Teaching Ancient Set-Tops New Tricks


In New York City this week, ActiveVideo presented what amounts to a Grand Unification Theory that looks to solve a big problem that cable operators face as they introduce fancy, more agile cloud-based TV user interfaces.

The problem is that MSOs are still hamstrung by millions of QAM-based digital boxes that don’t speak IP and can’t natively support these new UIs. So, that leaves the MSO with a scenario in which it’s delivering what amounts to a crappy-looking experience on the legacy platform while the cool stuff is relegated to a relatively small deployment base of new IP-capable set-tops and gateways.

Tossing out all of those old boxes for new ones for the sake of unifying the UI isn’t financially or operationally practical.

Anyway, ActiveVideo has been preaching for years and years and years that cable should dump UIs that are resident in those old set-tops and instead do all of that heavy lifting and rendering in the headend or another form of the “cloud” and deliver the video and the UI to those boxes together in a video stream.

That way, the UI is decoupled from the device and the interface only needs to be written once (in HTML5). This would relieve the MSO from having to create and manage myriad versions of the guide. While that would help cable operators to deal with UI proliferation, ActiveVideo also argues that it could also help Netflix deal with its big operational problem: the proliferation of devices.

Back in the cable world, the idea is that this could be done not just to support QAM boxes, but just about any sort of device that can house a small software client that essentially collects the commands pressed into the remote control and sets up the sessions with the cloud-based servers. That means, in theory, that the same, slick-looking UI could be made to run on non-IP set-tops with feeble processing capabilities, but on more powerful connected TVs, specialized streaming devices, and game consoles as well.

ActiveVideo’s demo this week showed this in action. The demo that really told the story had Comcast’s new X1 interface and the latest TiVo UI running on an old DCT-2000 digital set-top box. This is tantamount to making a jalopy perform like a Lamborghini.

And those UIs looked exactly the same whether they were running on the DCT-2000, a Roku box, or a connected TV. And there was hardly any latency as the user navigated the interface and made selections.

But this was done in a controlled demo conducted in a hotel room, of course. Still, the demos, plus an expanded deal with Cablevision Systems and a new one with Charter Communications, do indicate that ActiveVideo’s theory has taken several steps closer to reality.