Using products such as remote controls that listen to voice commands, cable operators and tech vendors are looking to change the way viewers navigate hundreds of channels and on-demand programming choices.
They’re also working hard to expand the capabilities of the interactive program guides that populate millions of digital set-tops, incorporating the additional programming available on-demand and stored on digital video recorders.
IPGs were a huge breakthrough in TV navigation when operators first began marketing digital-programming tiers in the late 1990s. But with most MSOs now offering subscribers myriad on-demand programming choices and DVRs, some top cable executives say next-generation guides need to go beyond catchy descriptions of scheduled shows.
“Right now, on-demand content and broadcast content are separate walls, and we need to be able to break down the walls between the two,” Comcast Corp. vice president of digital television Mark Hess said.
Comcast is overhauling its IPG though a joint venture formed with Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. called GuideWorks.
Comcast also is testing microphone-equipped remote controls and software from startup AgileTV, which allow subscribers to change channels and search for programs by talking to their remote controls with orders such as: “Find The Sopranos.”
AgileTV, whose investors include Motorola Inc. and Insight Communications Co., generated some buzz at the recent National Show in New Orleans with the gizmo.
It requires an inexpensive receiver that attaches to Motorola’s DCT-2000 digital set-top and can recognize 100,000 phrases.
Comcast is testing AgileTV with friendly subscribers in Philadelphia and is intrigued by how easy it would be to explain to customers, Hess explained.
“A lot of times when you’re trying to market new technology, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out, 'How do I explain this?’ This is something we’ve all been waiting for since we saw our first Jetsons. It’s got a cool factor that’s beyond belief.”
Comcast and Time Warner Cable are helping to drive the IPG’s metamorphosis through agreements both companies struck with Gemstar.
Those deals allow the MSOs to combine Gemstar technology with products developed by their own teams or other vendors.
In an interview last week, Time Warner Cable chief marketing officer Chuck Ellis described a new IPG, called Time Warner Cable Digital Navigator, being readied for a nationwide rollout in the second half of this year.
He said the guide is based partly on technology Time Warner developed for the MystroTV project, which aspired to develop a network-based DVR platform to store thousands of hours of programming at cable headends.
Ellis said the Green Bay, Wisc., system is currently conducting technical trials of the Time Warner Cable Digital Navigator.
“It will incorporate the best of the guide aspects that came from the Mystro incubator,” Ellis said.
The navigator would allow Time Warner Cable subscribers to look for TV programs in a single search that would encompass linear TV content, on-demand libraries and content stored on a DVR, a spokesman said.
Paul Allen’s Digeo Inc. also showed off the IPG in New Orleans for its high-end Moxi Media Center, which runs on Motorola Inc. set-tops. That guide also provides graphic illustrations of what’s on a viewer’s favorite cable channels, what’s available on-demand and on HDTV and what’s stored on the DVR.
TV Guide Television Group senior vice president Todd Walker said much of the development focus at Gemstar and GuideWorks is on finding better ways to navigate on-demand programming.
The average cable company offers up to 3,000 hours of on-demand programming today, and wants to expand libraries soon to 10,000 hours and reach 30,000 to 50,000 hours of stored content within a few years, he said.
This summer, Gemstar plans to deploy a revamped IPG, the i-Guide, to allow subscribers to click on a small overlay on a linear channel such as Home Box Office and jump to the programmer’s library at HBO On Demand without having to pull up a menu.
Microsoft showed off a new IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) guide in New Orleans that lets viewers flip through video thumbnails for every channel on a guide and even view video for upcoming shows.
It also lets subscribers change channels in about 150 milliseconds, according to Microsoft Corp. marketing director Ed Graczyk.
“Today on [Microsoft TV] Foundation or TV Guide [Interactive] when you browse ahead you’re looking at a one-line descriptor that tells you what’s on that other page. But with IPTV, you actually see the description as well as the video running,” Graczyk said.
ICTV Inc. CEO Mike McGrail said IPGs need to become more intuitive. “There’s just so much information you’ve got to get access to, and it’s not easy to remember what you saw 200 channels ago,” McGrail said.
ICTV and other vendors are hoping MSOs will incorporate their technology as they revamp their guides.
ICTV was pitching a HeadendWare product at the National Show that can boost the processing power of IPGs with hardware at headends.
Ucentric, which supplies software that lets subscribers access content stored on a digital video recorder from any set-top in a home, is looking to work with IPG vendors such as Gemstar — not to compete with them, CEO Michael Collette said.
“We’re not trying to turn the IPG market on its head — that’s not our focus at all,” Collette said.
OpenTV Corp. drew heavy traffic to its National Show booth with an ITV application and guide that News Corp. recently launched on its Foxtel direct-to-home satellite platform in Australia.
Some attendees said the applications — including an on-demand news service and interactive sports service that allows users to choose from multiple camera angles — offer a preview of how News Corp. intends to enhance DirecTV Inc.
“This is a glimpse into the kinds of things that DirecTV’s cousins in Australia are doing,” said OpenTV chairman Jim Chiddix.
“I don’t know specifically what DirecTV will do, but wherever they’ve launched digital, the Murdoch family of satellite companies have launched interactivity very aggressively.”