Seven high-profile companies pooled their products to form e-BOX Corp., a Tokyo, Japan-based joint venture that will supply North American and Asia Pacific operators with a digital cable system based on MPEG-4 technology.

E-BOX is comprised of five publicly traded companies and two private ones, each of which will supply products or services from its area of expertise.

Pioneer Corp. and Sharp Corp. will contribute advice on cable infrastructures, headend equipment and digital set-top boxes to the new system.

National Semiconductor Corp. will pitch in silicon processors for the advanced set-top boxes, based on its Geode technology, it says.

Sigma Designs will supply the MPEG-4 decoder and video processing technologies for the advanced set-top boxes, and CMC Magnetics will use its manufacturing background for designing and developing the headend equipment and set-top boxes.

Privately held iVAST Inc. will pitch in encoding, authoring, distribution, playback and system software for MPEG-4-based movie and video content with embedded interactive features, the consortium says.

Finally, Modern VideoFilm Inc., also privately held, will supply post-production services and MPEG-4 compression and authoring. It also will contribute the hub for movies-on-demand and other MPEG-4-encoded content offered on the platform.

E-BOX will be advised by Comcast Cable Communications, which will supply technical support to define the architectural requirements. The cableco will conduct field trials of the new services early next year, the consortium says in a statement.

Spokesman Craig Tanner, also VP of cable business development at Sharp Laboratories of America's Vienna, Va., office, says the venture is focusing mostly on dealing with Comcast for now, which, he says, has the scale and expertise to give the project guidance.

"So we haven't exposed it to too many other operators," he says, although the venture did hold conferences with others at January's CES show in Las Vegas. The response convinced the venture it was on the right track.

Comcast is not an investor or shareholder, but an advisor, he adds.

The venture intends to build a complete infrastructure, including headend equipment, system software, content-protection systems and digital set-top boxes for scheduled and on-demand MPEG-4 content and interactive services.

Those services will include VOD, designed to have the look and feel of interactive DVD. Services also entail e-commerce, HDTV and high-capacity personal video recording.

The system can be used on any cable systems without limitations, such as size, Tanner says. It will be marketed as a set: with the MPEG-4 signals, interactivity, servers and other components working together, it can't be deployed piecemeal. Costs aren't available: "We aren't at that stage yet," he says.

Tanner would not disclose financial terms or who invested how much. The venture doesn't have a specific market date.

Each company of the partnership has a member on the board, which appointed Dr. Masao Sugimoto as president. It hasn't hired anyone else yet, he adds.

The venture will be based in Tokyo, largely because two of the partners are Japanese corporations, Tanner says.

The e-BOX consortium says it's consulting with several content providers, including Hollywood studios and KCTS/Seattle Public Television.

Tanner says it will release more details at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Cable 2002 show in New Orleans in May.