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Viva Las Gizmos

Mon, 01/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

Las Vegas—From a drool-worthy 102-inch television to a batch of ultra-sharp 1080p HDTV sets, showgoers had plenty to feast their eyes on here at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show.

Although the size, scope and sounds of CES could crush the senses, it did not take very long to detect and distill technological themes that intend to work with or against the aims of the cable industry.

Signing Ceremony
In a landmark deal, Time Warner Cable, Bright House and Samsung agreed to move ahead on digital televisions capable of delivering interactive cable services. Pictured at the signing ceremony (from left) are Bob Miron, CEO of Bright House; Glenn Britt, president & CEO of Time Warner Cable; GS Choi, president & CEO of Samsung Electronics, Digital Media Division; and DJ Oh, president & CEO, Samsung Electronics, America.
The 2005 iteration of the show will certainly go down as the year that made video-to-go a trend that operators (and copyright protectors) will soon have to deal with or somehow embrace, as EchoStar Communications surely has (more later).

The show also witnessed the arrival of the broadband box, with several flavors from the likes of DAVETV and Akimbo, that use existing broadband connections to bypass cable and DBS providers for video services.

Another trend, if you knew where to look, was cable's slowly growing presence at the show, which pretty much started and ended with digital televisions outfitted to deliver interactive cable services without a separate set-top box.

Pushing the two-way needle

Although a two-way Plug & Play agreement appears to be far from completion, that little detail did not stop some MSOs and television makers from moving ahead on their own.

Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Charter Communications and Samsung Electronics all found common ground on agreements to develop digital televisions capable of supporting interactive cable services such as video-on-demand.

A non-exclusive memorandum of understanding (MOU) to support the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) in digital TVs—signed by top execs at Time Warner, Bright House and Samsung at the Four Seasons—comes well before a formal two-way "Plug & Play" agreement for set-top-free digital televisions is finalized.

Under the deal with Time Warner and Bright House, Samsung will jointly write specifications for OCAP-compliant TVs and how they operate on a cable network. Those TVs will also support remote downloads of the MSO's OCAP-based Digital Navigator (ODN), a product spawned by Time Warner's MystroTV division.

OCAP applications
On the floor, Samsung demo’d digital
televisions running OCAP applications,
including this TV-based messaging app.
Under a second MOU, Charter and Samsung expect to deploy low-cost network interface units and Samsung bidirectional HD sets that incorporate XHT (eXpandable Home Theater), a home networking technology that supports the IEEE1394 "Firewire" cable.

Of the deal with Time Warner and Bright House, Samsung executives said the agreements represent a "major part" of its entry into the cable industry. "We knew this was something we had to do," said company spokesman Steve Goldstein.

Commercially-available models could take a year to 18 months to reach the marketplace, Goldstein said. He added that Samsung is committing to deliver OCAP-capable TVs "in a mass-market way."

Time Warner Cable hopes to complete the necessary headend and other engineering work to make it possible to conduct a trial by the end of 2005, said Mike Hayashi, the MSO's senior vice president for subscriber technology and advanced engineering.

Because OCAP and OpenCable pre-date Plug & Play activities, the parties said they were confident they could handle any changes that might come with a formal two-way Plug & Play agreement. But no one was ready to say how the MOU might impact current two-way discussions, which have proceeded slowly.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt noted, however, that cable's involvement with consumer electronics remains vital.

"We're in a very competitive environment and we want to keep innovating," Britt said. "It's important for us to work together with CE companies."

Hayashi said Time Warner Cable's decision to move ahead with two-way products now will fuel technological advancements, noting that specifications "tend to lag innovation in the marketplace."

Samsung wasn't the only TV maker to step up its two-way Plug & Play efforts. At the show, LG Electronics announced it had signed a deal with CableLabs to integrate OCAP into its line of interactive digital televisions and set-top boxes.

LG marks the second TV maker to sign such a license, which pertains to both OCAP and CHILA, an acronym for the CableCARD Host Interface License Agreement.

Eyeballing the competition

Per usual, cable's competitors were out in force, led by the DBS industry.

EchoStar Communications took the wraps off several new initiatives, including a slick line of portable digital video recorders and its own spin on video-on-demand.

DISH-TO-GO
DISH-to-go: EchoStar introduced a new range of handheld devices
that store and play back video transferred from the
customer’s primary receiver/DVR.
On the portable end, EchoStar is set to rollout a range of handheld models that sport three different screen sizes (7 inches, 4 inches and 2.2 inches) and hard drives capable of storing between 20 gigabytes and 40 gigabytes. Support for USB 2.0 will enable the transfer of an entire movie from the primary EchoStar receiver/DVR to the portable device in about five minutes, said EchoStar President Mark Jackson.

He declined to say how much the devices will cost consumers or whether customers will be charged a separate, recurring monthly fee.

EchoStar also put the pressure on cable when it came to VOD and how it should be defined to consumers.

EchoStar's notion of VOD will be delivered next month via the company's new DISH Player-DVR 625 receiver. EchoStar will reserve about 100 hours of hard drive space to record movies and other titles. The customer may use the drive's remaining 100 hours of space to record programs on their own as they would with any traditional digital video recorder.

EchoStar chief Charlie Ergen, speaking at a press conference, said the box supplies "the best of what's on satellite and what [customers] want." He expects future versions of EchoStar DVRs to store "hundreds" of hours of programming.

DirecTV, meanwhile, put the spotlight on how some of its interactive television activities are coming together.

DirecTV, in a shot against DVR software partner TiVo Inc., also showcased its first set-tops running middleware from corporate cousin NDS Group. In addition to NDS-powered digital video recording, the software also enables "DirecTV Active," a portal of interactive applications such as weather updates and financial market summaries, and "Mix Channels," an expanded mosaic capability that gives customers the ability to view up to six live channels on the same screen.

DirecTV also put its hat in the multi-room DVR ring after signing a licensing deal with Ucentric Systems (now part of Motorola Inc.). Under that deal, DirecTV will use Ucentric's software to run applications on a primary set-top that is networked to smaller units connected to additional TVs. The system is being designed to support both high-definition and standard-definition signals.

The telcos also made some noise, led by SBC Communications, which unveiled "U-verse" as the brand name of its IP-based services. Set to launch this year, U-verse will bundle together video, data and VoIP. U-verse stems from Project Lightspeed, SBC's plan to spend $4 billion to deploy fiber to 18 million homes by the end of 2007.

Video: Don't leave home without it

The 2005 CES brimmed with broadband bypass boxes—including several models that piggyback on high-speed connections to deliver video services—but it also saw a breakthrough of devices and services that enable consumers to enjoy a wide range of live and recorded video when they're away from home.

A company that stood out from the others in more ways than one was Sling Media Inc. Its $249 Slingbox uses high-speed connections to "sling" live TV programming from the viewer's home to a laptop or just about any other Internet-connected device, including PDAs, cell phones, and even gaming consoles. The Slingbox is designed to send content directly from the consumer's home-based cable set-top, satellite receiver or digital video recorder.

Slingbox
The innovative Slingbox can “sling” live and recorded video to a wide
range of Internet-connected devices, including laptops,
wireless phones and even game consoles.
Instead of time-shifting, Sling Media likes to call what it does "placeshifting."

"It's like accessing your television with a very, very long wire," observed a showgoer on hand to see the Sling Media demo.

The company expects the Slingbox to hit shelves in the first half of 2005. Sling Media does not anticipate charging monthly service fees.

Depending on the available bandwidth, the Slingbox automatically downgrades and upgrades video bit rate quality as to avoid buffering or interrupting the video signal in any way, explained Jeremy Toeman, Sling Media's vice president of product management. The box can deliver bit rates as low as 80 kbps to a PDA, or between 150 kbps to 170 kbps to a PC, he noted.

But Sling Media's approach also opens the door to big questions about copyright infringement. Toeman insisted his company does not bypass existing conditional access and security systems, but does tap into existing (and insecure) analog outputs.

"We're not a pirate broadcast device, but a private broadcast device," he said.

Although Sling Media can take cable programming and deliver it virtually anywhere, the company views itself as a potential cable partner. Operators, for example, could offer the box as a complimentary service that enables customers to watch the channels they're already paying the cable company for, but to watch them while they're on the go, Toeman said.

In a very similar vein, Orb Networks also introduced a platform that provides access to live television, music, photos and other digital content from wireless devices ranging from cell phones, to PDAs and computer notebooks. But unlike Sling Media, Orb will charge a service fee of $9.99 per month or $79.99 per year for the first user.

Comcast Corp., meanwhile, shed some light on a project it's working on that will enable customers to take their video on the road—literally. Comcast, through a partnership with Delphi Corp., will build a system that enables customers to transfer "select" video content to an in-vehicle entertainment system. Under that deal, Delphi will develop a consumer device that leverages its 802.11x-based rear-seat video system, and Comcast will hammer out the content rights. The companies expect evaluation and development to run between 6 months and 18 months.

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