Cox Communications’ new user interface fits it to a T, as well it should since the cable operator has spent the last four years designing its new Trio program guide from the ground up.
Trio is one leg of a tour-de-force package that Cox announced this week, which also includes a whole-home DVR service and a new digital tier called “Plus Package.”
The Trio guide was developed by Cox and NDS, and its whole method of operation is based around making content easier to find, view and personalize for Cox’s subscribers.
In response to customers’ frustration in finding and viewing content across linear and on-demand guides, which often means switching back and forth between different guides that have different functions and displays, Cox started to drill down on focus groups in 2006. Aside from coming up with a more customer-friendly UI, Cox also wanted it to be OCAP-based.
Lisa Pickelsimer, Cox’s executive director of video products, said the company worked with frog design, a global innovation firm, on creating a user interface that literally started as a blank piece of paper that Cox customers filled in.
“We felt we needed to do our own guide to address the needs and wants of our customers,” she said. “We came to understand that the user interface was the face of Cox to our customers, and it was important to put our best face forward.”
Once Cox knew what it wanted, it eventually whittled the vendor list down to NDS, which had previous experience building an OCAP guide in the Korean market, as well as “the talent and integration facilities that we felt we needed,” Pickelsimer said.
The Trio guide, which is the user interface for the Plus Package tier, features three panes to make content easier to find and view. The left window lists the channels vertically in numerical order, while the middle pane shows programs on the selected channel. The third pane gives a detailed description of the program selected in the middle pane.
The on-demand listings include titles, poster art and program description information, all in the three panes of a single Trio screen, making navigation and selection of on-demand content easier. Pickelsimer said the richer guide information was from Tribune Media Services.
Trio also gives customers the ability to sort available program information in a grid guide view, a theme view, a high-definition programming view, a Zone channels view – for genre-related programming such as sports – and a favorite channels view.
And to really drill down through the clutter of content, Trio lets users search and browse related content across three platforms – linear airings, on-demand titles and DVR recordings.
The guide’s unified search function allows customers to search based on title, actor and keyword. Trio’s browse-related feature identifies shows that have something in common with a currently selected show, such as upcoming episodes, related series, shows within the same genre or shows featuring the same actors.
Up to eight users in a home can personalize their viewing experience by selecting favorite channels and customizing iTV applications. Future iterations of the guide will include social networking, which would allow a friend to suggest a program, while a Cox spokeswoman said searching for related content on the Internet is “on the radar screen” but yet to be announced.
While Cox developed Trio with NDS, Steve Tranter, NDS’ vice president of broadband and interactive, said NDS is licensed to sell the modular, open guide system to other MSOs, which would include the use of NDS’ integration team in order to customize the guide to each MSO’s requirements. Tranter said other MSOs have expressed an interest in the user interface.
Plus Package rollout
Cox’s Plus Package tier will make its debut in the cable operator’s Orange County, Calif., system in the second quarter of this year, with the rest of Cox’s footprint to follow by year’s end.
Plus Package and the whole-home DVR service feature Cisco’s tru2way-enabled Explorer 8642 HD DVR and Explorer 1642 HD gateway receiver. (Cisco’s press release mentioned that with its gateways, Internet video can be rebroadcast on HDTV, and stored DVR content can be sent over the Internet to a PC or laptop for viewing in and outside of the home, which may be where Cox is headed in future versions of Plus Package.)
With the whole-home DVR service, Cox is laying claim to being the first cable operator to deploy the service with tru2way capabilities across multiple markets.
With the multi-room DVR service, Cox subscribers can watch up to three different programs simultaneously on any TV in the home from a single DVR unit via MoCA 1.1.
“We intend to have it in all Cox systems by year-end, and we believe that is very doable because this infrastructure is centralized, so all of the servers and things that power the Trio guide are located in our national data center, and they will serve all Cox markets,” Pickelsimer said. “This is the beauty of a standardized platform, whereas in the past when we rolled out a new guide, we had to go to each individual Cox cable system, install equipment and get the thing up and running.
“In the case of Trio, we have it up and running in the national data center, and all we have to do is get the boxes that are capable of the MoCA home networking that is needed for multi-room DVR into our cable systems, and then train the front lines to sell and support the products.”
Cox Plus Package subscribers will also enjoy up to three times more DVR storage space on the new 500 GB hard drives. The Plus Package gateways have the same monthly costs as the current boxes that are in a subscriber’s home, but there’s an additional $5-per-month charge for the new tier.
While all Cox markets are slated to have Plus Package this year, only the markets that have been upgraded to 1 GHz will have access to the additional HD programming that Cox will be adding above 860 MHz. (Cox is among the first cable operators to send video in the 860 MHz spectrum, which has traditionally been reserved for data services. Cox is able to offer video in the 860 MHz spectrum because Cisco’s gateways are capable of operating on those frequencies.) Currently, Cox has upgraded 14 markets to 1 GHz. In addition to being tru2way-enabled, the Cisco boxes are also DOCSIS-based with DSG (DOCSIS Set-Top Gateway).
It’s not exactly dogs and cats living together in harmony: The Cisco boxes for Plus Package will have CableCards from Motorola – which Cox is in charge of inserting – in Cox’s Motorola markets. Cox said this marked the first time that a cable company broadly implemented a cross-platform set-top box receiver offering.
Plus Package will also feature Caller ID on TV for digital customers who also subscribe to Cox’s digital phone service.
In addition to the Trio guide, tru2way is also baked into the TV Caller ID/call logs, Zone channels and cable receiver ID, with more tru2way interactive features slated for future releases.