Roku, the developer of robust smart streaming media adapters and smart TV operating systems, is about to make the set-up and use of home theater audio products as simple and effective as its Roku TVs.

The company announced Wednesday the Roku Whole Home Entertainment Network licensing program which was designed, in part, to help original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partners develop wireless home theater audio systems that easily link with Roku Smart TVs and others for an optimized, immersive experience.

Mark Ely, Roku product management VP for players and whole home, said that by optimizing the simplicity of connectivity, set-up and use of both smart TVs and home audio systems, the company hopes to expand the appeal of the Roku TV platform.

At the same time Roku said that its licensing partner TCL will announce at CES 2018 its plans to offer the first device under the new program.

Additionally, recently added Roku TV partner Funai will extend its Roku TV licensing agreement to include Magnavox branded Roku TV lines in addition to the previously announced Philips branded Roku TVs sold through the P&F USA division.

According to Ely, adding speakers, surround sound systems or soundbars to a TV is the most popular way of expanding the TV experience today, but home theater audio products generally have been expensive and hard for people to set up and use.

Read more about the Roku Whole Home Entertainment Network licensing program after the jump:

This is due very often to the existence of numerous legacy connection standards, like S/PDIF, TOSLINK and HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC).

Some of these standards were developed before the modern computing era, and they can limit ease of use, features and fidelity of newer components. In addition, the use of wires limits the use of some products as well as where products can be placed and whether one or multiple remote control devices will be necessary to operate them together. That means new voice control AI technologies and platforms won’t always work seamlessly with certain components and system set-ups.

Ely told HD Guru that Roku has identified a building consumer desire for a true home entertainment network with a broader TV ecosystem that will rely more heavily on the television as the center of the home entertainment experience.

Roku will unveil through various partner companies at CES 2018 (Jan. 9-12) the Licensing Program, which will involve four different options for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) brands.

These include the following:

1) Roku TV, which is currently available and provides reference designs to pair with the Roku OS and provide menu options from picture quality like 4K, HD or 4K/HDR and various hardware features like voice remotes.

2) A new smart soundbar reference design that will allow OEM brands to provide intelligent soundbars with great sound while leveraging the Roku OS for voice control, content access and wireless audio streaming.

These smart soundbars will work with any TV that has an HDMI input but will excel with any Roku TV. For example, when a Roku TV is used it will offer very simple set up to work smoothly when controlling the TV experience via voice control.

3) A smart speaker reference design that will allow OEM brands to build smart speakers for single-room or multi-room audio experiences. Like Roku soundbars, the smart speakers will be able to leverage the Roku OS for voice control, content access, wireless audio streaming, offer a greatly simplified setup and enable direct control of Roku TVs and player devices.

4) Finally, Roku Connect, which also has a hardware requirement, is a technology that allows OEM brands to build really high performance wireless speakers that seamlessly connect the Roku ecosystem and offer things like great audio synchronization for both surround sound and multi-room placement. Roku will offer Roku Connect under an authorized logo program that will help consumers quickly and easily know that supporting products work well together.

Roku plans to license Roku Connect to companies across the speaker spectrum, while building the functionality into the Roku OS.

The Roku Connect technology will be free to licensees, Ely said, and Roku doesn’t expect any additional licensing revenues from that portion of the combined program.

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According to a company spokesperson: “We believe that Roku Connect and these speaker and soundbar programs have the ability to materially increase the frequency and intensity of the relationships we have with our customers.”

“Our goal is to ensure that Roku Connect becomes very widely distributed, because it is a great technology that will enable multiple devices to connect to the Roku ecosystem,” Ely added.

Roku designed the Home Entertainment Network licensing program with the understanding that voice will become a more central part of the home entertainment experience.

Today, the Roku platform enables consumers to use their voices, via the Roku app on a mobile device or mic inputs on select Roku remote controls to launch channels and search for content. But over time, the company expects users to engage with all the entertainment in their home both on speakers and TVs.

Roku Entertainment Assistant

Therefore, Roku has created the Roku Entertainment Assistant, which is expected to rollout to Roku voice-enabled devices this fall via a free software update to existing customers as well as new devices coming to market.

The Roku Entertainment Assistant is billed as a voice assistant built by Roku and optimized for home entertainment experiences. The intention is that it will make it very simple to control devices connected in the Roku devices hands free. So, for example, a user can say: “Hey Roku. Play back music,” and then say, “Play it around my home,” and it will automatically play that music on all the Roku connected devices around the home.

Other typical commands would include: “Pause,” to automatically pause the music and “Shut off my TV in 30 mins.,” to have the TV turn itself off after the viewer is asleep.

The voice control system will involve the use of far field microphones built into soundbars and smart speakers, so users need only speak the activation phrase to engage voice commands, Ely said. In addition, the Roku Entertainment Assistant will be available to near-field devices requiring push-to-talk buttons.

“We take [privacy] very seriously and we know that it is something that a lot customers really care about,” Ely said.

He said that because the reference designs will allow partners to provide a hard cut-off for the microphone, they can assuage the fears of those customers concerned about electronic eavesdropping.

Ely said the Roku Whole Home Entertainment Assistant will continue to evolve over time with the Roku OS software updates.

Roku expects the first licenses under the Roku Whole Home Enterainment Licensing Program to be available in the fall of 2018 and more following in 2019. The company also expects to add licensees and products in a similar fashion to the Roku TV program.

Although the Roku Entertainment Assistant, in particular, puts Roku in direct competition with Amazon’s Alexa voice-powered platform and wireless speakers, Roku executives said they don’t expect any repurcussions from the ecommerce retail giant. A spokesperson told HD Guru that, “We don’t think this will make things any different than the relationship we enjoy with Amazon today.”

The statement references the competition that has been ongoing in the media adapter business between Roku and Fire TV devices, after Amazon jumped into Roku’s smart TV device market.

As for the ability to control smart home devices and appliances through the network, Ely said that is a capability Roku is looking at adding down the line, but for now Roku is focused solely on the entertainment experience in the home.

Regarding the pending introduction of the first devices outfitted with the new HDMI 2.1 wired connection interface, Ely said the new Roku reference designs “stress the use of wireless audio synchronization capabilities to enable soundbars and speakers to connect wirelessly and to allow soundbars, in particular, to connect to things like surround speakers and subs. As we look at those reference designs we, of course, are also very aware of the capabilities coming through the forthcoming HDMI upgrade.”

As for today, Roku is announcing the Roku Home Entertainment Network program and over time more details will come through the addition of new partners and the launch of specific products.

The addition of the Roku Whole Home Entertainment Network Licensing Program comes at a time of explosive growth. The company, which filed an IPO last year, ended the third quarter with 16.7 million active accounts, up 48 percent year over year. Customers streamed 3.8 billion hours of content through the Roku platform in the third quarter, up 58 percent.

The Roku Channel, which was launched in September with aggregated ad-supported free movie streaming, was already a top 20 channel among Roku’s library of more than 5,000 streaming app channels.

As of the end of September, one in five smart TVs in the United States were running the Roku OS. Eight TV brands were selling Roku TVs in North America.

The company reported that licensing Roku TV is the fastest growing way for the company to acquire new accounts. Offering high value, and affordable prices, TV maker partners have reported phenomenal successes with Roku TV lines. For example, TCL, which was 19th in TV market share in the United States when it first signed with Roku in 2014, today is No. 4 in television market share in North America. The Chinese TV maker now sells only Roku OS-based smart TVs in North America.

In fact, during the Christmas selling season, TCL promoted a 43-inch Roku TV for $250.


By Greg Tarr


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