CableLabs, a consortium of cable companies, has been working on a common specification for two-way digital TV devices — like TVs, set-top boxes and DVRs — called tru2way, which many hope will stimulate the use of a range of interactive services in subscribers' homes. This initiative took many years to get off the ground — with its beginnings in 1997 as CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform — but now looks to be coming to fruition.
Looking to give subscribers a better user experience than what they currently have access to, Cox Communications has announced that it will begin installing a new generation of tru2way-compliant set-top boxes this summer that include a variety of interactive software applications from NDS. This is the first commercial agreement with NDS for its tru2way applications, although the company has developed other types of interactive program guides for Cablevision and DirecTV in the U.S.
Both Cisco (formerly Scientific-Atlanta) and Motorola — which both supply Cox with current generation STBs — will make the advanced boxes powerful enough to run the interactive applications and new graphical user interface (GUI).
Lisa Pickelsimer, executive director of Video Product Development at Cox, said that following deployment in an initial (yet to be announced) market, the new STBs will eventually be offered in a market-by-market rollout plan that will continue through the later part of this year and into 2010.
The applications, which reside inside the tru2way-compliant set-top box with related equipment at the headends, include a new Cox GUI that provides access to entertainment and information services, such as sports, weather, games, and movie listings as well integrated telephony services, e-mail, mosaic video channels and widgets.
The enhanced suite of interactive applications also integrates Cox's existing service offerings of video on demand, digital video recording and linear channels, into a new GUI designed with help from NDS.
NDS developed the guide for them and has now extended it to include full interactivity incorporating a lot of customization that is unique to Cox systems. There's still work going on at NDS to finalize the deployment.
“We're getting more flexible in our approach to say we can work with different applications and bring our expertise to achieve similar goals, based on the customer we're working with,” said Jesper Knutsson, VP and GM of NDS Americas Sales. “I think there was a recognized need within Cox to have a better user interface on the platform. They've worked on it diligently to figure out how that should work and how it fits into the Cox profile.”
At the headend facilities, DSG (DOCSIS Signaling Gateway) reverse path signaling for the STBs is required to communicate with the headend and several servers that facilitate various other aspects of the tru2way functionality, such as electronic program guide data delivery. In addition, there are iTV servers that support the various iTV applications that Cox is deploying.
Tru2way technology is a common software platform that will enable cable companies, consumer electronics companies, content and technology developers and others to promote and advance two-way interactivity. Content is also going mobile, and tru2way technology supports this trend. So if a viewer is watching a music video on TV, they can download the video to their mobile phone and make the song a ring tone.
CableLabs has tried to get telcos and satellite operators interested in the tru2way spec as well, but thus far has had little success. Verizon Communications, for example, has resisted government mandates to impose the technology on its industry. Last summer it sent a letter to the FCC stating that tru2way was too cable-centric and proprietary.
NDS and Cox said they have been working together for more than a year on a variety of technology deployments beginning with the implementation of NDS' IEX automated STB testing software. Since this time, Cox has continued to develop all types of interactive applications for its customers.
Further evidence that tru2way may be finally hitting its stride is the fact that the first retail deployment of the technology is now available to Comcast Cable customers in Chicago and Denver. Coinciding with this, Panasonic announced the availability of the first tru2way-compatible VIERA HDTVs (in 42in class and 50in sizes) that allow Comcast subscribers to receive two-way services without a set-top box.
“For us [the Cox tru2way deployment] is a big step to prove what we can do,” said NDS' Knutsson. “We're hopeful that when people see the difference that these applications make we'll see a lot more interest from operators.”