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DIRECTV hails impact of server-client whole-home TV

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It is nearly a year since satellite Pay TV operator DIRECTV, made its Genie next-generation whole-home and multiscreenTV solution available across the U.S. and the results have been extremely positive. According to Romulo Pontual, Executive Vice President & CTO at the company: “Customers love it. Genie is probably the most successful product we have ever launched; we have never had take-up that was so fast.”

The operator has already shipped several million of its Genie whole-home HD DVR gateways and ‘Genie Mini’ IP set-top box clients which, when linked to a Genie server, replicate all the functions of the main DVR.

The Genie whole home HD DVR solution reflects DIRECTV’s determination to provide more convenience for consumers. Subscribers can stream their DVR recordings to watch on multiscreen devices including laptops, tablets and smartphones. The content is transcoded using an external device called the GenieGo and subscribers download the GenieGo App (iOS, Android, PC and Mac) to their smart devices.

While this means customers can watch Pay TV recordings anywhere, the in-home viewing experience is still key. Pontual emphasizes: “Despite lots of news about how people want to watch anywhere, most people are still watching in the home. It is not about mobility outside the home; it is mainly about convenience inside the home – like watching a tablet in the kitchen.”

Pontual says existing customers are clamouring for upgrades to the Genie whole-home solution, even when they are charged for the new device. And one of the outcomes in homes using the technology is that teenagers are finding more time for TV. “What really resonates with customers is no more consoles for the teenagers,” Pontual says, meaning older children are playing less games in their rooms.

One of the important new features with Genie is push recommendations, which works like push VOD, in the sense that content is pre-loaded onto the hard drive for instant availability, except the choice of content is now determined by the recommendations system, based on what customers seem to like. It covers regular TV shows so if you watch a lot of talk shows Genie might record the three recent episodes of talk shows you will probably enjoy, and will do the same for comedies and other genres.

‘Genie Recommends’ can also record the last three episodes of any show, providing something akin to a catch-up service on the local DVR. If you are watching a series behind the linear release dates it can also pre-load the next episode for you.

Genie is an early example of a server/client whole-home HD DVR service reaching scale. Already on its second generation (a new and improved Genie arrived this year) it means customers can enjoy HD DVR functionality on four televisions simultaneously, including the TV connected to the Genie DVR server. That makes whole-home TV economic. In total you can record up to five channels simultaneously.

What makes this deployment particularly notable is the way DIRECTV is harnessing connected TV devices as clients alongside its own operator supplied devices. Instead of a DIRECTV set-top box you can link compatible Samsung and Sony Smart TVs to the Genie server if you want and the client list is expanding fast, with the Sony PS3 a notable upcoming addition.

As well as harnessing connected TV devices, the service is notable for its use of the RVU Alliance’s RUI (Remote User Interface) specification. This enables the pixel accurate reproduction of the operator UI on any compatible device and achieves complete consistency in the look-and-feel of the Pay TV service across those devices. DIRECTV is also pioneering the use of DLNA Premium Content Guidelines with Genie using RVU. This helps to secure content and enforce content rights on multiple CE devices.

DIRECTV is a founder member of the RVU Alliance, which hopes that European operators working on whole-home solutions will recognize the value of its Remote User Interface solution. As demonstrated with Genie, it is extremely reliable and that did not happen by chance – there has been a lot of investment in the technology, including in testing and interoperability. As Alan Smith, Senior Product Manager at DIRECTV told Videonet previously: â€œRVU RUI just works and works very well. Everything just works together straight out of the box and that is the Holy Grail that service providers in DLNA have been working towards.”

Pontual, who spent nine years working in Europe (he used to be responsible for satellite engineering at SES Astra in Luxembourg), says RVU-RUI has enabled a fantastic customer experience. He points to the quality of the trick-play on the client devices when they are used as DVRs, claiming it is better than you see on many ordinary DVRs despite the fact they are fed by a server device using DLNA. “This is because we invested a lot of resources to make sure this is a seamless experience for the consumer, and made this available through the RVU Alliance” he says.

There are a growing number of RVU-RUI compatible clients and the figure includes all Samsung Smart TVs from 2012 and 2013. DIRECTV says it is relatively easy to introduce new CE clients to its whole-home solution, as it has done several times this year. One company that has been helping the Pay TV operator integrate with third-party client devices is JetHead Development, which provides project based embedded software services (and is exhibiting on the DLNA booth at IBC2013).

Pontual says the clients are ‘done’, meaning the development work has been finished and these clients can now be harnessed by other platform operators using RVU-RUI. DIRECTV says it is open to discussing RVU-RUI server technology, like the necessary software development, with other operators, something that could be of value if there are European platforms that want to tap into existing expertise and experience for this kind of deployment.

So what are the next steps for DIRECTV with its whole-home HD DVR solution? One significant step is to deploy RVU-RUI devices in its Latin American operations, which will start next year. This will dramatically expand the potential user-base for this technology.

Meanwhile, and possibly even more importantly, DIRECTV is running a small scale consumer trial for wireless RVU clients in the United States. Pontual says these have been an outstanding success. “Consumers really like that,” he says. The company has been distributing HD content wirelessly from the server to three clients (mirroring the wired MoCA home networking experience). The aim is to ensure that customers cannot tell whether they are using a wired or wireless client, even when they are watching on a television set. Feedback from trial homes suggests this is being achieved.

Pontual predicts that wireless will gain momentum over the next 12 months for use in premium video home networking generally, although he warns: “You have to make sure it is flawless so consumers like the experience.”

That points to a reduced role for MoCA in future but that networking technology, which uses coax cables in the home, still has a big role to play for now. Pontual declares: “MoCA is the best thing we ever did. It is extremely reliable.”

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