Cox Trio Guide Sets Bar For Advanced Cable UIs

David Nabozny, SVP, major accounts, NDS

David Nabozny, SVP, major accounts, NDS

June 7, 2010 – The deployment of Cox Communications’ next-generation interactive programming guide marks a sea change in U.S. cable, where the ability to provide a holistic, easy-to-navigate interface to all content has become a matter of mission-critical urgency.

The Cox-designed Trio guide, with NDS as serving as prime integrator, leverages the processing resources of tru2way-capable set-top boxes to integrate linear, VOD and DVR technology and content into a single user interface with search and discovery functionalities. Cox intends to have the guide in operation across all its networks by year’s end, says Steve Necessary, vice president of video strategy and product management at Cox.

“We believe that NDS’ expertise and knowledge of the IPG market will lead to a very successful launch for our subscribers,” Necessary says. “Our collaboration throughout the development and implementation process has been an extraordinary team effort, and we expect the results to speak for themselves.”

The development partnership is claiming several firsts for the cable industry in the UI space. “We have been given the opportunity to develop and integrate many new standards and technologies into a comprehensive end-to-end solution,” says Stuart McGeechan, vice president and general manager for professional services at NDS. “This includes many cutting-edge industry firsts, such as multi-room DVR over MoCA as a permanent option for subscribers, DOCSIS 3.0 connectivity to the set-top box and cross-platform search and discovery of linear, VOD and DVR content metadata.”

As a standards-based system that will run on Cisco Systems and Motorola tru2way set-tops in Cox territories and other brands of set-tops as well, the NDS template underlying Trio becomes a ready means for cable operators to move ahead with next-generation guides without doing all the in-house development themselves or relying on set-top manufacturer-specific versions, notes Steve Tranter, vice president of broadband and interactive at NDS. “This is the first example of a consumer electronics-like user experience providing a portal to all the services cable provides,” Tranter says, adding that, until now, the handful of off-the-shelf guides for cable in the market have not been tru2way capable.

The navigation experience touted by makers of consumer electronics devices, including over-the-top set-tops, connected TVs, game consoles and Blu-ray players have awakened cable operators to an understanding that a good user interface is the key to effectively marketing their services. This was brought home by Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who, at the recent Cable Show in Los Angeles, decried the fact that the cable navigation experience is “not a state of the art thing.”

Discussing the CE-driven change in user expectations, Roberts said, “For most of us you like to watch on your nice plasma display. You want to have that interactivity. You want that data to allow you to search and discover and set a queue. I don’t want to do it in a box.”

But, with the exception of the few tru2way-capable HDTV sets now entering the market or the navigation support offered through tie-ins with a Web-based user interface such as Roberts displayed with Comcast’s new iPad-based Xfinity remote application, cable service navigation will remain tied to boxes. But, as the Cox Trio guide demonstrates, this need not be a liability.

In fact, Tranter says, NDS is in discussions with many operators who are contemplating moving to an integrated navigation platform such as NDS provides. “The difference between navigation on set-tops and on CE devices is too big,” Tranter says. “It’s been a tipping point and a real motivation for cable, especially when you consider the navigation systems offered with [Verizon’s] FiOS and [AT&T’s] U-verse.

“The NDS perspective has always been that conditional access and middleware are what drive the industry’s interest in our products,” he continues. “But now, with our customers putting the emphasis on the user interface, it’s the UI that’s driving middleware sales rather than vice versa.”

As demonstrated by NDS at the Cable Show the Cox Trio guide offers users immediate access to the full range of content offered via linear, VOD and DVR platforms together with filtering mechanisms that categorize content under various themes such as sports and news and a segment that shows all content that’s offered in HDTV. The guide is designed to exploit the full space offered by the 16×9 HD format, Tranter notes.

Each user in the home can personalize their guide experience so that the default view on entering offers the shows and categories they’re most interested in. The platform supports whole-home DVR using just one DVR-equipped tru2way set-top to deliver a seamless viewing experience of a recorded show no matter where the user is when accessing content. This includes pausing in one room and picking up the viewing where it left off in another room.

Search and discovery are other elements of the new guide, where, like everything else, most of the functions are activated with simple, up/down, left/right, select buttons on the remote. For example, in searching for content by actor the user clicks on that category and then clicks on the selection from the menu of actors in the chosen show to get a field showing all the content available to the user that features that actor. Users go to the different discovery and filter areas by moving left and right, making it simple to return to the main menu from anywhere in the guide. Similarly, search is easily activated by selecting letters of key words on a virtual keyboard that appears on the screen when search is chosen.

NDS is preparing to introduce a recommendation engine and a social content sharing application on the platform, Tranter says. “Going forward we’ll have recommendation as part of personalization,” he adds. “One of our next releases will allow you to send recommendations from the guide to friends and family.” Also on the horizon are versions of the guide suited for use on other devices, including PCs and handsets.

While the Trio design belongs to Cox, the underlying functionalities are licensed to operators by NDS, which customizes the platform to meet each service provider’s requirements. “We can integrate the platform for use with SDV (switched digital video), other types of boxes, other VOD servers,” Tranter says. “It’s architected to separate functionality from skin.”

Another advanced UI platform now being marketed by NDS is the Snowflake template introduced last year at IBC in Amsterdam (see ScreenPlays, October, p. 24). Snowflake leverages widget technology to support a high level of interactivity, including promotional tie-ins between goods and programming and other concepts. The guide can be used with the iPhone as the remote, which communicates with the TV through the Wi-Fi connection in the home and also runs the guide on the handset for use in accessing mobile content.

Snowflake, employing a non-grid overlay of category modules to support navigation, in contrast to the full-screen dominance of a Trio design, has been gaining traction in Europe, says David Nabozny, senior vice president of major accounts at NDS.”We have a number of customers who are basing future guides on Snowflake,” Nabozny says. One is Liberty Global, which has chosen NDS middleware and the UI to use with new advanced services. “They looked at a lot of UI options and chose our middleware to make this option possible,” he adds.

Amid all the high-end guide activity service providers remain mindful of their needs to step up performance in legacy domains, which is being aided in cable’s case through use of the EBIF (Enhanced Television Binary Interface Format) middleware architecture. “MSOs will be rolling out our guide on tru2way, but there’s a lot of interest in having the tru2way maintain a look and feel that’s consistent across all set-tops,” Tranter says.

Given the memory restrictions of low-end set-tops there are functionality limitations, including the inability to use the DOCSIS return path to aid interactivity and graphics support, as when screenshots of movie packaging are delivered when a movie option is chosen. And there’s not storage space for all the options that might be displayed the instant someone enters their personalization area or a genre category.

“But we have a lot of experience with intelligent caching, which allows us to predict where the user is going next and push that option to the set-top for quick access,” Tranter says. “Access to VOD content will not be as seamless or crisp, but it will be part of the common UI experience we support on these set-tops.”

Cox has extended its relationship with NDS through 2012. Along with working on the Trio guide, NDS has served as end-to-end integrator in Cox’s implementation of tru2way and has helped launch a wide range of applications, including zone channels, caller ID to the TV and customer support applications. Additional applications such as sports, weather, integrated telephony services, email, news, games, movie listings, widgets, horoscopes and lottery results will become available to subscribers, the companies say.