Liberty Global raises the bar for European pay TV with Horizon

The world’s second-largest MSO, Liberty Global (LG), finally unveiled its Horizon TV service at IBC, featuring a hybrid gateway and a streaming service to laptops and PCs, along with Apple iPhones and iPads via an app.

The service is also available on secondary TVs in the home over Wi-Fi, or as a fall-back option over coax via MOCA 1.1, received via a smaller set top box that is sometimes called a zapper box. The service is kicking off in the Netherlands where LG trades as UPC, with launches to follow in Germany, Switzerland and Ireland over the next 12 months, probably followed by the remaining seven European countries by the end of 2014.

Although it has some minor shortcomings that will have to be addressed, the Horizon service represents a big step forward for pay TV in Europe in the user experience with some novel features, while simultaneously integrating web content with the main broadcast service and extending it to Internet-connected devices. Other operators will have to respond, especially those such as KPN in the Netherlands, and Kabel Deutschland in Germany that will face competition from LG’s Horizon-powered service first.

The Horizon gateway, manufactured by Samsung, has 1024MB of RAM, which is plenty for a set top, but only 400GB of usable disk capacity on a 500GB drive, which is less than many DVRs that now come with 1TB, and only enough for around 100 hours of HD content. With six channels available and aimed at multi-room use through the zapper boxes, this may quickly fill up, forcing users to delete content.

A notable feature distinguishing Horizon from other multiroom DVR services, especially in the US, is promotion of WiFi as the primary transmission medium even for HD TV, based on LG’s faith in the Celeno WiFi chipset optimized for HD video. A key point is that this WiFi network is dedicated just to linear TV delivery with no data or OTT content. For the latter, the box supports a second WiFi network via a Broadcom chip for connection to a home network, to bring OTT content on to the TVs, with the same network streaming to PCs, iPhones or iPads.

The main source of differentiation though for a hybrid TV service lies in the User Experience, which for Horizon is provided by NDS with its Snowflake User Interface (UI), combined with the recommendation engine based on software from Think Analytics. The decision to rely heavily on NDS as major partner in the project was a big deal for the company and a significant factor perhaps in Cisco’s decision to acquire it.

At the time, it caused some surprise because TiVo had more mature software already deployed in a hybrid box for cable operator Virgin Media in the UK, where it has been highly successful in gaining a million subscribers in the first 20 months of availability. But, that service only brings OTT content to the TV, without the WiFi distribution or associated streaming to PCs, tablets and smartphones. LG believed NDS was better placed to deliver an all-around product with a UI completely redesigned for hybrid services, and the ability to zap quickly between linear channels and OTT content within a fully integrated single package.

The way LG has deployed the NDS UI Snowflake UI, though, drew a mixed reaction from the crowd at the launch at IBC. It operates a slick looking overlay in the bottom third of the screen not obscuring the picture beneath, but it is still distracting and could cause arguments in the living room if one member of the family started browsing in the middle of a major live event. It may be that LG has to tinker with that and perhaps allow disabling it or revert to an alternative presentation.

There were also mixed reactions to the recommendations themselves, although not in all cases because of the underlying Thinks Analytics engine. The point here is that Horizon is supporting two types of recommendations, the first based on analysis of the user and the context, but the second for operators to push new products at customers almost on a whim. Unless these operator suggestions are themselves at least partly aligned with the “intelligent” recommendations (in other words somewhat personalized), they are unlikely to work and could end up annoying the user.

The personalized recommendations demonstrated at the launch did not always look highly relevant, but there is scope for fine tuning here, and the Thinks Analytics engine does bring two key features for LG. The first is the ability combine knowledge of the user with the context, meaning the content showing at the time. If some YouTube content is showing, then recommendations will include other YouTube items that seem relevant after filtering for the user’s personal preferences. This leads straight to the second key feature from Think Analytics, which is an algorithm it claims is capable of detecting the main viewer at a given time by analyzing channel requests and other information.

Think Analytics would not divulge details of this at IBC, but although the precise mechanism may be a mystery, the broad idea of identifying individuals through signatures of their activity is well known. Essentially, it extends the principles of biometric recognition based on fingerprints, faces or other physical characteristics, to relevant elements of behavior such as the way people operate the remote control and the types of channel they look for. There appears to be no data yet available on how accurate this personalization process is, however.

Another question was how LG would accommodate the rapidly growing number of smart TVs within the Horizon service, and the answer appeared to be not at all. LG’s CTO Nair Balan admitted the operator had toyed with the idea of putting the interface on to smart TVs and moving to eliminate the set top box, but gave that up partly because it would make the service dependent on the CE vendors for software updates and support. LG preferred to support interactivity via the CI Plus interface now installed in many TVs, and actually promoted by a number of major CE makers, including Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, and Sony. CI Plus has gained more interest from operators in Europe than elsewhere, including now from LG.

“Then the TV goes back to being a dumb device,” said Balan. That at least is what operators such as LG would like to see happen, since smart TVs connected directly to the Internet threaten to bypass their service.