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Cloud UI upgrade boosts linear content discovery

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The eight screen mosaic at Liberty Puerto Rico is created in the cloud

Liberty Puerto Rico, the Latin American cable operator, is rolling out a cloud-based UI solution that enables it to show an eight-screen mosaic of the most popular linear shows, based on real-time polling from a 10% sample of its entire STB population, so that customers can quickly see the big shows they may not want to miss. Importantly, this content discovery feature is possible on all the operator’s existing set-top boxes, including the large number of older, low power, low memory devices that are in the field.

The company is delighted that it can achieve what it views as a significant user experience upgrade without requiring new STBs. Normally a broadcast mosaic of this kind, showing multiple programmes running side by side, would require new STBs with more power and multiple tuners. Most of the Liberty Puerto Rico set-tops are single tuner devices.

The eight screen mosaic is a cloud user interface that is accessed through a standard, embedded STB user interface. Viewers go to their classic programme guide and then select channel 200. This launches an app that shows the mosaic.

The mosaic is an HTML5 app that is rendered in the cloud and the subsequent ‘display’ that the viewer sees (see the photo above) is then streamed as a single MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 video stream over the classic cable (QAM) network, and this is decoded like any other video channel. That is why it can be achieved on a low power, single tuner STB. You can scroll beyond the top eight shows by going down page by page to see mosaics showing the next eight and then the next eight most popular shows, based on current viewing.

The new feature took a year to roll out, from concept to reality. It is currently being used in ‘friends and family’ beta homes and will be deployed to the entire Liberty Puerto Rico customer base by the end of this year.

The cable operator wanted the mosaic as a way to encourage customers to watch new content or to help them avoid missing the best shows, and to enable them to easily keep up with the shows that everyone is talking about. The company considered content recommendation but Waldo Hooker, VP Product & Strategy at Liberty Puerto Rico, reckons that recommendation systems are best suited to content that has already been aired and especially on-demand content, whereas the company wanted to improve discovery for linear content and particularly live shows or shows that are making their premiere. It should be noted that the mosaic does not show the top channels being watched right now – it shows the top programmes from any channels.

Every morning at 3am the Liberty Puerto Rico system selects a random sample of 10% of its STB population (which numbers over 300,000 in total) and these are then polled at five minute intervals for 24 hours to determine which channels they are tuned to. Next day it chooses another random sample. The STB data is matched against programme metadata to update the mosaic with the most popular shows, in order.

Viewers can filter the mosaics according to genre, so they only see the most popular sports shows or the most popular news shows, for example. You can also personalize it so you only see shows airing in high-definition, or shows that are child-friendly, for example. You can choose to filter out shows that appear on channels that are not in your subscription package. You can even request to see only the top live (literally live) shows or first-run shows (no repeats). In the friends-and-family homes currently covered, the result is that people are exploring more content.

Waldo Hooker explains: “We have 300 channels and we get customers complaining that they buy lots of channels but only watch so many of them, so they are not getting enough value from their subscription. Some say they forgot that the soccer match they would have watched was actually on, and sometimes they are watching TV but miss out on the best show of the evening.  We decided we need a new way for customers to navigate the content and this resulted in what we have called ‘Social Content Navigator’ internally. To the outside world it is known as ‘What Puerto Rico is watching’.

“As a personal example of how it works, I was watching TV the other day and noticed that ‘Frasier’ [the American sitcom] was in the top 16 shows. It was on the Lifetime Channel, which is mainly directed towards women, so a channel I would normally skip over in the guide. So the mosaic took me out of my normal comfort zone.”

The cable operator says latency has not been a problem when using a cloud-based UI (where remote control commands must be conveyed to the network and then acted upon). Liberty Puerto Rico is already thinking about how it can make more use of cloud UI processing. Eventually this mosaic could be given a higher prominence in the overall UI and the company is considering how far it can use cloud rendering for its user interface generally. The mosaic uses the ActiveVideo CloudTV technology. Other operators who use this technology to deliver important elements of the user experience, but not all of it, include Ziggo, the Dutch cable operator. There the cloud is used to create the VOD UI.

The new mosaic can be supported on any Liberty Puerto Rico set-top box, which includes those that are ten years old. Because the UI is cloud based it could also be deployed quickly and easily onto new STBs in future. Waldo Hooker is satisfied that the ‘What Puerto Rico is watching’ feature will have a real impact in the market and he views it as part of an effort to differentiate the service in a competitive environment.

Editor’s comment

This is another interesting example of why, when it comes to cloud UI, it is not a matter of ‘all or nothing’. Liberty Puerto Rico uses a hybrid of traditional programme guide with a cloud-rendered enhancement. It shows how a Pay TV operator can upgrade its user experience across its entire customer base (by the end of 2014) without changing its core operations.

It is also notable how the operator is focusing on the ‘national community’ when it talks about social TV discovery. It has far less faith in Facebook or Twitter to broaden the horizons of its customers. Liberty Puerto Rico is confident that national community is more important than what your friends are watching or even what a recommendations system could suggest – something I personally agree with.

More reading on cloud UI and the cloud generally

Interested in Cloud UIs and the use of cloud for TV in general? Videonet has just published a free 8,000+ word report about ‘Making the cloud work for TV’, which includes a look at different initiatives to virtualize the user interface (although not the one above!). Download report.

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