It’s couch potato nirvana for sports fans in Time Warner Cable‘s Oceanic division after the launch of the SportsChoice channel about three months ago.
SportsChoice is a mosaic channel that Oceanic created for sports fanatics with the help of Ligos. The mosaic channel displays multiple thumbnails of high-quality live video streams onto a single channel, in this case Ch. 200. Viewers can use their remote arrow keys to highlight the various thumbnails, all of which also have their respective audio feeds as well. Once they see a game or event that piques their interest, sports fans navigate directly to that channel with their remotes.
While the concept of video mosaics is nothing new – DirecTV has had mosaics deployed for more than a year – cable operators are just starting to roll them out. The Comcast Media Center‘s video rich navigation platform, which it developed with GuideWorks, is being trialed in several cities served by Comcast, while ICTV recently inked a deal for its mosaic solution with an IPTV operator in Hong Kong.
TWC’s Oceanic division has a history of firsts within the company and the cable industry. One of the differentiating elements in Oceanic mosaic deployment is the advertising element. Within the channel of tiles, there are also Web-like banners that are displayed on a dynamic rotating basis. When viewers select a banner with their remotes, they’re taken to Oceanic’s sponsor portal where they can view additional video by the sponsor to obtain more information.
"One of the things I found really interesting about Oceanic is that they’re really one of the first to really tie in revenue opportunities with advertising or sponsorships," said Robert Saint John, Ligos’ director of marketing. "What happens is when viewers click on the banner ad, they (Oceanic) have a channel of short content presentations with the sponsors they already have in place with the Navic system. The concept isn’t new, but what is interesting is that Oceanic took it a step further to tie ad sales and revenue to the mosaic as well."
Fred Gerstl, a senior communications engineer at Oceanic, described the banner application as "a pretty snazzy feature," but said he hasn’t gotten any feedback yet on how popular the feature is or how much is it being utilized. Painting mosaics Oceanic had dabbled in painting mosaic channels prior to the launch of SportsChoice. Previously, a mosaic channel was deployed during the last Olympics using a solution from Harmonic. Gerstl said one of the reasons for switching over to Ligos’ solution was its scheduling function.
"What we’re doing right now with SportsChoice is during the week we’ll have six tiles up there with various programs like ESPN1, ESPN2 and Fox Sports, but during the weekend, we have a scheduler that will switch in some of the local broadcast stations that are showing sports," he said. "Normally it’s college football games that local broadcast affiliates are showing, and most of them are mainland games."
Oceanic uses Ligos’ MediaRig Mosaic, which is an HP server that takes the place of up to a dozen hardware MPEG decoders to generate the single guide channel. The MediaRig Mosaic performs MPEG-2 decoding, re-scaling, compositing, navigation metadata, re-encoding and multiplexing into a single platform.
"Another reason we went with them (Ligos) is because they had developed an MPEG encoder, and we were able to install two of them into the standard HP server," Gerstl said. "If there are analog services that we’d like to include into the (MediaRig) Mosaic, they have to be digitized and encoded. When we did the news mosaic, there was CNN and CNN Headline News that weren’t in available in ASI format. By using the two encoders in the HP server, we didn’t need to have external encoders. We just basically hooked them up and then went through the manipulations in the Mosaic software to get up and running.
"Basically, it gives me an IP out or a GigE out, and then I multiplex that onto one of our multiplexers that go to our QAM modulators, and then it winds up out on the system. Once you’ve developed the Mosaic, it’s a pretty simple process."
Gerstl said loading the input feeds into the MediaRig Mosaic and "going through the gyrations to create the tiles and labels, and all of the other things you’d like to do" was one of the more difficult tasks of setting up the solution.
Saint John said the MediaRig takes Ethernet feeds, either single or multiple program transport feeds ideally going over IP, from a cherry picker. From there, the user builds a channel map to pluck out the programs and assign them to tiles. The stream is then selected, decoded and scaled down to the size of the tile. Along with the navigational metadata from the set-top box, the programs are then muxed back into single channels. Downloading to set-top boxes Gerstl said the most amount of testing to get the service up and running was on the Scientific Atlanta set-top box converters. The set-top boxes already had Compass, which is a client application developed by TWC, loaded into them to enable Oceanic’s caller ID on TV solution.
"Mosaic was having some issues working in the same Compass environment with our caller ID," Gerstl said. "When you can’t get the client application on the set-top converter boxes to play, then you need to make some adjustments or software changes.
"Then you also have to load that client application onto the set-top boxes, and you’re talking hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes, so that is a lengthy process. We tried to do that sort of thing after hours. If a box was turned off at midnight, we’d download to it."
Oceanic was also able to switch out SportsChoice for a different mosaic of channels during last week’s elections that allowed viewers to bounce around the various election night coverages.
In the future, the Ligos solution could also be used as a mosaic guide for a virtual portal in VOD deployments. Ligos’ Saint John said the company is in trials with other unnamed operators, including IPTV trials using SD MPEG-2, and it has been working with the Comcast Media Center on the video rich navigation platform.
"At the moment, we’re doing standard definition MPEG-2, but we do have high definition and AVC-based versions on our roadmap," Saint John said. – Mike Robuck