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Set-Top's Future Looking Slim, Trim and Modular

Fri, 08/31/2001 - 8:00pm
David Iler, Contributing Editor

While AT&T Broadband applied the brakes to deployment of its advanced digital set-top platform this year, it was far from a fatal blow to the development of tomorrow's set-tops. Despite a lagging near-term market for networked and integrated gateway boxes, set-top makers continue to push the envelope for set-top functionality.

Pace has developed a set-top accessory, 
Gateway Expander, with a USB connection 
and a built-in DOCSIS modem

Yet the paradigm for a networked home controlled by a supercharged set-top box is changing, due in part to AT&T's decision and a clouded retail situation. Three-hundred-dollar or more set-top boxes from cable operators sharing shelf space with sub-$100 boxes from direct broadcast satellite is not a compelling value proposition for consumers or operators.

With cost as the guiding light behind any set-top development, box makers are moving slowly to embrace networking, DVD and home stereo compatibility, as well as IP voice applications to their platforms.

The good news for operators is that they will continue to have multiple sources of set-top boxes, as Panasonic Consumer Electronics, Samsung Telecommuni-cations America, Sony Electronics, Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc., Pace Micro Technology Americas and others are developing boxes for cable, joining market leaders Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

The feature sets and connectivity options of boxes under development should satisfy those subscribers with George Jetson fantasies as well as operators looking for diverse revenue streams. But the operative word is becoming "advanced basic," and new approaches to gradually add features are becoming prevalent as economics override technology.

Gateway as bridge

Perhaps the most dramatic sea change in the home gateway concept is being embraced by Intel Corp. In June, Intel rolled out a DSL gateway box, the AnyPoint Gateway, and according to Danny Sabour, director of marketing for Intel's cable network operations, cable versions are on the way.

Pace’s pcConnect device

The gateway serves as a bridge from the set-top box to a personal computer and home entertainment system and uses Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) connectivity protocols to link and identify devices on the network. The gateway is meant to co-exist with legacy set-tops and may serve many functions, including acting as a storage device to download video content in off-peak hours for near-video-on-demand applications, and distributing it back to the set-top for playback through a coaxial connection.

In its full manifestation, which Sabour concedes may be a few years down the road, the gateway creates a unified environment for set-top, PC and entertainment systems to distribute voice, video and data throughout the home. The gateway's customizable feature set can circumvent the need to add storage and other features to the set-top, which in some ways, Sabour suggests, is re-creating the functionality of the PC, which is already in the home. Plus, UPnP means devices such as personal digital assistants, cell phones and other UPnP-enabled devices can hop on the network. The gateway supports Ethernet and wireless Ethernet protocols.

Sabour says the gateway is being designed to support home networking, streaming audio and video, video chat and conferencing, power management, network storage, virus and parental control, virtual private networking, gaming and NVOD applications. The gateway runs, the Redhat Linux 2.4 operating system and the user-interface is PC-centric.

Comcast Cable Communications Inc. has already agreed to jointly develop and test Intel's home networking products, including its gateway, wireless network adapter and cable modem.

The modular approach

With an eye toward outfitting legacy boxes, Pace has developed a set-top accessory, Gateway Expander, with a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection and a built-in DOCSIS cable modem. The device is customizable, and may come in several different configurations and provide home networking protocol support, including Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, wireless and powerline connections. Depending on cost considerations, says David Novak, director of marketing for Pace Micro Technology Americas, the device may support just one networking standard, based on operators' needs.

Similarly, Pace's pcConnect device connects to a computer's USB port and is designed to receive data wirelessly from the set-top box to the PC at data speeds up to 256 kilobits per second using the DECT protocol.

Based on its purchase of VegaStream Ltd. last year, Pace gained voice-over-Internet Protocol expertise. VoIP, says Novak, "is a logical extension of a home network," and could be built-in to the company's Gateway Expander.

In an effort to export services off the main living room TV screen, Pace has been developing applications that use a book-sized Web tablet or handheld device that can receive and store content such as electronic program guides, Web pages, MP3 music files, video players or games through one of the streaming protocols in use today, such as RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer, Microsoft Corp's Windows Media Player or an MPEG-4 codec. Pace, according to Novak, is agnostic about which wireless standard is used, leaving that decision up to operators, but he adds that several standards are capable of supporting the necessary data rates, including IEEE 802.11b and 802.11a, Ultra Wideband (UWB) and HiperLAN.

Pace hasn't made public which tablet devices it will support, but Novak expects commercial deployments of such devices connected to Pace boxes in about two years.

Pace is also working on Internet radio applications to broadcast MP3-formatted music to stereos. Now in the planning stages, the idea is to equip the set-top with digital rights management control for the content. Pace plans to work with consumer electronics manufacturers to develop an interface for existing stereo systems to receive the content. One idea is to have the stereo tune to a specific on-demand channel or frequency.

Pace is developing software to keep the content secure, manage content and allow for transport of content from set-top to stereo.

For Pace, a key to future set-top functionality revolves around media processing. As Novak points out, the inclusion of powerful media processors into set-top boxes provides the enhanced 3D graphics to make electronic program guides more user-friendly as well as enabling game-console quality gaming. Novak believes the wide adoption of media processing chips by consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox, Sony's PlayStation 2 and others is driving down the prices for these components.

Earlier this year, Pace announced it was integrating Sega Corp.'s Dreamcast platform into advanced cable and satellite set-tops with resident hard drives.

Consumer electronics and set-tops

However dated the term, "convergence" is still a big driver in set-top development. But convergence in this context is occurring incrementally and is driven by Internet-based and consumer electronics applications.

New to the cable set-top market, but no stranger to consumer electronics, Samsung recently released its SMT-F220 box and has since won a deployment with TV Cabo in Portugal using the Microsoft TV platform. The box, according to Claire L.V. Ortega, senior product manager, is DVD- and hard-drive-ready and features dual-processors, including streaming media player support and MPEG-4 decoding. The box also supports personal video recording (PVR).

Future versions may include home networking, home monitoring and home security features.

Panasonic, which is building a PVR-type cable box for a summer 2002 release, is looking to add an HDTV encoder in the device, according to Richard Strabel, vice president of Panasonic's cable group. Also being considered is DVD or DVD-RAM support. The company, which is in the pre-production phases of a Time Warner Cable Pegasus-platform box, eventually expects to port its boxes to all platforms, including the Linux operating system, says Strabel. (While Panasonic has a deal with AT&T to build boxes based on the DCT-5000 platform, the company is in discussions with AT&T about an advanced basic box, based on the operator's revised plans.)

Strabel also noted that Panasonic has several applications based on voice-over-Internet Protocol, including IP fax and other proprietary applications that it will present to operators when they're ready, although he declined to elaborate on specifics.

While Strabel stresses (as do all set-top vendors) that new features and capabilities are dictated by customers, he says, "almost everything we're building has excess memory for interactive TV."

Pioneer is also drawing on its consumer electronics experience and has demonstrated CD and DVD jukeboxes networked to its upcoming Voyager 3000 box, which has both serial port and IEEE 1394 interfaces.

Pioneer’s Voyager 3000 set-top

"It is Pioneer's vision to make the set-top box the center of the home network," says Dan Ward, director of marketing for Pioneer. Pioneer hopes to accomplish this through the merging of consumer electronics and set-top box technologies.

Much of this will occur through Pioneer's Passport interactive program guide, says Ward. Pioneer is designing its platform so the operation of connected devices appears like a channel application in a program guide.

Functions such as audio control of a stereo receiver, PVR control, home networking and CD/DVD jukebox control will be performed with the user interface level generated by Passport.

The successor to the Voyager 3000, the 4000, will have PVR functionality, two tuners, a DOCSIS cable modem, and a host of interfaces, including serial, USB and IEEE 1394, and is at least a year away from availability. DVD and/or DVD-RW integration is being considered for models beyond the 4000, although Ward cautioned against too much convergence, or placing too many devices into one package for fear a single device failure may contribute to a larger system hiccup.

Consumer electronics giant Sony, while not commenting about its future plans, has several consumer electronics technologies, such as DVD and videoconferencing, to draw from to add to the interactive digital cable receiver it will provide to Cablevision Systems Corp. The receiver includes a built-in browser with HTML extensions, a customizable user interface, internal DOCSIS cable modem, access card slots for conditional access and television-commerce applications, USB ports and a high-definition TV pass-through using IEEE 1394.

Linux to the rescue?

Much of the functionality of the set-top of the future will be powered by software, a point expressed by Ward and Novak, who notes that a majority of Pace's development efforts are software-based. Emerging as a competitor to the entrenched operating systems in the industry is Linux, which received a boost in June with the formation of the TV Linux Alliance, which seeks to develop a Linux-based application programming interface (API) for digital TV.

Making a big splash into cable is Lineo Inc., which has licensed an enhanced version of its Embedix real-time operating system to Motorola for use in the DCT-5000 platform. According to Cathleen Collett, Lineo's product marketing manager for digital TV, Motorola has agreed to use Embedix as the exclusive Linux operating system for the 5000.

Lineo's Embedix, she adds, has been enhanced with TV and video extensions, such as tuner control and advanced frame and transport drivers, to support digital TV.

The promise of Linux has also been its reliability, stability and the "legions" of developers who have access to the open source operating system, and thus can more easily and quickly code applications and drivers. John Drabik, vice president and chief consulting engineer for Lineo's digital media group, concedes that relatively few Linux developers are working on TV applications at this time, but notes that functions such as transcoding applications, which can take an MPEG-2 stream and re-encode it as a lower bit rate format (such as MPEG-4), with security and encryption, can be accomplished with Linux. Support for the Internet Protocol version 6 is another plus for Linux, says Drabik.

While the advanced set-top box as we knew it a few short years ago has been placed on the back burner, new applications will seep into legacy and "advanced basic" platforms in the next few years, but they'll be packaged in new and novel ways as the "thick client" loses a little weight.

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