VOD User Interfaces Evolve

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Fully integrated interactive-programming-guide/ video-on-demand solutions got a big boost with the announcement in April that Maynard, Mass.-based SeaChange International Inc. is the first VOD-platform vendor to partner with TV Guide Interactive (TVGI). Their joint integrated IPG/VOD will be available in the third quarter.

Both Rogers Cable Inc. in Toronto and Time Warner Cable in Austin, Texas, have deployed the SeaChange "ITV System"-a VOD solution based on "MediaCluster" server technology at test sites.

Both companies are moving quickly to commercial rollouts, and both are using Scientific-Atlanta Inc. "Explorer 2000" set-tops, although Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc.'s "Voyager" is also deployed in Austin.

Comcast Corp. is using SeaChange's ITV in a trial, too, as have U.K.-based Telewest Communications plc and Guandong Cable Television in China.

There are 3.5 million digital subscribers with digital set-top boxes enabled by TV Guide. Many of those are Motorola Broadband Communications Sector "DCT-1000s" and "2000s," which requires tight integration and coordination with TV Guide, noted Ed Delaney, vice president of marketing at SeaChange.

Time Warner uses an IPG application developed to its specification by Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Pioneer, according to vice president of corporate development Mike LaJoie. He said VOD titles are presented in a movies-on-demand channel, and they do not appear on the IPG. A more integrated version will appear in the future.

Orlando, Fla.-based Prasara Technologies will demonstrate a VOD interface in PowerTV Inc.'s booth at the National Show using a Motorola DCT-2000. Prasara-which has VOD-related software deployed by Time Warner in three places: Hawaii; Tampa, Fla.; and New York-is being acquired by S-A subsidiary PowerTV.

"We are not in the VOD business. We are providing various tools and applications as we go about building an open ITV system. We design for the thin-client environment," Prasara president Robert Montgomery said, adding that Prasara is prepared to adapt when more memory is deployed in digital boxes.

Montgomery said one of the challenges faced by Prasara developers is balancing the interfaces with the right amount of color and graphics. Giving the right look and feel to a screen, while remaining mindful of the constraints of the system, is key. Among other things, an unacceptable level of latency can result if an imbalance is present in the system.

"Because the VOD user interface resides on the digital set-top and only communicates with the server during a transaction, application-bandwidth utilization is very efficient," Montgomery said. "This, along with the opportunity to upsell and promote products, is what makes Prasara's digital VOD-related solution so appealing."

Prasara put its so-called pizza app, or TV Takeout, on the map months ago. It is also prepared to add other digital applications, such as karaoke-on-demand, which Hawaii's Oceanic Cable plans to roll out using a Prasara interface.

Besides being integrated with PowerTV on the S-A Explorer 2000, Prasara is integrated with Pioneer's "Passport" navigation system, which Time Warner is using in New York, as well as with nCUBE and Unisys Corp.

Diva Systems Corp. CEO David Zucker said his company will demonstrate its "VOD Navigator" for the Motorola "DCT-5000" at the National Show. VOD Navigator is one of Diva's two user interfaces, which have been deployed on nine systems so far. It is designed to run on middleware solutions provided by WorldGate Communications Inc., Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies, PowerTV and OpenTV Inc.

Zucker said Diva has accumulated a substantial amount of data to indicate how viewers interact with the user interface.

"Simply moving around in the VOD Navigator accounts for approximately 20 percent of the total time spent on VOD by a customer," he added. "And 50 percent of the time, customers do not buy a movie, which indicates the value of the navigator real estate."

Smaller cable operators are in the midst of their own VOD transitions, as well.

At Dallas-based Source Media Inc., CEO Stephen Palley indicated that Insight Communications Co. Inc., a Source investor, is the only operator to implement the "SourceSuite" solution so far, using DCT 2000s.

But Palley pointed to efforts to integrate a back-end solution from both Wink Communications Inc.'s enhanced-TV platform and Commerce.TV.

Palley said Insight customers can access VOD content in different ways. Using "SourceGuide," they can hit a menu button that comes with VOD selections, or they can use the front screen of the IPG.

"With our SourceGuide service on the IPG, we have made VOD easier to use, as well as immediately and easily accessible," he added.

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