Unbound Navigation Challenges MVPDs to Think Out of the Box

Steve Davi, CTO, SeaChange International

Steve Davi, CTO, SeaChange International

By Todd Marcelle

November 26, 2012 – The rate at which pay TV providers are moving off the EPG grid has quickened considerably over the past year, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll embrace the opportunity afforded by new IP-driven guides to enable navigation across the vast spaces beyond their walled gardens.

A new generation of cloud-based navigation systems leveraging HTML5 to transform the user viewing experience has opened the door to a boundless scope of personalized content discovery that could be a key factor in subscriber retention and growth. After all, only multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are in a position to deliver a truly universal navigation experience that combines pay TV and OTT video.

“We see a need to focus on video everywhere, not just TV Everywhere,” observes Steve Davi, CTO at SeaChange International. “For users the abundance of content is a double-edged sword – endless choice and no easy way to find what they want. We think that creates a real opportunity for service providers.”

While many MVPDs seem reluctant to take the plunge, “some operators are getting it,” Davi says. “They’re using Nitro to bring in OTT as well as linear and VOD premium content.”

The reference is to the Nitro navigation system SeaChange introduced last year as an application supported by its Adrenalin multiscreen video platform. Since then SeaChange has enhanced Nitro with the addition of advanced discovery technology licensed from Philips Electronics.

Like many other advanced recommendations platforms, Philips’ Aprico Solutions technology recommends and delivers precisely personalized content to viewers via TV, PC or mobile, based on their profile, viewing behavior and explicit inputs. “We like it because it utilizes a very extensive reservoir of metadata and other information to expand the range and depth of the discovery process,” Davi says.

The growing penetration of Adrenalin has been a key driver behind market adoption of the Nitro navigation system. Comcast’s adoption of the SeaChange Nucleus middleware as a core component of the reference design for its X1 set-top architecture has helped raise the profile of Nitro as well.

“The idea behind Nitro is to leverage the power of Adrenalin processes to enable consumers to find things as fast as possible,” Davi says. “People are going to Adrenalin for various reasons – to support multiscreen services, to bring in new features, to enable advanced advertising in conjunction with our Infusion platform – basically to create the bridge between IP and traditional products. Once they’re using Adrenalin, Nitro becomes an obvious next step.”

Adrenalin, now in use by 38 MVPDs serving tens of millions of subscribers, is an open SOA (service-oriented architecture) software capable of delivering millions of assets to any video device across multiple network types, Davi explains. The latest version includes the ability to deploy from a centralized location in a virtualized Linux-based environment that supports automatic installations and upgrades.

Another advanced navigation platform gaining significant traction from leveraging a cloud-based software platform and thin HTML5-based clients is Motorola Mobility’s DreamGallery, which the vendor introduced at the Cable Show in May as an application running on its Medios cloud service. So far Canadian MSO Shaw Communications is the only announced customer in North America, but the uptake has been much faster in Europe with 25 implementations there, says Steven Parsons, senior software solutions architect at Motorola Mobility. “We have two more wins in the U.S. that we can’t name at this point,” Parsons adds.

But here, again, the emphasis has been on navigation across linear and on-demand premium content. Shaw, which is now introducing DreamGallery on Motorola DCS3200 HD set-tops, which support both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 service delivery, is focusing on making it easier to navigate its own content, says Shaw president Peter Bisonnette.

“Our new guide will give our customers a totally new way of interacting with Shaw content, making it easier, faster and more intuitive to enjoy their programming,” Bissonnette says. “DreamGallery will allow us to deliver the Shaw experience across multiple platforms, enabling a future where customers can enjoy their content whenever and wherever they want.”

This is possible because DreamGallery abstracts device-dependent requirements empowering operators to customize once for all devices, regardless of OS (operating systems), Parsons says. “We can take programming information from an existing EPG or wherever it resides, import it to our platform and format it in HTML5 to be rendered in the browser on any device,” he explains. The DreamGallery discovery engine presents subscribers linear and on-demand viewing options based on preferences or viewing habits, he adds.

Demonstrating system administration on the DreamGallery dashboard, he notes the combination of smart software, cloud-based support and HTML5 allows operators to add features and change guide formats quickly and launch at scale, almost like updating a Web page. “Items can be displayed and described in text or in thumbnails; it’s up to the operator,” he says.

Using the DreamGallery software development kit operators can pre-define a level of on-going customization, themes or other variables to allow marketing personnel to quickly introduce promotions such as tie-ins between high- and low-tier content for free trials right from the dashboard. They can also use the SDK to develop client-side applications and customize GUIs for different types of devices, Parsons notes.

In the legacy set-top environment the navigation system can be linked in the cloud to set-top operations while generating the advanced personalized user interface on companion devices. Or Motorola can provide the operator a proxy server that mediates the IP rendering performed by DreamGallery in order to deliver the next-generation navigation experience to the set-top over the legacy QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) channel stream.

“Each proxy server does up to 600 streams,” Parsons says, meaning a server supports the individual navigation experiences of 600 simultaneous users. “The server only generates very short MPEG-2 frame sequences in intermittent intervals, so it’s not consuming a lot of bandwidth.”

Whether such options gain traction remains to be seen. Davi is skeptical, noting that SeaChange has developed Nitro on the assumption that next-generation navigation will take place on connected devices. “We want to maximize search and discovery as a personalized experience, which will occur on secondary devices,” he says. Making that case personally, he recently bought his daughter a tablet with such navigational capabilities to discourage her from “pulling up the grid while I’m watching my hockey game.”

Which gets back to the appeal of having a navigation system the subscriber can use on such a device to search and discover content from OTT as well as walled-garden sources. “People are going to use their tablets to watch other content, so why not make the best of it by offering a better experience through universal navigation?” Davi says. “That’s why we’ve gone to such lengths to make it easy to embrace that strategy.”

This past summer SeaChange demonstrated its software building blocks in action as a “soft-box” iteration of the Comcast RDK. The idea was to show how set-tops running the Nucleus middleware core, now integrated with leading system-on-a-chip solutions, can enable cable operators’ transition from QAM to IP video with multiscreen media sharing, whole-home DVR, access to online apps and OTT content, smartphone and tablet apps that act as the TV remote control and more.

“There’s a lot going on, but it comes down to what makes it easy for the user to experience all these capabilities,” Davi says. “I as a user want to be able to look across everything to figure out what I want to watch.”