Monday, January 12, 2009

My Legacy LCD Display Learns How to Talk HDCP

Uh-oh. Two technology related posts in a row. I hope that this is not a trend, although I could not help myself.

Don't let the title of this post fool you, it's really kind of interesting if you are into new consumer technology. It's all about a problem that I had with my high definition television. I suspect that there are others who may be experiencing a similar problem. Maybe this information will help them extend the useful life of their own legacy high definition television equipment.

First some background to help explain what this post is all about.

I am what some would consider an early adopter of new technology. I may not always own the very first model of some new gadget, but I am usually quick to assess the value and usefulness of emerging consumer technologies and will often make a purchase to have the new technology for my own enjoyment.

It was about five years ago that I entered the world of high definition ("HD") television. At the time, plasma screens were king, but I was really sold on the performance and durability of liquid crystal display ("LCD") panels. With a desire to have the largest LCD panel that would possibly fit into our existing entertainment center, I chose to purchase a Mitsubishi MLM400 commercial LCD display. This is not really a television, but a 40 inch LCD computer monitor, much like the type you may find at an airport for listing flight arrivals and departures. This particular model just barely fit within the available opening on the wall-unit, and the device had several input options to connect the display to various video sources. It was a great choice to meet our HD display needs.

The Mitsubishi LCD panel is a fantastic display even if it was a bit pricey (which is the true cost of being an early adopter of consumer technology!). At the time that I first purchased the display, there was very little HD content available to view on it. Still, using the component video output of a DISH Network satellite receiver (not to be confused with the composite video output) produced a stunning rendition of even standard definition broadcasts.

Over time, we upgraded to HD source components and very recently used a DISH Network VIP622 receiver with a high definition multimedia interface ("HDMI") output to feed the digital visual interface ("DVI") input of the LCD display. The true HD content from DISH Network looked simply stunning on the 1280 by 720 resolution display (720p). Yes, I know that this is not the highest quality HD display available, but the investment in the Mitsubishi LCD panel was rather significant and 720p is not exactly chopped liver, especially on a 40 inch screen.

This past Christmas, I decided to gift my wife with two new HD sources; an AppleTV and a Sony DVD Player / Recorder. Both devices used HDMI outputs, so I decided to also gift her with a Sony Audio / Video Receiver ("AVR") that could serve as an HDMI switcher to conveniently select from amongst the available HD sources. Since the DISH Network receiver had already successfully fed the LCD panel by use of an HDMI to DVI cable, I assumed that the Sony AVR would do so as well. Oh how wrong you can be when you assume...

At this point in the story, I would like to introduce you to mean old mister HDCP. HDCP is the acronym for high-bandwidth digital content protection; a form of digital copy protection introduced by the entertainment industry intended to prevent copying of digital audio and video content as it travels between home theater components using various connections such as DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, Gigabit Video Interface and Unified Display Interface, even if such copying would be permitted by fair use laws.

Unfortunately, when I connected the Mitsubishi LCD panel (now considered a 'legacy' device due to its age) to the Sony AVR, I was not able to view content from any of the various HD sources, nor would the AVR play any of the audio content. The AppleTV gave me the first clue to my problem as it displayed a nice big error message informing me that there was an HDCP compliance problem. It didn't take long to determine that the HDCP scheme introduced by the new HD sources was preventing me from using my legacy LCD panel, even though I had no desire or intent of trying to illegally copy content.

What a shame. My beautiful LCD panel was rendered useless by the entertainment industry's efforts to protect the copyrights of the audio and video property. Now I'm all for protecting the property from illegal use. However, I found it very unfair that as a consumer who supports the entertainment industry, my early adopter investment in audio and video equipment was now all for naught.

The only obvious solution was to scrap the LCD display and fork over big money to purchase a new HD display that was HDCP compliant. Problem was, I didn't have big money to fork over.

Thank goodness there are others like myself who had found themselves in this situation. Based on my research, many of the consumer technology early adopters with this issue are home theater enthusiasts who have significant investments in HD projection equipment. You know, the families who have converted their basements into theaters complete with stadium seating and popcorn machines. Many of the projectors are very expensive (think 'glass optics') and like my LCD panel, they were rendered useless by their failure to handshake with HDCP-compliant sources.

I discovered that the non-obvious solution was to be a little sneaky and 'strip' the HDCP code from the signal, fooling the HD source into thinking that the display was HDCP compliant.

Hmmm. Sounds like cheating and could be considered illegal.

Well, maybe some people would argue that. However, rendering my multi-thousand dollar LCD panel useless is not exactly easy to accept.

There are several HDCP strippers available, with most coming to the United States from Asia or Europe. I learned that this is partly to avoid trouble with the United States entertainment industry for manufacturing such devices within the country. I also learned that the HDCP rules provide a bit of a loophole; the devices are not considered illegal as long as there is not an easy way to access the decrypted analog video, and that once the device is attached onto the display, it becomes 'a part of the display itself'. It didn't take much to convince me that using an HDCP stripper was within my rights, especially since I would not be using the device to send the HDCP-free signal to another intermediate device for illegal purposes.

I chose to use a small component named the HDFury2. The HDFury2 is considered a permanent HDCP modification that provides HDCP compliance for any analog RGB display. It is fully compatible with any HDMI sources such as Blu-Ray DVD, Playstation3, Xbox 360 Elite and HD cable or satellite. Essentially, it transforms any RGB display into an HDCP compliant device.

After a very simple installation of the device between my AVR and the legacy LCD panel, the HD video from all of the sources was displayed in flawless 720p and the AVR was able to play the audio from each source as intended.

As you might suspect, I am very excited that I was able to locate a device that allowed me to marry the new HD sources to my legacy LCD display. The best part is that the HDFury2 costs much, much less than a new HD display.

I hope that this information helps someone else extend the useful life of their legacy HD equipment.

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