Set-Top ‘Sticks’ Deliver Portability, Personalization

The set-top is increasingly becoming a virtualized app that lives inside tablets, smartphones and other IP-connected devices, but stand-alone set-tops and video clients aren’t expected to disappear completely from view anytime soon. But they are getting smaller.

Taking a cue from retail-focused devices such as the Google Chromecast, Sony Bravia Smart Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick, service provider-supplied video clients are starting to take the form of a set-top “stick” that can be connected via a television’s High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) port. Alticast, a supplier of set-top software and applications and integration services, will offer an early glimpse here at this week’s International CES  gadgetfest in Las Vegas.

And Alticast’s initial entry will have a distinct cable industry angle, as it will demonstrate a set-top stick outfitted with the Reference Design Kit, the pre-integrated software stack for hybrid QAM/IP and IP-only set-tops and gateways being managed by Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

As designed, this HDMI-connected device can receive content over WiFi from an MSO-managed multimedia gateway or receive IP content directly from the cloud. In addition to supporting network-based DVRs, its on-board storage will also pave the way for a personalized device that customers can take with them and plug into other TVs. That portability could also enable operators to extend their user experience when customers are on the go.

Alticast developed the device it’s showing off this week with a yet-unidentified original equipment manufacturer, but the product represents “part of a broader trend of miniaturization and increased mobility,” John Carlucci, Alticast’s chief technology officer and a former Time Warner Cable engineering executive, explained. 

Carlucci said Alticast is already working with a service provider in South Korea that plans to introduce this form factor to deliver IP video services later this year. He said Alticast is also seeing interest in the approach among U.S.-based operators.

Carlucci said this approach could also give operators an opportunity to sell the device at retail as MSOs look to deliver their services directly to smart TVs, gaming consoles and other consumer electronics devices with HDMI ports.

The notion of the HDMI set-top stick might also enable the cable industry to broaden its base of suppliers and further reduce product costs. While traditional set-top box silicon providers are weaving their way into this emerging product set, it’s also drawing interest from chip suppliers that specialize in mobile devices, Carlucci said. Alticast has already demonstrated its RDK stack running on chips from three set-top box chip vendors: Broadcom, STMicroelectronics and Entropic Communications.

Please check this week’s issue of Multichannel News for an expanded preview of the 2014 International CES.