Interactivity was everywhere--from the suburban home at Broadband Nation to myriad demos on the show floor. It was big. This was the first show where it seemed that MSOs, technology vendors and content providers were all rallying around tru2way, a common software platform for building interactive applications. With tru2way, creators of interactive services will be able to "write" an interactive application once and have it run on any cable system that supports the specification.
Tru2way (formerly known as OCAP) has been in development for a long time. It requires additions to the head-end equipment and the use of fairly sophisticated set top boxes, so tru2way applications will take some time to roll out. Tru2way has already launched in a few cable markets, and cable operators have announced plans to launch it in most U.S. markets this year. [Our column in the September 2008 issue of Broadband Library discussed the time required to launch tru2way ( www.broadbandhomecentral.com/presentations_BBL-2008-09.html ).]
EBIF Supports Legacy Boxes
Tru2way requires a fairly powerful set top box. Since the deployment of this new infrastructure will take some time, the industry defined a simplified data format for interactive applications that can run on legacy boxes with more limited resources. This format--called EBIF ("Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format")--consists of three elements. The first is a small chunk of code, called a "user agent". Stored in and executed by the set top box, it is designed to operate with the majority of deployed digital boxes, even those with limited processing power, memory and graphics.
The content source provides the second element--a "trigger" or "widget" that is integrated into the MPEG transport stream along with the video content. The user agent in the set top box constantly looks for triggers in the incoming transport stream; when it sees one, it overlays a pop-up box or text on top of the video on the screen, prompting the user to take some action. The user can perform a variety of simple actions by clicking the remote control--these include voting, buying products, requesting information, or launching some stored video.
The third element is back-end servers, which can update data that is fed into an EBIF application and can collect data from the set-top box. These three elements together are what facilitate "ETV" or Enhanced TV.
EBIF applications can be directly related to the content being shown, in which case they are termed "bound applications". They can also be independent of the content--those are called "unbound applications." Examples of unbound applications include caller ID or yellow pages on the TV.
A New World of Possibilities
We saw demonstrations of interactive applications at several conference sessions and all around the show floor. The demos--some based on EBIF and some on tru2way--showed the many possibilities for new versions of user interfaces, new methods of navigation, seamless linkage to databases, multiple variations on connecting social networking to the TV, possibilities for advertising, and much more user control over what they can see when they want to see it.
A word of caution is probably justified here. Just because something is possible, it does not mean that consumers will decide they want to use it. Consumer behavior remains the unknown wildcard in the interactive TV equation.
"Cable's Interactive Agenda"
A panel "A New Way There: Cable's Interactive Agenda" brought together four key MSO representatives to talk about where tru2way and EBIF deployments stand. The panel, chaired by David Reed, EVP & Chief Strategy Officer, CableLabs, included demonstrations by several of the panelists.
Mark Hess SVP, Engineering, at Comcast noted that tru2way is actively launched in four markets and by mid-year should be in the majority of Comcast markets. He showed a slide of Comcast's 2009 planned applications, and observed that the importance of what is happening now is that the MSOs are building to a common standard. Sherisse Hawkins indicated that Time Warner Cable has over 2 million OCAP ready and tru2way devices. Steve Necessary showed the audience Cox's new User Interface (UI) and guide. Jeff Chen offered that Bright House Networks had over 200,000 tru2way boxes deployed and that they had introduced separable security and a new guide at the same time.