A new viewing system being tested at Madison Square Garden
may be a glimpse of cable video treats to come from MSG owner Cablevision Systems Corp.
Now limited to 10-inch screens planted in seat backs at the
Garden, the new personalized, multifeed interactive system offers a taste of what the MSO
may offer with its commercial rollout of advanced set-top boxes in next year's third
Soon, Cablevision's partners in the MSG project --
including Intel Corp. and CSI Inc. -- plan to add another element, known as
"spherical video," that could add an entirely new dimension to interactive TV of
"We're looking to see what portions of the MSG
product can be transported to the interactive-cable platform," Cablevision senior
vice president of engineering and technology Wilt Hildenbrand said. "I think
it's the beginning of things to come."
New York-based CSI's "ChoiceSeat" system
uses Internet-protocol servers, in conjunction with video feeds from up to eight camera
locations, to deliver options to "smart-seat" locations that include choice of
camera angle, personalized replays and game highlights, orders from concession stands and
statistical information on players and teams.
Commands are made on a touch screen, eliminating remote
controls or special consoles, noted Mary Frost, president and CEO of CSI, which is mostly
owned by Williams Communications Inc. "We have the system installed in 544 seats at
this point, and we are contracted for a total of a little over 3,000," she added.
MSG isn't charging extra for the seats, choosing
instead to offer the service as a benefit to fans who happen to be in those locations.
CSI ran earlier versions of its systems in other venues,
including baseball stadiums in Tampa, Fla., and in San Diego during the World Series, as
well as during the last two football Super Bowls.
CSI is trying to focus on the network-service potential
afforded by broadband networks, especially cable, Frost said.
"We see ChoiceSeat as the evolution of sports
entertainment," she added. "Cable companies like Cablevision are deploying
interactive set-top boxes that, in combination with the bandwidth of their networks,
support scaling this technology to reach the home audience, as well as people in the
While the idea of multiple camera angles and interactive
sports viewing has been around for a long time -- notably in the decade-long offering of
such services by ACTV Inc. -- the moment is now at hand where such services are truly
practical, Hildenbrand said.
"Now that we're in the phase where we already
have a saturated market presence of digital set-tops, two-way systems and customers
accustomed to digital services, the time has come to look at things like ACTV and
ChoiceSeat," he added.
ChoiceSeat's approach at MSG -- where IP technology
embellishes video programming in a closed environment, unlike the Internet -- is
Cablevision's model for services to be launched over the new interactive,
OpenCable-compatible set-top boxes to put into beta trial in the first quarter of next
"Our intention is to offer Web-enhanced TV, as opposed
to full Web browsing, including video-on-demand and e-mail, as well as new types of
interactive programming," Hildenbrand said.
Cablevision tapped Sony Corp. of America for advanced
set-tops, DiviCom, Inc. for interactive headend gear and NDS Ltd. for conditional-access
The MSO is not prepared to identify operating systems or
middleware yet. But Hildenbrand made it clear that the company is pursuing a
"thin-client" model, which means relatively low levels of computing power at the
set-top in combination with a sophisticated middleware system that focuses processing at
the headend server "as much as possible."
"I would like to avoid in the future what we've
gone through in the past with having to change out set-tops with each succeeding
generation of technology," Hildenbrand said.
By using Web technology but not porting Web content to the
TV, Cablevision lessens the amount of transcoding that would be required for set-top
Internet access and ensures that the interactive content is delivered from known sources,
as opposed to unknown "broadband-content" suppliers proliferating across the
So far, the cable industry in general is sticking to this
approach to implementing interactive OpenCable-compliant boxes, which, by government fiat,
must be available for retail distribution by July.
"It's not clear what the killer apps are in Web
content that we can't do ourselves," Hildenbrand said. "E-commerce?
Video-on-demand? Those are things we plan to offer."
Cablevision has a strong base of content resources,
including the Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. programming networks, Radio City Music Hall and
various local-origination services, as well as MSG. So the MSO will have no problem
fashioning content that wraps homegrown Web-based graphics and text fed from headend
servers around video feeds to create interactive programming.
Spicing the potential of such programming is a new
technology under scrutiny by CSI for its MSG operation involving an eight-lens camera that
feeds a 360-degree, full-motion encapsulation of live action.
Developed by Portland, Ore.-based start-up iMove Inc., the
spherical video system is the first to offer a real-time, seamless viewing of any portion
of the captured environment on command.
"We're trying to figure out what to do with the
iMove system," Frost said. "One of the most popular options is to use it in the
locker rooms, but there are obvious problems with that."
As described by iMove chairman Roger Thomas, the
company's system captures video from all of the lenses of the camera and combines it
into a 24-megabit-per-second stream that presents 360 degrees of viewing options.
The system currently operates at a resolution of 500-by-500
pixels -- grainier than National Television Systems Committee-quality video -- but it will
improve to 750-by-750 resolution early next year and to 1,000-by-1,000 by year's end.
"We're not yet able to support the user zooming
in, but that will come," Thomas added. He said the technology has been licensed to
certain suppliers of software-development kits and video-capture systems with the hope
that it will become an industry standard.
Initial applications of the technology are in CD-ROM and
DVD products, such as a recently completed taping of a Grand Prix auto race in the United
Kingdom. The CD's viewpoint is the driver's seat, allowing viewers to witness
the race in all directions, iMove spokeswoman Julie Stark said.
Broadband networks may offer a more potent opportunity for
the technology, which also allows viewers to click on hot spots and link to other
information feeds, Thomas said. "We believe the broadband world will figure out how
to use this stuff," he added.
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