Mapping Path to the Unified Unknown

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Joseph Stern has big ideas about a "system and method for accessing, manipulating and viewing Internet and non-Internet related information and for controlling network devices."

That broad title covers four Stern patents (one of which has been granted; three are pending) that look to the future of navigating the integrated worlds of video and online content.

Stern is not alone. As "information overload" takes on new implications from today's deluge of video and data, intelligent — and user-friendly — navigation tools become even more valuable.

At companies ranging from Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc. and Google to quirky start-ups, the rush is on to find a way — ideally a unified process — to help customers dive directly into the digital morass and get what they want via broadband systems.

IPG vendors get it

Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., a pioneer in this sector, hopes to create the solution, assuming it gets through its present nasty financial situation.

The newly overhauled TV Gateway LLC promises blended navigation tools for interactive program guides, digital TV and digital video recorder integration, on behalf of its MSO owners.

In Stern's view, the "industry sees the need for interchangeable" features.

But what "industry" does he mean? The cable and media businesses (and their vendors) have their own agendas, and those aren't identical to those of computer makers or advertising/marketing organizations.

All parties acknowledge the need for compatible, comfortable processes to help viewers find their desired content, but none can agree on uniformity.

Stern's passion about getting to sought-after material, whether it's a previous computer session or an upcoming pay-per-view show, stems from his 50 years in TV engineering, starting with two decades at CBS Inc. (including the Tiffany Network's early cable TV ventures).

Later, with the legendary Peter Goldmark of CBS Labs, Stern created technology for Warner Cable's original QUBE interactive system.

Interface on demand

Stern Telecommunications Corp. of New York envisions that its patents, when licensed to an appropriate partner, can be developed into applications that enable a viewer to choose an interface based on how he likes to find information: a grid, customized icons or some other style.

Once preferences are selected, the computer — which might be a desktop or an advanced set-top, but will probably be a home media center — searches the Internet, cable TV or satellite service and a host computer to create a guide that's oriented around times or topics.

Stern's patent shows connections to PCs, TV sets, in-home and out of home networks.

What of the cable TV-consumer electronics point-of-deployment interoperability plan, which would allow subscribers to trade in their set-top box for a POD module that would work in tandem with their TV tuner?

Said Stern: "The further along we get with PODs [for] TV sets, the more likely we are to find the same PODs in the PC. The more choices we have, the more we want. The more we get, the more difficult it is to manage!"

Whatever the future for Stern's patents, many integration efforts are underway.

Microsoft plans

At June's National Show in Chicago, Microsoft TV will unveil the latest iteration of its "managed content service," an outgrowth of its interactive guide projects.

Microsoft appreciates how this kind of product could eventually evolve into a single cross-platform navigation scheme, although that is not the immediate plan.

Similarly, the Scientific-Atlanta Resident Applications (SARA) suite provides a unified navigation tool and interface for IPGs, pay-per-view and, lately, DVRs.

And there's a consistent crossover interface for TiVo Inc.'s new "Home Media Options" software, a $99 bundle that enables TiVo DVRs to access and distribute content (e.g. music files and digital photos stored on a PC) to TV sets or stereo systems.

It makes the "V" in DVR antiquated, if not downright irrelevant.

As digital services blur the PC-versus-TV divide, integrated search and presentation systems will emerge. At some point, viewers will see inter-related programs and services on a desktop or set-top.

Consistency needed

A consistent format and style will become vital as customers expect (or demand) more value from their service providers.

They won't tolerate complex — and proprietary — navigation and interface structures.

An array of standards groups has broached this topic. Even CTAM and other market-oriented organizations want a say in how this looks.

Advertisers also have strong viewpoints. They're concerned that in an on-demand environment, their messages — or, on a more pertinent note, the path to their pitches — could be obscured by inconsistent or unreliable directives.

It's another reason for technical collaboration toward the big challenge of finding the digital directions.

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen mans the I-Way Patrol for Broadband Week.

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