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CableLabs Plows Ahead With ETV 2.0

Having already digested a successful interoperability event for its ETV (Enhanced Television) 1.0 specifications, engineers at CableLabs are busy working on version 2.0 — which will include integration with video on demand — with an eye toward a second test in December.

While some CableLabs specifications develop over the years in a sometimes-cumbersome process, ETV has moved along relatively quickly since work began late in 2004. The specifications will allow programmers to offer interactive-TV elements within linear content, such as extra information about shows or poll questions.

ETV grew out of the larger CableLabs OpenCable Applications Platform initiative, an effort to produce common middleware for new applications on advanced set-top boxes, as well as a secondary push toward the retail market, said senior vice president of advanced platforms and services Don Dulchinos.

Although OpenCable focused on the higher-end boxes, operators started to place more urgency on developing interactive applications for the millions of lower-level boxes in the field.

“Those had limited processing power and memory,” Dulchinos said.

While OpenCable deployment stalled, content and software companies like GoldPocket Interactive Inc. and MetaTV Inc. started developing applications for lower-end but fully deployed set-tops.

But both of those efforts were proprietary — forcing MSOs to select one platform or the other, choices that kept application development costly.

“The MSOs tried all of those, but none of it was a common platform,” Dulchinos said.

“In first-quarter, we developed an ETV standard and parsed out the common elements,” Dulchinos said, with GoldPocket and MetaTV participating. “In April, we published the first version of the EBIF spec, which stands for Enhanced Binary Interchange Format. It’s the format in which you write the application.”

The specification also covers how the set-top recognizes that there is interactive content on the channel, he said. The ITV content is in-band, so the interactive elements reside within the primary signal.

“To do this in the set-top box, you need some firmware, which is a chunk of code that acts as a user agent that recognizes that application,” said Dulchinos. That user agent decodes the interactive application and displays it for the viewer, he said.

Twenty-eight companies participated in the August interoperability event, including software and hardware companies, as well as MSOs, like Osmosys, Panasonic Consumer Electronics, Samsung Corp., ADB, Pioneer Research USA, Motorola Inc., Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Vidiom Systems, Zappware, Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable.

Content and application suppliers, such as The Walt Disney Co., Showtime Networks Inc., Navic Networks, Ensequence, TVWorks, Emuse, GoldPocket Interactive Inc. and Biap Systems Inc. embedded data in the video streams, including programs, images and triggers.

“We had multiple user agents running,” Dulchinos said — with GoldPocket and MetaTV participating — running in S-A set-tops.

“The next step is the interop in December,” he said, when CableLabs will add more applications and test different level set-tops from S-A and Motorola. At the same time, CableLabs is adding VOD triggers as part of the ETV 2.0 specification.

That spec allow programmers to add icons to linear-TV feeds letting viewers know there is related program content on the VOD server.

Both the ETV and the so-called “On-Ramp to OCAP” are part of the general OpenCable specifications.

Although ETV and On-Ramp address the lower end set-top market, “OnRamp is a different way to go after the same point,” Dulchinos said. “Which is, what can I do on the low-end box?”

OnRamp is Java-based, while the ETV specifications are not. “The ETV specification is a design limited to a particular program,” he said. “With OnRamp, you have a Java virtual machine. You can execute an application in the box. The application runs independent of what you are watching.”

For instance, operators could have a Java application that will show the time and temperature on the TV screen, no matter what channel the subscriber is watching, Dulchinos said.