Panasonic and Samsung invest in SiBEAM to promote WirelessHD

In an endorsement for wireless video networking, Panasonic and Samsung said today they have invested an undisclosed amount into SiBEAM, the maker of high-speed networking chips.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SiBEAM makes WirelessHD chips that can wirelessly transfer video from one device to another in a living room. The SiBEAM chip sets operate in the 60 gigahertz band of the wireless spectrum. It’s difficult to make radio chips that operate at that frequency, but there is very little interference.

The networking speeds are fast enough to transfer high-definition video over short ranges in a living room. Wi-Fi networking is in place in many homes for wireless Internet access, but HD video is very demanding and requires better speed and quality measures to be moved wirelessly without a loss in picture quality or frame rate. That’s why SiBEAM and its rivals have been working on better technology.

The move shows that big consumer electronics manufacturers still believe in wireless video networking despite the failure of WiQuest, one of the chip makers in the rival Ultrawideband, or UWB, camp. But UWB radios can only transfer data at about 110 megabits per second over 10 meters.

Wireless video has been promoted as the key technology needed to simplify the networking of all sorts of online-connected gadgets, including game consoles, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes and computers.

SiBEAM is garnering support for a consortium built around its WirelessHD standard. That group includes Panasonic and Samsung. Other members include Broadcom, Intel, LG Electronics, NEC, Sony, and Toshiba. But the big consumer electronics companies are also spreading their bets to ensure that some kind of wireless video takes off. While Panasonic has been a backer of SiBEAM since 2006, Samsung and Sony have embraced multiple solutions.

Sony has used proprietary wireless technology from Israel’s Amimon on a new Bravia flat-panel TV that is being launched in Europe and Japan. Samsung is also a member of a group of companies that is trying to turn Amimon’s technology into the WHDI standard. The Amimon solution is slower than SiBEAM’s since it uses the 5-gigahertz radio spectrum, which is crowded with different wireless devices.

John LeMoncheck, chief executive of SiBEAM, said in an interview that support is shifting to WirelessHD as product launches near. SiBEAM has been sampling its chips for a few months now, but LeMoncheck declined to talk about volume production. He said that products are expected to be on store shelves in 2009.

SiBEAM was founded in 2004 by a team of University of California at Berkeley researchers. They wanted to make chips that transfer data using the 60-gigahertz band of the radio specturm. The company raised a seed round of $1.25 million from New Enterprise Associates and US Venture Partners. In 2005, the company raised $15 million from NEA, USVP and Foundation Capital. In August 2006, SiBEAM raised $21 million from the same second-round investors. Earlier this year, it raised a $40 million round led by NEA. The company has 90 employees.

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