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ITV: Great Expectations

After years percolating in the labs, interactive TV still hasn’t hit critical mass. Now, cable finally may be on the cusp of hitting big numbers — and ITV developers are abuzz. Itaas CEO Vibha Rustagi, founding partner of the provider of interactive-TV development and testing tools with nearly 90 employees, is riding the growing wave of optimism surrounding the technology. The hope is that big cable operators will make good on promises to enable CableLabs’ Enhanced Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) on millions of cable boxes this year. Rustagi recently spoke with Multichannel News technology editor Todd Spangler. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: What are going to be the real killer apps for interactive TV?

Vibha Rustagi: When we talk to MSOs, it’s the concept of integrated, cross-platform apps — being able to deliver any kind of content on the PC, on the TV, on mobile devices. The kinds of applications we’re talking about are like caller ID on TV, or Internet chatting on the TV. Certainly we’re also seeing a lot of work in traditional video-on-demand apps.

MCN: What kinds of projects do you have in the works?

VR: What we’re seeing in our experience is a significant rise in the number of developers in the community because of the launch of EBIF and Tru2way. There’s certainly a belief that EBIF will address the question of, “How many boxes can I deploy this on?” We’re also working on applications that bridge from the TV to broadband, and from broadband to TV.

MCN: What’s an example of that kind of multiplatform application?

VR: Say you have something running on the Internet, like a photo-sharing application. Now, if you want to access that through your set-top box, [it can be delivered] over an IP network or cable network. Or if you have an account with Amazon or a certain portal, you can access the same account, tied into either the TV-centric content or information. So if I’m watching a Sidney Poitier movie, I might want to know about movies related to that.

MCN: How does an Internet-centric approach to developing interactive TV apps like the Yahoo-Intel Widget Channel framework play into the work that cable has already done?

VR: There was a lot of talk about the Yahoo widgets at [January’s Consumer Electronics Show]. It’s something that can be bridged to the TV, through an OCAP [OpenCable Application Platform] set-top box. Currently the Yahoo widgets require a specialized processor. But you could run their Yahoo widget engine on an OCAP set-top — absolutely, there’s room for it to be ported into a cable environment.

MCN: What are the biggest misconceptions about interactive television?

VR: For newer entrants, their expectations are that it’s a pretty simple process: You develop it, you test it for a while, then deploy it. But it’s not that simple. We’re working toward standardizing these platforms from a testing standpoint, but we have to tell them from a testing standpoint the MSOs have different configurations. There’s the time-to-market side of it, where they have to negotiate a deal with the MSO. That’s the biggest surprise for companies that enter the business from wireless or broadband.