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Cisco Fresco could become the wall-sized UI to our lives

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Cisco continues to impress people with its futuristic demonstration of the Fresco proof-of-concept, the software that lays behind wall-sized interactive displays that mix television content with social media, news and sports results, family diary reminders, weather, traffic and much more to create an ambient and constantly changing display of the multimedia that now underpins so much of our lives. This is the technology that was called Surfaces when first unveiled to the world by NDS (now part of Cisco). We saw it at IBC 2011 and were instantly impressed – and apparently every platform operator has had a similar reaction. According to Nick Thexton, CTO, Service Provider Video Group at Cisco, people want it in their own homes but more importantly, operators view this as a viable roadmap for a future-generation service offering.

“People that have seen it want to be in the beta programme. Those who saw it at CES this year were knocked out by it. You have to see it first hand really and every time we show this at exhibitions we get another wave of operator interest. Most say they have never seen anything better in terms of a viable future offering in four years or so. Nobody says we should be trying something else because they know of something better.”

You can read our original thoughts about Fresco (when called Surfaces) here and the photo at this page and above should give you a feel for how video and interactive elements are mixed.  One of the key features has always been that you can choose the level of immersion you want for the video portion of the display. So if you are eating breakfast in the kitchen, the television feed is framed in say, 32 inches and surrounded by traffic information, news headlines and the family calendar, whereas in the evening you can blow the television frame up to 70 inches for a cinema-like movie experience, with all other interactive elements fading out.

Not surprisingly, given the integration of NDS with Cisco, a focus for the future will be ‘the Internet of things’ and how Fresco can present our increasingly connected lifestyle on these wall displays. It is a natural place to present services like home automation and home security. “We are moving towards the ‘Internet of everything’ and will have lots more devices in the home providing feedback  and information and Fresco will probably end up as a broad vehicle for a complete home service proposition,” Thexton reveals. “It is a perfectly realistic goal that this could be the User Interface for our home life, displayed on a wall.”

Integrating entertainment and communications, Cisco has been showing how various people can watch a sports game remotely but appear to be in the same room, in front of the same television. This uses webcams and video conferencing but the cameras are placed so that you see the sides of your friends, not their faces head-on, giving the impression you are sitting together on the sofa. “In two years we have shown Fresco to all the major platform operators around the world and they have all said it is a vision they like, and what they like about it is that it is not just a bigger TV display; it is about multi-service home lifestyle.”

Fresco’s market potential will be determined by the cost of the wall-sized video display technologies, which might come in the form of modular panels or even wall-paper like coverings. Thexton is sticking to the original predictions that this concept could be realistic for consumer homes by 2016 as the display technology matures. He does not expect to see too many big name TV manufacturers entering this market but says interest among OEM manufacturers is picking up. If this is to appeal to anyone beyond ultra high-earners, one of the challenges is to reduce power consumption for this kind of display technology.

Fresco still looks like a potential market-maker for 4k television, as the TV screen dimensions are totally variable because they are a software-defined border on what is otherwise a blank canvas. The television is no longer a pre-cut piece of glass set inside an immovable plastic housing, so you can blow the ‘screen’ size up from 24 inches to 80 inches if you want. There is no physical furniture (i.e. the television set) to accommodate and this could become very important given that many people think 4k (or Ultra HD) is only worth having if you have a screen of 60 inches and over. We reported recently how Bob Zitter, retiring CTO at HBO, thinks the addressable market for ultra-HD is too small for this reason.

Acknowledging the additional costs associated with 4k television today, Thexton says it is coming into reach – and he predicts that it will be superseded by 8k anyway. However, he stresses that Fresco is not just about 4k or even just about television. It is about multi-service and multi-device experiences coming together in the home environment.

Some of the Fresco software code is now being harnessed in Cisco gateway products. Looking ahead, the next step, possibly between now and IBC in September, is to create tighter integration between the Fresco software and companion screens, so that they can interact more with each other.

Until now the tablet has been viewed as a command/remote control device to make things happen in the Fresco interface.  Attention is now turning to treating the display on a portable device as a home screen for Fresco, where individuals in the home can have a personalized experience or where they can attach elements of their personalised content to the Fresco main screen.

Architecturally, Fresco was designed along the lines of a multi-screen service, in the sense that it manages multiple inputs, feeds and views but these are displayed in different parts of a single screen rather than on many. So it seems a natural progression to give this a companion experience as well.

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