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INTERACTIVE TVBrave New World:iTV Testing

As interactive television grows out of the early adopter stage and becomes a truly viable revenue source for broadcasters, the need for testing solutions specific to the medium will increase in importance. To that end, some traditional, and not-so-traditional testing companies, including TestQuest, Tektronix, Triveni Digital, and Videotek are taking steps to meet this need. While the companies vary in the complexity and extensiveness of their offerings, almost all of them agree on one fundamental point-iTV is here to stay, and there is a definite need in the marketplace for testing solutions specifically tailored to it.

TestQuest, a developer of automated testing solutions, is one of the first companies to bring an all-in-one, automated iTV testing solution to market. After Sony, in early 2000, asked the company to customize a product specifically tailored to testing set-top boxes and generic iTV products, TestQuest execs got the idea to create and market their own iTV testing product. "We saw that the testing issues were all the same [with iTV]," commented Joe Toste, vice president of Marketing for TestQuest. "The issues were that the interactive menus that had to be navigated across all those different environments to the application developers, to the TV vendors-were all the same. They wanted to ensure very high [quality] user experience and they wanted to ensure that these very complex menus were properly exercised."

The product itself, called the TestQuestPro For Interactive TV, debuted almost a year ago. It simulates the presence of a "virtual user" by offering interfaces that let vendors test their systems from the viewer's perspective. It captures and replays a stream of infrared commands according to scripts that have been designed to execute the intended test, monitors the results produced on the screen via an s-video interface, and compares it to a reference image to determine whether the commands have produced the intended effect.

Toste thinks one of the areas that will give makers of iTV testing solutions a great money-making opportunity is datacasting. "In this market, the broadcasters have been typically sending out sort of static television-company data, TV data directly, analog or digital, directly to the television box. Many of these content providers are wanting to provide a richer user experience," he said. The testing for the presence, absence, and standards-compliance of the type of data typically overlying iTV applications seems to be what many testing companies are targeting. Tektronix, for example, has a product called the AD960 MPEG Data Test System, which is applicable to interactive television and is targeted specifically at analyzing data broadcast transport protocols. "We're very much focused on looking at the protocols that enable the applications to get to the receiver. And specifically we look at the transfer of applications in a digital TV scenario," commented Richard Hall, Tektronix product marketing manager for the company's MPEG Centre of Competence in Cambridge, England.

The AD960 provides users with diagnostic information that enables them to pinpoint solutions to trouble spots, such as why a receiver may not be able to start an application. It is capable of analyzing MPEG-2, ATSC, DVB, and ISDB transport streams.

Hall says the market outlook for iTV testing solutions is strong. "It's vital that they're [iTV applications] tested," he noted. "Fundamentally, the supply of interactive material to the receiver is going to be one of the key things that drives TV in the future."

Nandhu Nandhakumar, vice president and chief technology officer at Triveni Digital, echoed the sentiment. "Yes, in fact we see an emerging market. We've actually been asked to provide equipment specifically for testing standards-based set-top boxes. We were actually surprised the market emerged as quickly as it did. We weren't expecting it until later, until next year, but it's actually here today," he stated.

Triveni Digital's offering in the field of iTV is its SkyScraper Interactive System, which is specifically targeted at sending iTV content into the digital television signal. It allows users to verify, pre-air, that content being launched is in the right format, and is scheduled to appear on the receiver's set-top box at the correct time. Skyscraper supports the ATVEF standard and will soon support ATSC DASE, DVB MHP, and Open Cable standards. PBS used the system earlier this year to conduct its now-famous ATVEF Type B trials of interactive enhancements to its Scientific American Frontiers show.

Videotek does not offer a specific iTV testing solution, but its newly launched Signal Quality Manager System (SQM) is applicable to the medium. The SQM can monitor video and audio from multiple sources, including composite analog video, serial digital video, analog audio, AES/EBU audio, and MPEG formats. The system allows users to set their acceptable limits of quality, and monitors according to those specifications. Specifically, the SQM can be used to monitor a lot of the data services that are typically embedded in iTV applications.

Mark Everett, vice president of Advanced Technology for Videotek, says that in order for his company to produce an iTV-specific product, there needs to be a better understanding of the problems typical in implementing iTV. "What we have seen are unique and specific applications where a general tool for response-reply kind of things aren't yet apparent to us. We're following standards groups to see if there isn't going to be some kind of normal, standard way to do some of the actions," he commented. It's still a bit early to see how the market for iTV testing solutions will pan out. Nevertheless, as standards settle and interactive applications get deployed en masse, the need for these kinds of solutions will become more apparent. By then, these four early innovators will have a lot more company.