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Avoiding analysis paralysis

Tue, 05/31/2005 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

New and emerging tools and technologies will help viewers
navigate an ever-growing swarm of choices


Offering choice is a good thing. But too much of a good thing can teeter toward the bad, overwhelming people and causing them to throw their arms up in utter frustration.

Because of the growing number of linear video channels, video-on-demand titles, and application choices becoming available to cable consumers, it's fair to say that industry would do well to heed the warnings presented in Barry Schwartz's book, The Paradox of Choice.

For cable, the problem with current navigation technology will only become more apparent as choices creep higher and higher. But emerging interactive program guide (IPG) features, as well as entirely new navigation systems, are on the way to help viewers find that needle in the haystack or that diamond in the rough.

Current trends are spreading work away from traditional spreadsheet-style guides and toward more intuitive IPGs. Better search functions, recommendation engines, voice recognition, and visual "mosaic" technologies are other core components of the cable IPG of the not-so-distant future.

"Choice isn't necessarily what people care about. Being able to find what you're looking for is what's important at the end of the day," says Ed Graczyk, director of marketing at Microsoft TV.

A navigation progression: In this example of the Hillcrest platform,
a user interested in VOD might start at a point-and-click home menu that
lists all of the applications. Once in the VOD area, the viewer would have a
visual list of available titles before selecting “The Bourne Identity”
to learn more about the movie or to make a purchase.


And that choice is extending beyond 300-plus linear channels, and thousands of VOD options. There's also "personal media" (photos, home movies, etc.) stored on PCs and Internet-delivered content to consider.

Without innovation, the navigation issue "will become a train wreck, frankly," says Andy Addis, a former Comcast Cable marketing executive who has recently joined navigation newcomer Hillcrest Labs as executive vice president.

Personalized navigation is one of the most obvious places to seek improvement.

"One of the challenges we need to figure out is how to make the experience more personal," says Dave Davies, vice president of strategy and product marketing for Scientific-Atlanta's subscriber networks division. "Today, the IPG experience is a whole-house experience, versus an individual experience. When it becomes personalized, you can offer better navigation and recommendations."

The recommendation concept is nothing new, of course. On the Web, Netflix and Amazon.com have made tremendous use of it to drive usage and sales.

Pioneer's 'Quick Menu'
Pioneer’s ‘QuickMenu’
breaks programming into thematic pieces.
But personalization is just one trend that the legacy IPG players are mulling. Another significant trend to emerge is the ability to search across devices, whether it's the PC, DVR, a handheld media center, or the native guide itself.

S-A is adding such enhancements to its SARA IPG. They are due out as early as this fall.

"When you put content on the DVR or access content on the PC, on a VOD server or on the Internet, it becomes more of a search engine-like experience on the TV, and that's where we are headed," Davies says.

Pioneer Digital Technologies, maker of the Passport IPG, has added "QuickMenu" to its repertoire. Related to a pull-down menu you might find on the PC, the QuickMenu app takes the much larger list of channels on the IPG list and breaks them into thematic pieces, explains Pioneer Senior Vice President Neil Jones. Pioneer offers QuickMenu for the Motorola platform, and expects to follow with a version for S-A systems.

"It's not set in stone with the number of categories [it can provide]; it's completely configurable," Jones adds.

Make mine mosaic

Yet another significant trend involves the use of mosaics—small video thumbnails that can light up a range of thematic, visually-centric programming packages. It's a tool that cable's DBS competition is using to full advantage.

In the cable arena, The Comcast Media Center (CMC) and GuideWorks LLC (the Comcast Corp./Gemstar-TV Guide International joint venture) are heading up a major project involving mosaics for a new version of the iGuide IPG.

Using a range of thematic templates (sports, news, kids, etc.), their Video-Rich Navigation (VRN) platform creates hyperlinks between linear TV, video-on-demand, and locally- originated content.

The templates, which are used to create "genre portals," define a series of buttons, which can be displayed as a video thumbnail or as plain text. The audio of each thumbnail is heard only when selected.

The first series from Comcast will offer seven or eight templates, but the screens and how they are used are completely definable, according to CMC Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Traver.

"We look at this as a service play, not just a technology," Traver says.

Additionally, the platform is being created to support VOD. An Olympics portal, for example, could show three live sporting events, while a fourth provides on- demand athlete profiles.

Comcast's 'Video Mosaic'
Video mosaics are a key
component of Comcast’s forthcoming
Video-Rich Navigation platform.
Support for VRN will accompany the A24 IPG release from Gemstar-TV Guide. That version is expected to emerge from Acadia (Motorola's set-top software integration facility) in mid-to-late July. Comcast also has aims to market the product to other MSOs, according to Leslie Russell, the CMC's vice president, sales and marketing.

In the early going, the operator, not the user, will define how the templates are set-up. A customer-customized version is "in the roadmap," Traver says.

Microsoft TV, meanwhile, has also demonstrated a mosaic application for its IPTV product, whereby users can click on different streams. Microsoft plans to support mosaics in the next version of its cable IPG, and showed off an early version of it to executives at the 2005 National Show in San Francisco.

Pioneer, too, is working on a video mosaic guide that borrows the thematic concept of its QuickMenu application. The company expects to debut that product this summer, according to Jones.

As the mosaic trend suggests, video can be used to sell or promote video. The use of video is also aiding next-gen VOD navigation products.

With its VODlink software platform, SeaChange International was among the first to enhance on-demand navigation tools and network branding opportunities. SeaChange has secured VODlink deployments with operators such as Cox Communications, Insight Communications and Metrocast Cablevision, and video is a core component of the platform.

Concurrent 'in-band video streaming'
Concurrent is using in-band video streaming
to help programmers promote their VOD fare.

A more recent example of this is Concurrent Computer Corp.'s patent-pending Interactive Media Solution (IMS), a technology being used to beef up VOD barker channels via the streaming of in-band, scaled video to any VOD-capable set-top. The IMS system can change what content is promoted based on how viewers are navigating it.

"It allows us to create a very rich and robust experience to the consumer," says Bob Chism, Concurrent's chief technology officer. IMS is designed to work with multiple guides and middleware, but the first version will run on the Gemstar-TV Guide iGuide. Trials are slated for this summer.

Because the video is scaled, the IMS application does not require a full 3.75 Mbps (for standard definition), but less than 2 Mbps in most cases, leaving plenty of headroom for graphics.

The concept also aims to open up branding opportunities for programmers, an element sorely lacking in most VOD applications today.

Chism says IMS represents "the tip of the iceberg of what can be done. This technique allows you to [create] unique opportunities with several layers of barkers." Operators, for example, can use it to promote SVOD, create a set of holiday programs, and make such changes on a daily basis.

Say goodbye to the grid guide

One company that is tackling the navigation challenge via an entirely new paradigm for the TV environment is Hillcrest Labs, a startup that generated lots of underground buzz at The National Show.

The company is of the position that traditional grids just don't cut it anymore as rafts of content and applications continually enter the picture.

"Our contention is that the grid is grid-locked," Addis says.

Taking a spatial approach that looks and feels a lot like the PC environment, Hillcrest's "free space navigation" platform uses what can be described as an "air mouse," a pointing device that selects and makes choices on-screen. Instead of a remote with more buttons than usable functions, Hillcrest's ring-shaped remote (called "The Loop" internally) comes equipped with just two buttons and a scroll wheel—and all within easy reach of the thumb.

"Our contention is that what the mouse in Windows was to the PC, our technology...is to the TV," Addis says.

Hillcrest's graphically-rich navigation system employs a server at the headend coupled with a metadata management system that is capable of making recommendations. If "Terminator II" is selected, for example, the system is designed to also pull up other Arnold Schwarzenegger movies available on VOD or on broadcast, as well as the soundtrack and products associated with the flick.

That said, merchandising will play a big role in Hillcrest's system, and possibly give operators a way to participate in that tried, but not yet true, t-commerce revenue stream.

As designed, the system is too powerful for 2000-class boxes. Only thick-clients (think the Motorola 6412 or S-A Explorer 8000-series) need apply.

As for timing, the company hopes to be ready for a trial in Q4 2005 or Q1 2006, with deployments coming in the second half of 2006.

Although the product was initially designed for the cable industry, cable won't be Hillcrest's only target. "We've got to attack the marketplace. We're talking to cable, DBS, consumer electronics and PC companies...and there's a lot of interest across every segment," Addis says.

Open up and say, 'ESPN'

Wouldn't it be great if you could just tell the TV what you want to watch? If yes was your answer, then there certainly are some vendors that would like to meet with you posthaste.

AgileTV Corp., for example, markets a network-based voice activation system called "Promptu." In the home, the platform uses a specialized IR remote control with a built-in push-to-talk button. The remote also serves as the front end of the speech recognition system. It feeds into a sidecar hooked into the set-top (AgileTV hopes to integrate the functionality into a set-top box down the road).

Agile TV's 'Promptu'
AgileTV’s Promptu voice navigation system has a home and a headend component.
In addition to making selections more accurate, the architecture also saves bandwidth, according to David Chaiken, AgileTV's vice president and chief technology officer. AgileTV's proprietary speech compression technology cuts down the original voice signal from about 256 kbps down to just 2 kbps when it's in the form that travels the network.

That signal ends up at an AgileTV server, where it is deciphered and cross-sectioned into the IPG and VOD system. If the customer happened to utter, "Find the San Francisco Giants," the platform might list games on now, coming up, or available on- demand. The AgileTV system, which taps a database of more than 100,000 phrases, delivers higher than 90 percent voice recognition accuracy, the company claims.

AgileTV's system is currently set-up to work on Motorola DCT-2000 and DCT-2500 boxes. "We are working on the DVR [set-top] now and voice-enabling that," Hanson says.

AgileTV is also beginning to make some inroads with larger cable operators. Comcast Cable has conducted a technical trial in the Philadelphia area, and will move to a market trial in the city by the end of Q2, according to an AgileTV spokeswoman. USA Media (now part of Cequel III) previously ran a 15-month alpha trial with AgileTV.

Taking a slightly different approach to the voice-activated IPG is OneVideo Technology. Under its scheme, the technology rests entirely at the edge (in a set-top or television, for example) rather than on the network.

At last check, OneVideo was exploring a range of options, including an off-the-shelf box distributed through retail channels. Another option involves a sidecar-like device that hooks into the set-top and receives IPG data directly from the box. A third is full set-top integration.

OneVideo hopes to have a CE product ready by the 2006 holiday selling season.

Set-top makers other than Motorola are taking a wait-and-see approach to voice recognition.

"We've been following the technology closely," Davies says. "The technology has greatly improved and there's potential for it, but I don't see there being a large number of deployments of voice recognition into cable in the next 12 months."

Pioneer, too, is keeping an eye on it, especially as it evolves and becomes integrated with the set-top. A sidecar that enables voice activation "is probably not the optimal solution," Jones says.

 

What about Mystro?

Still relatively hush-hush is what is going on behind the scenes regarding navigation technology at Time Warner Cable and its erstwhile MystroTV division.

About a year ago, Time Warner Cable disclosed plans to remove existing IPGs from Scientific-Atlanta and Pioneer and replace them with new in-house navigation products. In addition to guides for the legacy boxes, Time Warner Cable is also hard at work on versions for OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform). The company has not disclosed timelines for the new "native" or OCAP-based "Mystro Digital Navigator" products.

As for innovation, there is word of advanced search features (that tie in VOD, the DVR and broadcast content), as well as a more intuitive in-channel navigation tool and multi-room support. A company spokesman said the project has three primary goals: to improve navigation and time-shifting, to create a more immersive programming experience, and to introduce compelling interactive content and services.

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