last bit and nanobolt.
"We're creating it in a way that consumers can relate to it. We can then take that back to our licensees and say you can put this in and you'll have a differentiated product. So Caskeid is a great technology, but beyond that it's a whole new way for a tech company to go to market."
Backed by services
Caskeid is also backed by FlowCloud, which is essentially the tech that connects Caskeid devices to the internet.
The benefits for licensees are easy product registration and regular updates as well as access to services such as the FlowAudio cloud-based music and radio service, which includes hundreds of thousands of radio stations, on-demand programmes, podcasts and more. Unsurprisingly, it's the technology behind the Pure Connect service.
"You look at most people who have a music purchase or streaming service and it's something closed, it's something proprietary," explains David Harold, senior director of marketing at Imagination.
"Flow is also a licensable technology. 7Digital are a warehousing partner in this. There are various other partners involved. We've created Flow as a way of implementing content provision into music products, but also security or healthcare or anything else you want to live in the cloud."
King-Smith thinks Imagination is in a unique position to make the most of Caskeid because of its reach across all the involved technologies. It not only writes software to get the audio between points and decode it, it also designs the Wi-Fi and the processor.
"It's all about scale – we license to semiconductor guys and OEMs who will buy chips from one of our partners. Because of this we go across many different markets – we're also strong in automotive and obviously strong in mobile. We can take this technology beyond where Sonos can take it, for example."
"Because our job is foreseeing technology five to ten years from now, we know it will scale. If every man and his dog wants to license Caskeid, they can. There are very few people that can actually license technology [like this] because licensing technology is hard.
"Time and time again you see major manufacturers come out with great technologies, saying 'I realize a proprietary standard isn't good so I'll make it available to the rest of the industry. But do you really want to go to your competitor, even if they're offering it free, to work with them?
"Because we're a licensing company, we're neutral. It's another aspect that makes Caskeid quite unique. Our ability to make it a standard is much greater."