By Fred Dawson
July 3, 2013 – Long-standing resistance of video service providers to the advanced navigational capabilities offered by speech recognition and free-space motion control technologies is giving way to strategies that will soon bring both advances into play as part of the next-generation user experience.
So far, the only TV viewing experience that combines speech recognition and motion control to support navigation comes with use of LG Electronics’ Magic Remote to control access on the newest models of its smart TV sets. LG began using the free-space technology supplied by Hillcrest Labs to support navigation three years ago and earlier this year added voice navigation using technology supplied by Nuance Communications, which also supplies voice recognition support to the navigational systems used with Samsung and Panasonic smart TVs as well as with the Apple Siri app in iPhones and iPads.
Both types of technology have been on offer to video service providers for a long time, going back as far as the Time Warner Cable full service network experiment in Orlando 19 years ago and seven years ago to the debut of Hillcrest Labs as a provider of a free-space motion-controlled user interface that was unlike anything ever seen in the TV market. In June, with the demonstration of voice navigation at a Cable Show presentation by Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Hillcrest’s reappearance on the exhibit floor after a long absence it became clear that the mood has shifted.
“About ten years ago we started talking about voice with search,” Roberts noted. Now it’s time has come, he said, with Comcast’s plans calling for use of voice recognition on all the remotes it introduces into the market from now on. “The more complicated the search,” he observed, “the more you want to go to voice.”
With voice navigation spreading rapidly across the smart TV domain cable operators have every reason to seize on the technology if merely for defensive purposes. But there’s also a compelling difference between what can be done now versus what was possible even a year or two ago, thanks to ongoing advances in natural speech recognition and in the discovery mechanisms being introduced with new guides such as Comcast’s Xfinity and Cox’s Trio. Now, with multiple sources of metadata pouring information about content into the discovery platforms, users can ask questions relating to program details as they look for interesting things to watch which they could never ask before, and they can do it with confidence that they’ll be understood.
Similarly, whereas the free-space cursor control concept was on the far fringe of application concepts in navigation when Hillcrest first brought its Freespace Motion Control technology with its Loop pointer remote control to the pay TV market, today motion control is a mainstream concept, thanks in part to the success of Nintendo’s Wii. Along with winning LG as a key customer, Hillcrest has also gained traction with the licensing of its technology for Logitech’s MX Air, a computer mouse, and for remote control chipsets produced by Texas Instruments and Universal Electronics.
With these developments in sway Hillcrest made its first appearance at a cable show in years at the June event in Washington, D.C., fresh on the heels of having become the first supplier of this type of technology to license Comcast’s Reference Design Kit (RDK) software stack for set-tops, which creates a common framework for controlling the tuning and conditional access processes. The agreement enables Hillcrest to provide software development, integration and testing services to OEMs, semiconductor manufacturers, software vendors, software integrators and MVPDs who are planning to take advantage of the RDK.
“Comcast has been a great supporter of that process,” said Hillcrest CEO Dan Simpkins. “They recognize the world is moving forward and that with new technologies in mobile and in tablets it’s important for cable to keep pace.”
Steve Reynolds, senior vice president for CPE and home network at Comcast echoed that thought. “Motion control technology can be a compelling way for operators, developers and device manufacturers to create and deliver richer, more compelling multiscreen TV experiences,” he said. “With Hillcrest’s support, we look forward to strengthening our commitment to providing integrated solutions that help move the industry forward in the next wave of consumer TV interactivity.”
Where previously Hillcrest was promoting an end-to-end solution with its own remote pointer and forward-looking user interface, today the company is focused strictly on making free-motion technology as good as it can be however it is applied. “Motion is particularly hard to do well, and we’re confident Hillscrest Freespace technology is the best motion sensing technology out there,” Simpkins said.
“The idea behind motion is to take a device and install inside of it motion sensors like accelerometers and gyroscopes and then through complex software and processing convert that motion into something useable by the platform itself,” he explained. By translating a user’s gestures into screen motion, the technology essentially allows a remote control to operate as a mouse for the television.
This has great implications for how the user interface is designed. “With a cursor you can go anywhere,” Simpkins said. “So essentially every pixel on the screen can now be an active pixel. It allows a lot of flexibility.”
LG, he noted, has been careful not to be too disruptive with the Magic Remote capabilities. “In the first phases what LG did was to allow the interface to support both up/down, left/right and pointing in order to enable a stepping stone, essentially putting their toe in the water,” Simpkins noted. “And we still see some of that. In the latest generations of the LG GV you can still support up/down, left/right user interfaces, but more and more those applications are moving to pointing. And you’re seeing much richer and more exciting capabilities there in the application.”
Indeed, these capabilities free applications developers to introduce new features and services that go beyond navigation, such as casual gaming, he added. “The traditional remote control is limited in what kinds of applications like games you can implement,” he said. “One of the most important parts of this transformation is to get the operators to recognize the power of this new kind of interaction, an interaction based on pointing and motion.”
Cable operators have every reason to take advantage of the combined benefits of voice and motion control over the navigation process, given how quickly smart TV manufacturers are able to bring such capabilities into their domains. “Smart TV is an area that is rapidly developing and growing, with platforms moving beyond apps into intuitive features to give users simple control over their entertainment,” said Craig West, LG’s head of marketing for consumer electronics.
Speaking at a roundtable hosted online by the British CE installer trade publication Inside CI, West added, “LG’s updated Magic Remote offers the epitome of this; it comes equipped with Voice Mate, allowing users to tell the remote which channel they would like to watch. Alternatively, just drawing the channel number in the air changes the channel without the need of fiddling with buttons. In addition, the new Magic Remote’s universal control feature allows users to control other home entertainment devices, meaning the pile of remotes on the coffee table are a thing of the past.”