New Pioneer set-top does more than control TV

Aug 6, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Electronic hardware manufacturer Pioneer is developing the first electronic programming guide that will allow television viewers to manipulate a variety of home appliances as well as personal-video-recording preferences through their remote controls.
The ambitious initiative to improve Pioneer’s existing Passport EPG is under way just as the company is finalizing plans to launch its PVR-capable Voyager 4000 set-top box later this year. Pioneer is one of several American set-top manufacturers, including Scientific-Atlanta, Motorola and Pace, that are creating boxes replete with video-recording features.
The advanced EPG, when paired with the forthcoming PVR hardware offering, would break new ground by giving cable customers unprecedented command over their home entertainment surroundings. Aside from empowering viewers with control over video-recording preferences, the robust Passport guide will be fortified by a software application that would let viewers manage home lighting systems, security cameras, DVD players and a multitude of other devices by clicking through a menu of the guide’s options.
“We see the set-top as a gateway for all these electronic devices,” said Dan Ward, director of marketing for Pioneer’s cable and communications division.
A more limited version of the Passport guide, which is currently available, and its accompanying software are licensed out as a stand-alone product to multiple system operators, regardless of whether those cable operators have ordered Pioneer’s set-top hardware. For instance, Time Warner Cable is running the Passport guide on Scientific-Atlanta’s Explorer line of set-top boxes.
Mr. Ward declined to comment on the timing of the improved Passport directory’s market launch. But he said the company is quietly testing the guide and software package while listening to feedback from cable operators. He projected that the PVR-enabled Voyager 4000 box will be introduced by late 2002.
The forthcoming Voyager 4000 set-top will be buttressed by a 30-gigabyte hard drive and a dual tuner, which will let viewers record two programs simultaneously. Those features are similar to those of the TiVo PVR console sold at retail outlets. Among the Voyager 4000’s other accoutrements will be a cable modem for high-speed Internet access, a Broadcom chip and a technology modeled on IEEE’s 1394 standard that will help the set-top communicate with other devices in the home.
Mr. Ward said Pioneer has yet to receive a purchase order from a cable operator for the Voyager 4000 product line. Although pricing on the company’s PVR consoles hasn’t been finalized, Mr. Ward is expecting to charge its cable industry clients more than the $300 to $400 per console that MSOs pay for the manufacturer’s more modest Voyager 3000 box.
That pricing model could present a challenge for Pioneer, given that other major American set-top makers are seeing lukewarm demand for high-powered, expensive digital cable boxes.
“We listen to our customers, and whenever they decide on deploying advanced thick-client boxes, we’ll be there,” Mr. Ward said. “Our clients are more focused right now on deploying thin-client workhorse boxes [such as the Voyager 3000.]”
Anticipating that a costly device could be a tough sell if cable operators’ appetite for pricey hardware remains sluggish, the company is weighing two strategies as alternatives to forcing MSOs to swallow the cost of the advanced PVR technology. Pioneer is considering passing the expense of the set-tops on to the consumer by making the boxes available at retail and also hasn’t ruled out creating a “sidecar” attachment to its more economical set-tops-a tact being followed by PVR technology developer Keen Personal Media.
“It would be great to have a sidecar for the installed base of the Voyager [1000 and 3000] units,” Mr. Ward said. “We’re not sure technically how that can happen. From a memory standpoint, it would be difficult for those boxes [to accommodate a PVR attachment].”
Pioneer’s low-end boxes, like most basic set-top hardware units, are endowed with 4 megabytes of Flash memory and 8 megabytes of SD RAM.