12 things to expect from Virgin Media's next-gen box
11th Mar 2010 | 10:30
When TiVo meets UK cable
Thumbs up to TiVo
Although Virgin Media are remaining coy on the details of its forthcoming next-generation TiVo-enabled boxes, there are plenty of assumptions that can be made.
With the partnership signed and sealed and development well underway on an interface that brings the Virgin Media hardware and the TiVo user experience together, what can you expect to find on the next-generation cable set-top boxes?
1. Recommendation and automatic record engine
Central to everything that has made TiVo such a dominant force in US PVRs is the much-vaunted recommendation engine. Users grade the kind of programmes that they watch, giving it up to three thumbs up or down, and TiVo's system then uses the recommendation to find and record the kinds of programmes that you like.
On top of this, TiVo uses the (anonymised) information from all of its user base to work out what people who watch the same kinds of shows as you are watching to make even more guesses on your behalf.
The upshot is that your PVR will always be full of programs that you may (or may not) like to watch based on your viewing preferences.
But how will TiVo recommendations work on boxes without a PVR? This is something that Virgin Media is working hard to solve – but the recommendations can apply equally to available Video on Demand (VOD) meaning that things like BBC iPlayer content, catch-up TV and, potentially, TV Choice on Demand will be graded and provided as TiVo recommendations.
Plus, expect to see TiVo recommending shows you might like to watch on the linear channels, even if it cannot record them for you.
2. 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon
Another useful addition to TiVo that is likely to appear in Virgin Media's user interface (UI) is functionality that allows you to see the cast of any given show and then what other shows and movies they appear in.
So, for instance, should you be watching Kiefer Sutherland in 24 and want to see if any of his extensive range of movies are being shown elsewhere in the listings (or available on VOD of course) then you can. You can also then surf onto his co-stars in those films and see what TV and film they are appearing in that's available and so on.
3. Context specific recommendations
Another offshoot of the recommendation engine is that when they are combined with some content hand-picked by an editorial team and the cast and crew information you can have a dynamic feed of relevant content that actually sits nicely with whatever it is you are looking at.
So, if you happen to be looking for a movie starring a particular actor, you could well get recommendations on the page that point to other work by some of the cast, other movies of the same type and movies that people who watched that film have also watched.
Collections, tuners and HD
For those who have flicked through some of the TV Choice on Demand and film VOD menus in the current Sky+ box you will have some idea of what to expect from collections. Essentially these are groups of related pieces of content that you may want to watch.
However, Collections from TiVo takes that to the next level, providing some timely groups of programmes and other longer form content. So, for instance, you could have a Collection of romantic movies that appears around Valentine's Day, or a grouping of England's World Cup football matches but you could equally more static content like Total Film's top 10 movies of all time.
5. Three tuners
In come ways the Virgin Media TiVo box may be better than the TiVo boxes on sale in the US and one of those ways will be in the amount of tuners. Currently TiVo (and Sky+) offers dual tuners – you can record two things but you then can't watch any other channel live unless it is one that you are recording on.
One of the key selling points of V+ is that it has three tuners – allowing dual record and a live third channel – and we'd put our mortgage on Virgin Media keeping the three tuner approach for its next generation.
6. HD for all
There's been no announcement but if we had a bottom dollar then we'd be ready to bet it on that next generation of all V boxes being HD enabled.
Currently all V+ boxes can run HD content and there's no added subscription, but we expect more HD functionality to be rolled out sooner rather than later, bearing in mind that Freeview HD is beginning to roll out to the masses and Sky's HD strategy is clearly working.
Curation, search, and the internet
7. Enhanced search and 8. Curation
Perhaps the most vital functionality in the new TiVo boxes is the use of search. The word being used all over the place is 'curation' meaning the way in which the masses of content are brought together and displayed in a way which is relevant to the user and search is central to that.
TiVo's principle is that if you are looking for a TV show then the channel, type or access to that programme is of secondary interest. If you are looking for the latest episode of Lost, for example, then you should be given all options – VOD or linear – or be told when the episode is actually going to be available.
So therefore search is of huge importance – and TiVo's search orders things by popularity; start typing and just like the awesome bar in Firefox, or auto suggest in Bing and Google, the option start to narrow down with the most popular choices appearing first be it actor or show.
When you arrive at the show or actor the way in which the results are displayed are important. To continue with our example going to the Lost page will bring up show information, cast, an episode guide and, crucially, when (and where) you can watch or record them.
Why is this cool? Because you don't need to trawl through the listings looking for a programme – you can just find all the content from a series (or actor) in one place.
9. Internet content
Another thing that features for each show on the TiVo box is selected internet content for each programme or actor. Essentially a search is run for content on YouTube appending the name of the show and the world TV – not exactly sophisticated but potentially useful.
Although VM might well not go exactly down this route – the principle of using internet data to boost TV watching is clear, and some kind of YouTube access is likely to be enhanced with other routes to web content.
Graphics, multi-room and mobile
10. More graphics, less text
Last but not least, Virgin Media's TiVo boxes will almost certainly boast a much more visual user experience. The current text-heavy menu systems are a million miles away from the graphical TiVo UI and integrating things like movie posters and screenshots really make using it significantly nicer.
Of course, the corporate colours are likely to feature heavily and it remains to be seen whether the ever-present discovery bar at the top of the screen will be ported across in all its graphical glory, but expect a more dynamic, more graphical and friendlier experience.
11. Networked multi-room
One of TiVo's most popular features is its networked boxes – allowing you to access the recordings you made in your living room from your second box in the bedroom or vice versa.
It certainly isn't much of a reach to suggest that Virgin media will be keen to bring this feature to its boxes, especially because 'upselling' – convincing people that they shouldn't just get the basic packages but should add a V+ box or multi-room – is a great way of increasing revenues, and this is a great reason to splash out a little more for a nice bit of functionality.
12. Mobile content
This remains the feature that is both the most desirable for consumers and thorniest for Virgin Media. Imagine being able to simply convert and send your content to your mobile phone or laptop so that you can keep up with your television wherever you are.
It's obviously a powerful concept, and yet content providers – ie, the people who make the TV programmes or films – remain worried that being able to copy to a mobile device could impact on their DVD sales.
Can the problem be solved? Almost certainly. But it remains to be seen if we will get the TiVo mobile functionality in the Virgin box