Your TV's interface is about to get smarter

28th Apr 2009 | 09:53

Your TV's interface is about to get smarter

New EPGs to have iPlayer, Flickr, YouTube and more

The next generation of EPGs

Fancy playing Xbox 360 on your main TV while the console itself sits upstairs? Or how about using the BBC's iPlayer or Channel 4's on-demand service without using a computer?

There are moves afoot by broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers to expand their Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs) into interfaces that include IPTV channels and offer advanced home networking. A new digital platform, it seems, is imminent.

Gary Thompson is Director of the Institute of Advanced Broadcasting (IAB), a body that specialises in research into convergence. He says: "Digital devices such as televisions, mobile telephones and cameras are merging into multi-use communications appliances and driving the broadcasting, telecommunications, IT, film, and gaming industries onto one digital platform."

ABI Research predicts that they will account for a third of the market for media servers by 2010. "Set-top boxes (STBs) and CE devices are the fastest-growing types of home media serving equipment partly because of the tremendous popularity of video game consoles such as the Sony PS3," says senior analyst Jason Blackwell. "The growth in the STB segment is largely due to broadband operators' effort to push deeper into the 'digital home network' by providing additional services and connectivity."

And with many of these new devices already able to connect to broadband, it's the humble but easy to use Electronic Programme Guide (or EPG) that could be the key.

With EPG interfaces that are already familiar to viewers, broadcasters are well placed to capitalise. Freesat's Marketing and Communications Director Will Abbott told us that its set-top boxes have been future-proofed for a very good reason: IPTV.

"All TV platforms are looking at IPTV, there's no question it's coming," he told us.

"We wanted to make sure that Freesat boxes are able to offer viewers services we'll be launching in the future over and above linear TV services," says Abbot, confirming that the BBC's iPlayer will be available on the platform soon. On-demand services from Channel 4 and ITV – currently only available online – could follow.

Sky's new EPG

Changes are also afoot at Sky. After ten years using the same EPG, Sky is in the process of presenting a whole new interface for its Sky+HD customers. Some viewers have already received it, with rollout scheduled to continue for the next couple of months. The key changes include a easy-to-use planner, a lightning-fast search database and the more obvious flagging-up of HD content.

"It's as HD customers expect – it's a superior and premium experience and the graphics are in HD resolution," Michele Swaine, Head of Product Development at Sky, told us. "The EPG is absolutely critical. It's only one part of the overall experience – there's content, reliability and quality to consider – but we do know that the TV guide is the entry point to enjoying it all."

The Sky+HD box has an Ethernet port on its rear that is about to come into its own, it seems, though straight web surfing isn't likely to appear yet. "Is the TV the best place to do that?" asks Swaine. "If searching and downloading is best done on a PC, especially from a storage point of view, then we don't want to squeeze a round peg into a square hole."

But that Ethernet port does open up plenty of other options. Swaine tells us that the broadcaster's plan for a 'pull' version of its Sky Anytime service is in advanced stages, where an enormous library of programmes will be available on-demand. It will replace the present regime whereby 40 hours of random programming are physically downloaded to Sky+HD boxes overnight.

Samsung, Sony and Panasonic have also been embracing the internet with their flagship 2009 ranges, albeit only from within ring-fenced online portals.

iPlayer, Project Canvas and new standards

Samsung's Internet@TV feature is the most impressive of its type, with widgets accessible from the remote control for Yahoo news, Yahoo weather and a Flickr account. "A YouTube widget launches next month," says Darren Petersen, Product Manager for TVs at Samsung. There will also be a Yahoo video widget plus games, such as Soduku, with more announcements to follow. "This kind of widget tech is almost like new channels for people," says Petersen.

But what about the iPlayer? Could we see a widget for that? "Ultimately that's the kind of widget that we're looking to come on board, as well as for streaming ITV and Channel 4's video-on-demand. That's ultimately where this is going to go – that's the future of this technology."

Samsung's is a closed platform, but the BBC is proposing an open standard platform for TV over broadband called Project Canvas.

If it gets the go-ahead from the BBC Trust – something that's in no way certain – Project Canvas could to spawn a new generation of digital TV set-top boxes that can host widgets for virtually any IPTV channel on the internet.

"An open standard would of course benefit the consumer and everyone in the industry," says Petersen, "but we need to know what the specs are."

"It's not a service that could be downloaded into existing Freesat hardware," confirms Abbott, while Sky says it intends to take part fully in the consultation process. "It could offer a great opportunity to extend the reach of Sky Player, and we'll explore that potential," says Swaine. Sky Player offers access to a library of live channels and on-demand shows, but it's currently only available online.

A new rival for DLNA?

Away from IPTV, but just as exciting is multimedia home networking. Although vaguely similar systems are already being used on some TVs and Blu-ray players – such as the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) system that allows rudimentary networking with a PC – a new worldwide standard from China called DiiVA is gathering pace.

It promises a high bandwidth, two-way system where information can be sent to and fro between devices around the home.

"Any DiiVA TV can access and control any DiiVA source device on the network," DiiVA spokesperson Steve Yum told us.

A system like DiiVA makes it possible to play video games in the living room from a PS3 stored in a bedroom, or control and run applications on a remote PC while you're sitting in front of the TV. Straight internet browsing is also possible. However, the system, which is supported so far by LG, Panasonic and Samsung, uses heavy-duty CAT6 cables around a home, which does clash with the craze for wireless devices. "The bandwidth of DiiVA is greater than any existing wireless interface," says Yum, but there's no reason why a wireless system couldn't be melded into DiiVA, aside from reliability issues.

What DiiVA could provide is simplicity. "DiiVA itself is an interface standard," says Yum. "Widgets or Apps can be built to take advantage of the connectivity that DiiVA offers, but they are not a part of the DiiVA standard themselves."

DiiVA has only recently appeared, but broadcasters and manufacturers are all aware of it. That includes Sky, who clearly has ambitions to expand its Sky Multiroom feature to include an element of home networking. "We're very excited about that," says Swaine. "We haven't come out publicly, but we are absolutely looking at home networking. Digital TV has to pervade around the whole home." It's likely to include functionality such as pausing live TV in one room and continuing to watch in another room – which is exactly what a system like DiiVA promises.

We may be in the middle of the HD Ready revolution, but don't get too attached to your HDMI cables. If broadcasters and manufacturers can create an interface that includes IPTV widgets and two-way home networking, we could have another wave of intelligent TVs and set-top boxes to contend with.

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