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Article: Indrema: a Linux based high-end game console — and more

Jul 3, 2000 — by Rick Lehrbaum — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 5 views

“The future of Linux is on your TV,” proclaimed the Indrema website. Reading further, I was 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 3D games, browsing the Net at high speed, or just enjoying personal TV or MP3 favorites.”

Of course, there were the usual consumer product pitches, like “We want everyone to be able to have one,” and “Put one in your living room, den, or your kids bedroom.”

But what really caught my eye, was the claim that “the wonderful world of Linux just got a little better. It's going to change your life, and perhaps your neighbors. Try it today, and join the revolution.”

“Try what?” I thought. “Linux, or the Indrema entertainment system?”

Reading on, I soon located more pro-Linux messages, like: “We are believers in the Linux development community, and we support the open source initiative to promote a universal standard operating system for networked consumer electronics.”

“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 startup'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 startup. “We were thinking: wouldn't it be great if somebody created an open source game platform so that a guy like John Carmack (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 that 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 (see photo).

“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 dialup 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 online.

“Isn't it, basically, a multi-function set-top box?” I naively 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 multi-media 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 under the hood?

Let's take a look at what's inside that sleek Indrema box. The core computer consists of an 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.

Here's a summary of the unit's specs:

  • 600 MHz X86 Processor
  • 64 MB system memory
  • 8 to 50 GB hard drive (depending on model)
  • 100 Mbps Ethernet Port
  • Massive 3D hardware acceleration via GPU
  • MPEG2 dual stream hardware acceleration
  • Composite video in/out
  • S-Video in/out
  • Component HDTV out
  • Analog audio in/out
  • Digital audio out (optical)
  • 4 USB ports
  • Infrared sensor
  • Wireless keyboard/mouse port (option)

What CPU will be used in the IES? That hasn't been finalized yet, as far as the production models are concerned. According to Gildred, it will 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 (beyond the 4 standard ones) on their rear panels.

What makes it run?

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

  1. An open source Linux-based operating system, called “DV Linux”
  2. Proprietary software components that are unique to the IES platform hardware (these are distributed in binary form only, and are not open source)
  3. Various application programs and gamesAccording to Gildred, although there will be some software components that are not open source, their related APIs (application programming interfaces) will all be open.

    A free software development kit (SDK) is supposed to become available at a new Indrema Developer Network website around the end of this Summer. The 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 only be offered in binary form.

    What's Extrema? “Extrema is one of our proprietary components,” said Gildred. “It basically contains a subset of the functionality of X, but with some enhancements that allow for uniform relationships between applications that are running and their ability to take up screen space, and contains our security protocols.”

    What GUI (graphical user interface) do you use? “The best thing to describe the GUI would be Extrema,” continued Gildred. “Actually, Extrema is an infrastructure for a GUI, allowing the GUIs to be manipulated somewhat. That will provide some ability for you to enhance the system according to your taste.”

    What about the browser? “The browser,” said Gildred, “uses a Mozilla code base and is integrated into our standard application suite that ships with the system. I believe we are going to publish all of our enhancements to Mozilla.”

    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. For example, Indrema is actively participating in several existing open source projects — including the Linux kernel, OpenAL, and Mesa 3D (the open source implementation of OpenGL) — and is, as well, pioneering a new open source streaming video architecture called “OpenStream” (see reference, below).

    One of the most important Indrema software projects has been the creation of “DV Linux”, an open source Linux distribution targeted at devices that use 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.”

    Asked whether the use of open source opens the doors to Indrema competitors, Gildred confidently replied “You could use DV Linux to create [similar] devices, but they won't have as much performance or features as the IES platform because the marriage of the open source and our proprietary IP is extremely strong . . .”

    When can I get one? How much will it set me back?

    Although earlier announcements indicated a target delivery date of the 2000 end-of-year holiday season, the current plan is to begin shipments next Spring. The target retail price for the entry-level IES is rumored to be $299.

    Developers won't have to wait as long. The SDK for game developers is going to be available around the end of this Summer, and will be freely downloadable from the Indrema Developer Network website. Although the games can be tested on a PC, Indrema will sell a special “developer console” so that game developers can test and debug games on actual console hardware. Note that games that haven't passed through Indrema's game certification process will not run on a standard Indrema end-user console.

    How much does certification cost? Freeware game developers need only pay a “minimal” certification charge to have their games approved. Developers of for-profit games, on the other hand, must pay both a modest up-front certification fee and per-unit fees for each copy sold.

    Related stories:
    Update on Indrema's entertainment console
    Indrema announces collaboration on open source Linux video
    New Indrema set-top system runs “DV Linux”

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