Cable Show reveals ferment in UI design and deployment

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    This year’s Cable Show in Boston revealed a wide range of activity surrounding the user interface (UI), long an industry weakness, including the imminent rollout of Comcast’s X1 cloud-based platform and its unveiling of a unified customer dashboard.

    The traditional grid-based guide has proved to be a poor fit for the emerging digital era. Over the past several years, alternative experiences online have made the guide’s limitations all the more glaring. “Unfortunately, the TV is still the last frontier in navigation,” said Jean-Briac Perrette, Chief Digital Officer of Discovery Communications, on a panel addressing new directions in television content and delivery. “You feel like you’ve stepped back in a time machine.”

    Aiming to escape the old world, Comcast has been testing a platform that supports both QAM video and cloud-based IP-based applications. Introduced at last year’s Cable Show as Project Xcalibur and newly renamed X1, this platform for Comcast’s Xfinity service is scheduled to go live first in Boston, and then go “nationwide, (to) hundreds of thousands of boxes, over the course of the year,” said Comcast Cable President and CEO Neil Smit, during a demo at the company’s booth on the show floor.

    Comcast will first deploy the X1 service, which combines traditional TV with an interactive guide, recommendations engine and personalized apps, on six-tuner gateways manufactured by Pace, but will eventually roll out the service over a population of 7 to 8 million set-tops in the field that support Comcast’s gateway specifications.

    In his demo, Smit highlighted the flexibility of X1, noting that over the past year, Comcast has made more than 400 software updates to the platform. “That’s a very different way of doing business for us and for the cable industry,” he said. At the same time, Smit introduced a gesture-based (and eventually voice-activated) remote control application for X1 initially available on iOS devices.

    Comcast also revealed a related work-in-progress, a cross-platform dashboard code-named Project Dayview. “I think of Dayview as your UI to your life, your home, your entertainment,” Smit said. “It’s your own personal welcome screen.” (Smit’s demo can be viewed on the Comcast Voices blog.)

    Slated for deployment later this year over the X1 platform, Dayview draws upon other applications and services (including the Xfinity Home security and automation service) to display customized and refreshed content and information, and could be used as a screensaver.

    As such, Dayview approximates some of the goals of NDS Surfaces, the wall-mounted display technology introduced at last year’s IBC and demonstrated to the U.S. cable industry in scheduled showings at this event. A technology session on UIs included a paper (“Surfaces: A New Way of Looking at TV”) by Simon Parnali, VP of Technology for the U.K., NDS, and separate contributions from executives at Charter Communications, Comcast, DigitalSmiths and Motorola.

    In related activity at the Cable Show, Cisco (which is buying NDS for $5 billion) demonstrated implementation of a branded version by Rogers Communications of its cloud-based Voyager Vantage, one of the UIs to Cisco’s Videoscape service offering, and many steps removed from the legacy Scientific-Atlanta resident application (SARA).

    At CES 2012 in January, Cisco announced that it was licensing software from ActiveVideo Networks for its Videoscape platform, and during a “Live from Imagine Park” session on UIs at the Cable Show, ActiveVideo SVP Content and Marketing Relations Edgar Villapando reminded the audience of some advantages of a cloud-based platform: Deployments “take weeks, not months” and “response time (with a connected device app) is faster than a remote control.”

    “When you move things out of the cloud…it really does make for a very powerful platform,” said Comcast SVP Steve Reynolds, who was acting as a reactor to these Imagine Park presentations, and acknowledged working with ActiveVideo on several projects.

    Motorola Mobility (now part of Google) also unveiled its DreamGallery UI, as noted on thisEngadget post, based on the Motorola Medios cloud platform, promising “innovation at Internet speeds.” And TiVo provided more details on a joint development with Pace, the XG1, a six-tuner hybrid QAM video gateway that features TiVo’s UI. The two companies plan to make the XG1 available to cable operators in the Americas later this year and follow up with additional solutions for domestic and international operators thereafter.

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