Emerging Technologies: Society Unified on Central Issue

Jan 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

One of the top priorities for TV technologists in the next few years will be to lay the foundation for a better user experience. That goal will be a central theme at this week’s Emerging Technologies Conference, put on by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. The conference opens Tuesday in Tampa, Fla., and runs through Thursday.

Modern consumers must navigate through separate clunky menus to find what they want to see on video-on-demand, digital video recorder services and linear television. That will begin to change in the coming years as service providers, interactive program guide makers and TV’s leading software companies begin to implement solutions that will make programming as easy to find on the television as content is to find on the Internet.

“Navigation has to change,” said Yvette Kanouff, senior VP of strategic planning for Sea-Change and chair of the SCTE. “You aren’t going to have access to channels in the traditional sense.”

As TV moves away from a fixed viewing world of about 150 linear channels toward a more fluid and dynamic environment with 10,000 hours of on-demand content-not to mention the hours consumers will store on their DVRs-navigation will evolve as well.

“It will change to a more search-oriented environment rather than up and down,” Ms. Kanouff said.

The future of TV navigation will inform many of the SCTE conference’s panels and sessions, which will delve into how that user-friendly navigation environment will take shape.

Better navigation is a must because today’s cable services exist in separate silos, said Kenneth Wright, chief technology officer for VOD server maker C-Cor and the programming chair for the conference. The goal is to seamlessly integrate these services, he said.

A better user experience starts with the interactive program guide, the port of entry for viewers.

In the second half of this year, dominant IPG maker Gemstar-TV Guide will introduce a beta trial in a Comcast market of a new version of the i-Guide, with a broader rollout to follow. That version will allow a user to search VOD content by keyword or category, such as football or movies, and to search across all linear and nonlinear content, said Todd Walker, senior VP and general manager of advanced TV for TV Guide. Additional features to be released in 2006 will allow a user to bookmark VOD content, create playlists and select VOD titles remotely via the Internet.

And that’s just the start, he said. To move toward a seamless experience, TV Guide is working to simplify the process of integrating with the various VOD vendors. “Working in this environment with multiple vendors is challenging because they all do their own software,” Mr. Walker said. “If you want to do an integrated search, or even smaller features like a ‘last chance’ icon to alert people that content is going away, the server vendors have to do their part to make this happen.”

This year TV Guide will move to simplify that process by creating its own standard for all the server vendors that integrate with its guide. “We are trying to standardize the interface between the set-top box and the server so it doesn’t have to be done four or five times,” Mr. Walker said. “One of the things we have tasked ourselves with over the next year or so is to work on the plumbing to make that interaction more smooth.”

As that occurs, TV Guide can move new features into consumers’ hands faster.

That work should make the user experience better for consumers than it is today, said Braxton Jarratt, senior VP of marketing and business development for VOD specialist Tandberg Television.

“[Today] if you want to find something to watch on a Friday night, you … check the IPG and look at what’s on network TV, HBO. And then if you don’t find something you’re looking for, you go through your DVR and TiVo listing, then through the various on-demand menus,” he said.

But that time-consuming process also represents an opportunity, Mr. Jarratt said. “The service provider that can have a powerful, easy-to-learn offering is going to really resonate with consumers,” he said. “As we see more competition from DVR-enabled satellite services, as well as the looming IPTV operators, they are focused on the user experience, and I think there will be some interesting opportunities to differentiate a service and how you navigate.”

Reaching this goal requires better integration among all of the systems in the headend today that power the different cable services. For now, set-top boxes in consumers’ homes must access information about what’s on TV from each of those systems, Mr. Jarratt said. The key to the future, he said, is to pull together data from those systems into a single server that can be indexed, searched and presented to viewers in a unified fashion. Tandberg is developing ways to make such integration possible.

“What I would like to see is the industry get inspired to solve the problem TV guide makers are having, and that will require someone to focus on the user experience as the biggest priority,” he said.

Other companies have their sights set on similar goals. At the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, newcomer Hillcrest Labs introduced new software that lets consumers navigate TV in a more visual fashion, said Andy Addis, executive VP of Hillcrest Labs.

“In a world of exploding content, at the end of the day the companies that win that battle will be the ones that make it simple and easy for consumers to navigate that content and unify disparate sources under a common roadmap,” Mr. Addis said.

Conference on Emerging Technologies

Sponsor: Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers

What: Discussions of technical issues and technologies that may transform the cable telecommunications industry in the next few years

When: Jan. 10-12

Where: Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, Tampa, Fla.

Information: SCTE.org; telephone (toll-free) 866-268-0193