Cox Gasses Up Next-Generation Guide

Cox Communications, gearing up for a late-summer launch of its next-generation interactive program guide developed with NDS, is stirring a slew of entertainment and information applications into the mix.

The MSO last May announced the deal to outsource IPG development to NDS, which has been building a tru2way-based guide to Cox's specifications. In addition to a brand-new user interface designed from scratch, the IPG features integrated program information across Cox's linear channels, video-on-demand and digital video recorder content.

Now, on top of that, Cox will layer in a wide range of interactive apps with NDS's help, including: caller ID and e-mail on the TV, news, sports, weather, games, movie listings, a "mosaic" view of multiple channels, horoscopes, lottery results and customer-care services.

"They're one of the first MSOs that are taking steps to deploy interactive on a larger scale," said Jesper Knutsson, vice president and general manager of sales for NDS Americas.

Originally, Cox planned to have those ITV applications reworked by TVWorks, the operator's joint venture with Comcast. Instead, the operator turned to NDS to do the job, to make the integration with the IPG "more seamless," said Lisa Pickelsimer, Cox executive director of video product development.

The guide, which Cox expects to begin deploying in August, will replace the Aptiv Passport guide (now owned by Macrovision Solutions) in its Motorola markets and Cisco Systems' SARA guide in its Scientific Atlanta systems.

"Our guides today have very much an ad-hoc feel," Pickelsimer said, noting that the IPG, VOD client and interactive TV currently are three separate clients.

For now, Cox is still keeping the NDS-developed guide out of the public eye. The company has declined to show demos or release screen shots.

Pickelsimer provided a brief rundown of the highlights: The main guide view is not a grid; it's a three-panel screen with a list of channels on the left, programs on the selected channel in the middle; and a program description on the right. (A grid also is available for those who prefer it.)

In addition to integrated search, the guide provides a "browse related" feature that links to other content based on similar actors or themes. For example, if Titanic is on the VOD menu the guide may link to an upcoming History program on famous ships, Pickelsimer said. Tribune Media Services's entertainment-information products On TV and On Connectors are built into the new guide, enabling such linkages.

Individual users in a household can program their favorite channels and customize ITV apps, so, for instance, each family member can pull up his or her own horoscope. The IPG also will provide remote DVR programming via Web or mobile phone.

Initially Cox will deploy the guide on new set-tops running tru2way middleware. The MSO is not disclosing which set-top vendor or OpenCable Application Platform middleware it is using. In a second phase, the plan is to bring the IPG to the existing HD and HD DVR boxes through the pre-OCAP OnRamp middleware developed by TVWorks.

Pickelsimer said the guide will let Cox add features in future releases, such accessing Internet content on the TV and personal media stored on home PCs. "We made a concerted effort to design an information architecture that would incorporate new things we haven't anticipated," she said.

NDS, in addition to its work on Cox's guide, has supplied the operator with its IEX automated set-top box testing solution.

In preparation for the IPG launch, Cox has been upgrading its headends to support that OCAP/tru2way, including installing new servers.

Cox started the guide-overhaul initiative in 2005. Internally the operator refers to the project as SCIN (pronounced "skin"), which stands for "Simple Consistent Intuitive Navigation."

"The underlying thought was, users don't want to interact with a guide -- they just want to find content," Pickelsimer said.

Noted Knutsson: "The goal is to not notice the user interface. If you notice it too much you're not doing your job."