It’s official: the CableLabs Board of Directors has selected Panasonic CTO Dr. Paul Liao to become the CEO of CableLabs. Underlying this news-of-the-day, however, are other efforts to tighten the links between cable and consumer electronics (CE)-facing technologies.
 
At last week’s JavaOne Conference in San Francisco, Sun Microsystems Chief Digital Media Officer Bill Sheppard said that cable MSOs curious about the future of interactive TV should keep an eye on the evolution of Blu-ray.

Sheppard noted that both OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) standards and Blu-ray share the same Java programming environment and tool set and stand to gain through continued collaboration.

"We at Sun are focusing on allowing developers to start writing code and putting ideas into practice, and the cable operators will find ways of working with third parties much more than in the past."

Blu-ray last year won the high-definition (HD) video disc format wars and has come out with players as low as $150 today, now expected to drop to under $100 by end-of-year. The format also includes the ability to run interactive applications and connect through the Internet to download additional content. (For follow-up on the Blu-ray victory, click here; for more on Blu-ray Disc interactive ‘BD-Live’ technology, click here.)

In the first quarter of ’09, Blu-ray player sales were up 72 percent over last year, while movie sales were up 88 percent.

CableLabs SDK forthcoming

At the San Francisco event, Frank Sandoval, director of OCAP Specifications for CableLabs, discussed some of the background of OCAP or tru2way, the consumer-facing brand name for the platform. Both OCAP and Blu-ray were both built on top of Globally Executable MHP (GEM).

In June 2008, the five largest MSOs signed a memorandum of understanding with Sony (later followed by Panasonic, Samsung, Intel, ADB and others) to provide network support for tru2way by July 1, 2009. There have been several previous announcements of "The Year of OCAP," with 2007 being pivotal, largely because of the platform’s role in helping MSOs meet the July 2007 ban on removable security.

The momentum continues, all the same, in 2009. (For a current tru2way case study, click here.)

"(Tru2way) is poised to become real," Sandoval said. "This is a major market, there are a lot of people that watch cable TV, and they are not showing any sign of defecting."

The deployment of OCAP/tru2way applications – bound and unbound – is still in its infancy compared to Blu-ray owing to lack of implementation standards. Sandoval expects cable to catch up with the Blu-ray industry with the release of application guidelines, a reference implementation and a software development kit (SDK) later this month.

Current legal, commercial, and technical factors impede a one-stop publishing mechanism from deploying applications across a wide cable footprint. "There is a lot of hope there will be a single mechanism in the future, but it is not there today," Sandoval said.

CableLabs has also developed user experience guidelines that describe how to announce the presence of an application. The idea is to leave creative control up to developers, yet still conform to certain conventions compatible with a managed network.

"One of the sensitivities of cable operators is they have a significant cost of their business in solving problems whenever anything goes wrong on the TV set. This is different than many other computing platforms," Sandoval said.

Cooking up apps

To help drive deployment of these next generation technologies Sun has created the HD Cookbook (http://hdcookbook.com/), which helps guide developers in creating interactive applications for both Blu-ray and tru2way platforms. One product discussed at JavaOne was a 10-disc Neil Young interactive musical album.

In theory, Blu-ray applications should seamlessly work with tru2way platforms. This could allow a user to run the same interactive applications on a movie they download from pay-per-view as they do with the Blu-ray version. The forthcoming OCAP SDK could sort out some of these issues.

These kinds of applications require a developer mindset focused more on media management than computer programming, said Bill Foote, TV evangelist at Sun. Developers have to think about how to keep pace with the stream of video and audio, which places limits on the kinds of things they can do.

One of the challenges for developing for tru2way could be the cost of the testing environment.

The CableLabs reference implementation will include a set-top box simulator that allows a developer to get a sense of what his application will look like on a basic set-top. But there is no cost-effective way to see what it would look like on a specific set-top or gauge the performance on different boxes.

Compared to writing to a single PlayStation, developers could face dozens of implementations, given differences in set-top – or tru2way host – processing speed and memory size. It may be tricky to find that common denominator of interoperability.

"It is pretty tough to get your hands on real OCAP hardware," Sandoval admitted. "However, a slow Blu-ray player is a great way of testing out OCAP content on a device that mimics a set-top box. That is a perfectly viable approach of a developer that does not have 15 set-top boxes to test on."

(For more on the question of whether set-tops "negate" advanced TV features, click here for a view from CableLabs and here for a contrary position.)

– George Lawton

Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at www.cable360.net/ct/news/.

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