From Brown Boxes to Virtual Reality

Cable executives who attended July’s private demonstrations in Philadelphia of a new remote control and interactive program guide from Hillcrest Labs could have easily mistaken the company’s device for a Star Trek prop.

The remote, a sphere with no channel numbers, works like a computer mouse. Viewers aim it at the left side of the screen to scroll through hundreds of channels at lightning speed, or click on the right side of the screen to control the volume. The guide also integrates video-on-demand content and programs stored on a digital video recorder with live TV signals, making it easier for viewers to navigate thousands of program choices.

Hillcrest’s device isn’t science fiction. Company executives expect the remotes, which will cost operators $10 to $20 apiece based on volume, will be deployed by at least one major distributor next year.

“The current electronic program guide model was developed and optimized for a linear model that taps out around 200 channels,” said former Comcast Corp. executive Andy Addis, now executive vice president at Hillcrest. “The linear menu-based navigation [systems] that exist today don’t work. You need to evolve to a nonlinear navigation paradigm, and that’s what we’ve effectively done.”

Channel-surfing technology has changed radically since the early days of cable, when operators retransmitted a handful of local broadcast networks and a few emerging cable services.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, most cable subscribers used clunky brown cable boxes from Jerrold Electronics, wired to a box at the back of their television, to navigate a maximum of about maximum of 40 channels — tripling the channel capacity of their 13-channel analog television sets.

Subscribers could easily tamper with the boxes with a paper clip to descramble pay channels like Home Box Office — a practice cable operators were slow to crack down on, recalls former Jerrold executive Hal Krisbergh.

“Cable operators who sold the boxes knew that they could be defeated,” Krisbergh said. But by allowing subscribers to easily tweak the boxes to descramble HBO, “basic-cable penetration would go through the roof,” added Krisbergh, now the CEO of WorldGate Communications Corp.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of scrolling, passive channel guides, including United Video Satellite Group’s Prevue Channel, which subscribers would flip to frequently to find out what was on TV.

In 1996, Prevue Channel became TV Guide Channel through a United Video deal with News Corp. The next four years saw a huge consolidation in the interactive program guide sector, resulting in 2000’s $14.8 billion merger between Gemstar International Group and TV Guide Inc., creating Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.

Today, Gemstar dominates the IPG business, distributing TV Guide Interactive on most U.S. cable systems. And through a joint venture with Comcast called GuideWorks, Gemstar is developing next-generation IPGs that integrate video, VOD and digital video recorder content.

An explosion in the number of cable networks has also moved satellite and cable operators to group services within the same genre on a single grid, allowing subscribers to quickly find out what’s playing simultaneously on every sports, news or kids channel.

DirecTV Group Inc. launched its Newsmix, Sportsmix and Kidsmix channels last January, and Comcast Corp. plans to roll out similar genre mosaic channels this fall.

Next on the horizon for cable and satellite providers: Program guides that rely on voice recognition and virtual reality technology to ease channel navigation.

Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable are currently testing a voice-activated remote control from AgileTV Corp. with subscribers in Philadelphia. The remotes, which contain a green “push to talk” button, respond to commands such as “find The Daily Show” or “scan sports.”

Newton, Mass-based OneVideo Technology Corp. is developing its own voice-activated navigation system, which requires no remote control. Its product would rely on a set-top equipped with a microphone. OneVideo executives are pitching their voice recognition technology not only as a way to channel surf, but also as a way to allow subscribers to access interactive TV features, or access long-form ads while watching traditional 30-second commercials.

While voice-recognition may seem advanced for some observers, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. won a patent in December 2004 for channel-surfing technology that could truly bring cable into the age of The Jetsons. The idea, from S-A engineer and inventor Luis Rovira, is for a three-dimensional virtual reality program guide.

According to the patent, viewers would strap on a pair of virtual reality goggles, or rely on an avatar placed on a TV screen. Viewers would navigate channels by driving in a car down a highway littered with billboards containing full-motion video containing TV shows, movies and commercials, which would allow them to glance at multiple shows before pulling up in front of one of the billboards to watch a program. Viewers would also be able to invite friends in other homes connected to the system to join them in their virtual reality car, and go channel surfing.

For now, the VR guide remains on the drawing board. S-A spokeswoman Sara Stutzenstein said the company hasn’t yet pitched the concept to operators.