Razzle-Dazzle with Practicality Characterizes New Batch of UIs

Anthony Smith-Chaigneau, SVP, business development & general director, EMEA operations, Alticast

Anthony Smith-Chaigneau, SVP, business development & general director, EMEA operations, Alticast

October 16, 2009 – An outpouring of new approaches to electronic programming guides that unify the three-screen experience, many through use of motion control as opposed to traditional remote control technology, represent a practical approach to next-generation interfaces that just might catch on.

While motion control, now a market mainstay in gaming thanks to Nintendo’s Wii, has been used in previous attempts to break with the grid style of traditional EPGs, most notably in conjunction with Hillcrest Labs’ Freespace and H_ME Application Creation Platform, mainstream service providers have shied away from design concepts that break to sharply with what consumers are accustomed to. Now a number of vendors are showing new three-screen navigation designs that exploit the benefits of motion control devices in less graphically disruptive templates.

A case in point is NDS’s new Snowflake EPG prototype, which debuted at the IBC conference in Amsterdam, where it won recognition as “Best interactive TV technology or application.” As described by Oliver Lacour, user interface (UI) design director for NDS, Snowflake is a high-end conceptual UI based around a minimalist 3D grid overlaid on live TV.

“Snowflake was designed from scratch to deliver a personalized, one-to-one experience for each viewer, Lacour says. Icons representing different clusters of viewing options in the graphic overlay slide horizontally across the screen, providing the viewer quick access to deeper dives into live broadcast channels, on-demand content, personalized choices, online video store and much else, with zoom-in capabilities to explore details within specific viewing options.

The UI is designed to work with a simple-to-use six-key remote control or with the iPhone as a free-space pointing device that leverages a Wi-Fi port on the phone and TV or set-top to communicate motion-based commands to the UI. The iPhone also presents the UI on its own screen for viewing options on the mobile screen and also serves as a control device for selecting items for recording and viewing on DVRs.

“Another feature is the widget portal,” Lacour notes. Demonstrating how this works, he scrolls to a scene from the TV show Lipstick Jungle in which actresses’ clothing is labeled via a widge application with brand icons that users can click on to learn more about the products.

Social networking features are among the personalization options built into the UI operating system, Lacour adds. “Color coding lets you know you are in your personal node, at which point you can be notified that somebody in your community on MySpace is looking at the same program you’re watching,” he explains. “From there you can instigate a chat session with that person via your iPhone to whatever PC or Mac they’re on.”

NDS, along with developing the Snowflake concept, is making available the NDS EPG Framework, which is an end-to-end infrastructure developed to enable programmers to design, deploy and manage their own EPGs cost effectively. EPG Framework, running on the NDS MediaHighway set-top software stack, also gives pay-TV operators the flexibility to update the EPG on the fly without requiring software downloads to set-tops and to introduce new revenue streams via EPG-based ads, promotions and personalized messages to viewers. NDS customers including Norwegian MSO Get, U.S.-based satellite operator ViaSat and India telecom Bharti Airtel are already using EPG Framework, Lacour notes.

Another, somewhat similar graphic approach to three-screen navigation has been developed by Alticast and is now in use by some of its customers, including Korea Telecom. Rather than producing a screen-filling grid-like guide, the Alticast platform generates an overlay of individual graphic modules that can be clicked on or moved around via a motion-control device. Alticast customers in Asia and elsewhere are using the guide to bring together for viewing on TVs and PCs hybrid services delivered over broadband and digital terrestrial broadcast networks, notes Anthony Smith-Chaigneau, senior vice president of business development and general director of Alticast’s EMEA operations.

“Everybody is looking for multi-screen, multi-service navigation solutions, but you need a single engine in the set-top box that can accommodate different services delivered over different networks,” Smith-Chaigneau says. “Middleware today is very fragmented, which makes it hard to bring these different types of services together in one user interface. We’re showing that, with a GEM (Global Executable Multimedia Home Platform) -compliant middleware stack, you can integrate all these services into a unified presentation for navigation.”

This means the APIs (application program interfaces) of the Alticast middleware can interface with applications running on IP, MHP-DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television), OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform) or ACAP (Advanced Common Application Platform).Thus, if the service provider wants to offer a start-over option with DTT-based programming, the viewing options can be presented the same way ACAP-based video-on-demand content is offered, which is exactly what South Korean operators are doing.

In an IBC demo of the Alticast UI the VOD and start-over options were displayed as DVD covers arrayed horizontally in the overlay across the screen. Via the motion control remote the user can quickly bring a long array of choices into view, choose one to watch and engage all the trick play functions, greatly speeding and simplifying the process in comparison to how one would navigate via a standard remote control in a grid presentation framework.

This fast navigation combined with quick manipulation of graphic modules in the screen overlay allows service providers to create a great variety of categories to enhance the user experience, including personalized recommendation groupings and highly granular cataloguing of programming into special interest niches. In the demo a graphic module offering children’s programming broke into several other sub-category modules, each with large collections of easily accessed choices.

New ways of categorizing content are also entering the navigation mainstream, as demonstrated by SeaChange International’s running of the Jinni UI framework on its Navigator middleware platform. “Jinni operates as a navigation application with a recommendation engine that renders into our middleware,” explains Alan Hoff, vice president of product marketing at SeaChange. “It groups movies into categories that go beyond the usual genre classifications to make it easier for people to find something that fits their interests at any given moment.”

SeaChange is optimizing the Jinni “taste engine” for use on set-tops and access via the Internet and Web-enabled mobile devices, with availability to cable and telco customers slated for early 2010, Hoff says. The semantic search-and-recommendation engine uses a proprietary Natural Language Processing technology to automatically analyze user reviews and metadata, indexing video titles by mood, story, etc. Navigation can be built around the search for movies that are, for example, “clever,” “stylish,” “tense,” among other mood categories, or specific to a locality or period of history.

Navigation tied to 3D viewing with stereoscopic glasses is also now entering the prototype stage. The NDS Snowflake, for example, was demonstrated in 3D as well as 2D at IBC. As another example, Nagravision has built an entire navigation framework designed specifically for 3D viewing.

“The 3D UI isn’t the same type of experience you’d create for 2D viewing,” notes Robin Wilson, vice president for business development at Nagravision, who stresses the commercial potential for such navigations systems is still several years away, depending on how fast 3D content penetrates the home viewing market. “We’ve embarked on a learning process with our customers and partners using technology supplied by 3eality to better understand how to make compelling use of this technology.”

In September Nagravision teamed with 3eality, a supplier of 3D production technology, to demonstrate the immersive experience of 3D viewing, complete with navigation as well as content to TV and studio producers in Hollywood. The 3D UI demonstrated at IBC featured category modules that lit up and popped out when selected by the viewer.

“The Nagravision creative department is working on all our middleware solutions to determine how to evolve our guides,” Wilson says. “3D is just another element of the next-generation experience they’re bringing into the navigation process.”