Inside a Comcast 'AnyPlay' Installation

Last Monday, a new gadget arrived here in the over-the-top video lab: Comcast’s “AnyPlay” streamer, which makes it possible for triple-play customers to stream live and linear TV to an iPad.What lab, you say? It all started last summer. The point of it is to see, firsthand, how and why everyday consumers visit the “connected” side of connected TVs, and whether the stuff people regularly watch is even available on those other screens and services.

That meant hooking up tons of gear. Panasonic’s “Viera” connected TV, Boxee (live TV dongle on order), Samsung’s connected Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, TiVo, Xbox 360 Kinect, Google TV, and standalone streamers made by Sony, NeoTV and Roku.

If you or someone you know is considering any over-the-top streamer as an alternative to a multichannel-video subscription, do this first: Make a list of what all you watch. Why? Chances are good that everything you watch won’t be available.

That’s where AnyPlay is different - and I’ll say it - better. It’s an extension of the TV programming you already pay for, and because you can only view it when you’re physically tied to the cable modem and router that’s playing it out (which keeps content owners happy), chances are high that on AnyPlay, what you watch is what you watch, just on a different screen.

So far, AnyPlay is on trial in Nashville, Tenn., and, happily, Denver. The install involved the Motorola “Televation” box, developed jointly with Comcast Labs.

It’s a standalone box. No video outputs. Coax in, Ethernet out to the modem/wireless router and voila: television on the iPad. (Droids and other devices to come.)

In tech terms, the box marries the front end of a CableCard-based settop with transcoding (MPEG transport to IP) and digital rights management (DRM).

Signal flow goes like this: Video comes into the box over traditional QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) delivery. It gets decoded and decrypted, then shaped into IP, then wrapped in DRM (Motorola’s “Secure Media”), then streamed over Ethernet to the modem/ router, and from its Wi-Fi spigot to the Xfinity app on the iPad.

The installation involved hooking up the box, making sure the most recent version of the Xfinity app was on the iPad, then enabling the app. (”We found an AnyPlay box! Would you like to enable AnyPlay now for playback on this device?” Oh yes.)

After that, a “play now” button shows up next to the “watch on TV” and “record” buttons on the iPad.

From an Xfinity app perspective, AnyPlay is one in a string of feature additions. It started with DVR settings and snazzier navigation. Now, streaming to tablets within the home. It’s an all-inone app that moves new services to market quickly.

How does AnyPlay compare to the other lab streamers? Put it this way: the lab stuff is in a back room. All those screens, all those services and no TV at the desk - until now! (I expect my quality of work to degrade precipitously.)

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