Cisco Aims to Speed Multiscreen With Set-Top Agnostic Solutions

Ken Morse, CTO, Cisco Systems

Ken Morse, CTO, Cisco Systems

January 12, 2011 – Cisco Systems is leveraging cloud-based IP video technology to extend its Videoscape multiscreen service platform to virtually any legacy set-top environment without requiring operators to purchase the vendor’s latest media gateway.
At this point the new Voyager cloud versions of Videoscape are designed to work with Cisco’s 8600 generation set-tops in the case of the hybrid client software/cloud solution known as Voyager Vantage and with older set-tops from a wide range of suppliers, including Motorola, in the case of the all-cloud solution Voyager Virtual. Asked whether Voyager Vantage will work with later generations of set-tops from other suppliers, Ken Morse, CTO of Cisco’s Video Services Group, replies, “Not now. But stay tuned.”

The breakthrough to set-top agnostic reach for a next-generation multiscreen service platform greatly strengthens Cisco’s competitive position, at least for the time being. Once Vantage becomes available to all recent-generation set-tops, assuming it does, any service provider would be able to extend the benefits of Videoscape to all its subscribers without waiting to incrementally upgrade customer premises equipment.

“We can’t do everything with Voyager that we can do with Videoscape on our new 9800 gateway,” Morse says. “But we’re doing better than 70 percent, and that’s what the market requires.”

The Videoscape 9800 Series gateway, now in customer labs with general availability slated for the second half of this year, is a whole-home DVR and multiscreen solution that employs six QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) tuners to enable consumers to watch and record six video streams at once. The gateway performs transcoding on MPEG-2 live content for delivery of up to two simultaneous streams to IP-connected TVs, tablets, smartphone and other devices, Morse notes. The gateway also has a full spectrum tuner for connected device access to content streamed over DOCSIS 3.0 wideband channels consisting of up to eight bonded 6 MHz channels in the downstream and four in the return, he adds.

The primary distinction between Voyager Vantage and Voyager Virtual is the degree to which the versions rely on the innate processing power of the set-top box, Morse explains. “Voyager Vantage is a software solution that runs on Cisco 8600 and later generations of set-tops,” he says. By connecting set-tops to the Videoscape cloud, the software allows service providers to deploy rich user interfaces, provide extensive video on-demand catalogs and integrate new applications for social media, Internet video and content sharing, he says.

Voyager Virtual, connecting to older digital boxes, regardless of maker, doesn’t rely on set-top processing of Videoscape software. Instead everything is done in the cloud with the result that more bandwidth is consumed for subscribers to be able to use new universal navigation systems and other advanced applications.

In all cases the cloud-based system offers a consistent look-and-feel for live and on-demand content across multiple platforms, including iPads, iPhones and Android as well as PCs and Macs, Morse says. The platform supports functions such as transcoding of both premium content for delivery over IP to connected devices and IP over-the-top content for delivery to MPEG-2 set-tops; activation of the DRM systems appropriate to each type of device, and seamless place shifting with pause and resume of content across all devices. And it allows configuration of companion devices for use as remote controls.

To deliver Videoscape to legacy set-tops Cisco appears to be relying heavily on the cloud-based technology developed by ActiveVideo, which for years has been offering operators a way to bring over-the-top content into the legacy set-top domain along with IP-based apps, advanced advertising and universal navigation capabilities (see, for example, May 2009, p. 18). ActiveVideo’s CloudTV service now reaches over ten million TV screens in households served by Cablevision, Time Warner Cable’s Oceanic system in Hawaii and other unnamed operators here and abroad, the company says.

While Cisco hasn’t acknowledged the ActiveVideo tie-in to Videoscape, confirmation comes in a statement attributed to ActiveVideo president and CEO Jeff Miller. “ActiveVideo’s CloudTV solution cuts through the device chaos created by diverse set-top box models, and helps Videoscape become widely and quickly deployed,” Miller says. “We are delighted to have the world’s largest networking infrastructure provider expanding ActiveVideo’s value proposition globally and helping our customers deliver uniform viewing experience to their subscribers.”

Cisco’s Morse says that as the company rounded out the technical components of Videoscape during 2011, which it first announced at last year’s CES show (January 2011, p. 28), it put ever more focus on helping to accelerate MSOs’ transition to multiscreen services and advanced apps and navigation. “When you look at where we were 12 months ago, we were focused on the end scenario, which is enabling migration to all-IP video services,” he says. “But over the past 12 months we’ve been more focused on the journey our customers need to take to get there.”

Cable operators’ urgency to move forward sooner than later has intensified as unmanaged devices like tablets, smartphones, game consoles and connected TVs have become “disruptors” threatening legacy business models, Morse notes. The Voyager solution, providing a way for operators to engage subscribers using unmanaged devices, has taken shape in the context of an ongoing trial by an unnamed Tier 1 customer that has been using the cloud solution for some time, he adds.

Smaller operators will benefit from Voyager as well, Morse says. Along with marketing Vantage and Virtual directly to such companies, Cisco has teamed with Adara Technologies to leverage the cloud version of Videoscape as part of an initiative aimed at overcoming barriers to expansion at lower tier levels. As previously reported (December, p. 14), Adara is using cloud technology to bring Cisco’s switched digital video platform as well as Videoscape to smaller operators, regardless of what brands of set-tops they are using.

Cisco, like most suppliers of multiscreen service infrastructure, views the companion device as a game changer that has impacted approaches to navigation, personalization, enhanced programming experience, interactivity and advertising. For example, when it comes to providing a template for a universal navigation guide through Videoscape the company has gone to a simplified, no-frills look on the TV set while providing a wide range of graphics and personalization capabilities with renderings of guides on tablets and other devices.

“When it comes to overloading the user interface with gratuitous graphics, out of experience we’ve learned less is more,” Morse says. “We provide user options on a bar that runs across the screen, using graphics as cues and very legible text while not obscuring the picture on the screen.”

At the same time, employing “very comprehensive, rich set of metadata” with content and advanced recommendation and search engines, Videoscape delivers personalized options and access to more content complementing what’s on the big TV screen or another program to the companion device. However, a big challenge the industry faces when it comes to exploiting companion devices for enjoyment of premium programming has to do with the fact that the IP stream is operating completely separate from the MPEG-2 stream to the set-top, making it hard to synchronize the two.

Cisco is working on the problem, Morse notes, pointing to a demo at CES involving use of time stamping technology to prevent lags between the MPEG-2 and IP streams. “This is a vision thing, not a product,” he says. “We’re working with industry partners to drive programming synchronization.”

One approach to synchronization Cisco isn’t pursuing is use of forensic watermarking or finger printing technology support automatic content recognition. ACR isn’t about synching the timing of the streams to the device and the set-top but rather provides a means of synchronizing the companion device to whatever is offered through an interactive prompt in a program or ad.

“We’re tying into enhanced metadata in the streams rather than doing ACR, and we’re doing it from the perspective of on-demand programming,” Morse says. “With ACR it only takes one hiccup to ruin something. What we’ll see is content providers turning to using more metadata with fine granularity to create monetization opportunities.”

Cisco’s JavaScript-based Videoscape software leverages HTML5 to simplify a browser-based approach to accessing IP content through the cloud and on the 9800. Morse acknowledges there’s much work still to be done to solidify HTML5 as a standard capable of handling all types of video formats, but he says that Cisco would rather take care of overcoming such issues while using HTML5 to render directly from Web pages rather than to rely on old approaches to delivering IP content.

“Service providers face real investment issues,” he says. “That’s why most people want to do HTML5 versus working in the native IOS, Android and other environments.” Noting Cisco is working closely with the World Wide Web Consortium that’s responsible for completing the standard, he adds, “We want to do everything we can to accelerate the lingua franca of HTML5.”

That said, there are some situations where Videoscape does resort to use of HTML4 and performs video rendering in the native formats owing to the inadequacies of the HTML5 standard as currently constituted. In addition, Morse notes. And Vantage, as a software solution tailored for use on the 8600 and newer Cisco set-tops, relies on HTML4 as the browser solution resident in the set-tops, most of which bridge over MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) links to leverage the cable modem for communications to the Internet, although there are some 8600s deployed on networks where the IP communications are over DAVIC (Digital Audio Visual Council).

But in all cases the user experience is unified across all devices, Morse says. “Our soft client strategy relies on a common SDK (software development kit) that normalizes all applications for all devices,” he notes.

One of those applications is advertising, which means new approaches to advanced advertising involving unmanaged devices working in consort with premium programming now become available in the legacy set-top domain. “With Voyager and what we’re doing in the cloud there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what can be put into video streams to the set-top and unmanaged devices,” Morse says.

How such capabilities will impact the use of the widely deployed EBIF platform for interactive advertising on digital set-tops remains to be seen, Morse suggests. “The jury is out,” he says. “Obviously, with the rise of unmanaged devices as an important part of the service provider strategy, the relevance of EBIF is trending to zero.”

A key component of Voyager that will be useful for advanced advertising strategies is the Conductor back-office technology for QAM video, which gives service providers a comprehensive video control plane to expedite rollout of services and applications across multiple networks and devices. “We’re leveraging the Conductor into advanced advertising with a lot of partners,” Morse says.

Videoscape has begun to go into commercial deployments in a variety of network situations. Newly announced customers include Roger Communications, which is beta testing Rogers Live TV, an app that streams 20 channels of programming via home Wi-Fi connections to iPads and, soon, Android tablets.

In Israel, the YES satellite TV service is employing Videoscape as a cloud solution for enhancing its services. And France’s Numericable is building a Videoscape foundation for multiscreen services in conjunction with launch of ultra-high speed broadband.