Specs on Demand Are En Route

As video-on-demand evolves from an emerging technology into a mainstream application, a little standards law and order may well be in order.

So it is no surprise that Cable Television Laboratories Inc. is brewing up a set of VOD specifications for content delivery, even as other industry players pose the idea of standards that extend into other areas.

The critical area in which standards are coming into play early on is in managing the content flowing from film studios, aggregators and networks into cable VOD systems.

To catalog and present movie selections, VOD systems rely on metadata, which provides descriptive information about the movie file — its title, production credits, cast members, preview clips, still promotional images and other associated data.

Other elements of metadata cover how these pieces fit together for presentation to the viewer.

But if each content provider chooses a different means to attach this metadata information to video movie files, it could bring chaos to cable VOD systems.

Enter CableLabs' VOD Metadata specification. Issued in March 2002, VOD Metadata 1.0 set up basic guidelines for creating metadata ranging from movie information to how it is to be licensed and displayed.

A follow-up VOD Metadata 1.1 specification deals with distribution of that content, including how a new video file and its associated metadata attachments are downloaded into a VOD system. The latter is just as important to cable VOD systems as the actual content, said Yvette Kanouff, SeaChange International Inc.'s corporate vice president of strategic planning and an active player in developing the metadata specifications.

"If I have a VOD system, what do I look for in order to see that I got new content from [Home Box Office]? Well, when new content gets there it should let me know that it is there in a certain way," she said. "That way — to say, 'I'm here now. You can load me onto your VOD server,' is going to be standard for every HBO and Showtime and On Demand."

More, with 2.0

The CableLabs work doesn't stop there. Although the VOD Metadata 1.0 specification does a good job handling movie information, it isn't as well-suited for the myriad content cablers are now eyeing for their VOD offerings.

"Let's say you have a sporting event and you have a football game — there is no such thing as a director or an actor," Kanouff noted. "Maybe you want statistics of the football game for people who want to watch it afterwards. So we have to have metadata specifications based on the types of content."

Thus, a next-generation VOD Metadata 2.0 specification will expand the metadata guidelines. It is now in the draft stage, and is tentatively set for release by the end of the year.

"The applications that are covered today are primarily movies on demand and subscription video-on-demand," said Ralph Brown, vice president and chief software architect at CableLabs. "But there is interest in bringing all kinds of content into the on-demand space. So the next generation of specs will be focused on supporting those kinds of applications."

Also on the drawing boards at CableLabs are possible encoding guidelines to bring the cable industry's latest "it" product, HDTV, to the VOD platform. But for now, the content and its distribution will be the limit for CableLabs' VOD standards work.

"Each cable operator runs their own access network, and the applications they use on their network to perform video-on-demand — the video-on-demand servers they use — all of that stuff is their decision to make," Brown said. "We haven't been asked to get involved in that area, because they have all gone and created their own solutions and managed the vendors they are most comfortable with. So there hasn't been any focus on that."

Lingua Franca?

Others believe there will be areas that will demand more standards consistency.

"I think session and resource management are things that people are taking a lot more of a look at, because you need to standardize all of the interfaces if you are using [Gigabit Ethernet] switches or you are using the remote-modulation schemes — all of these things need to speak the same language," said nCUBE Corp. president and CEO Michael Pohl, whose company has been active in metadata standards development. "And today they don't necessarily do that."

Cable technology players have talked about creating session and resource management standards, "but it's a little early," said Pohl.

"I think they are going to start looking at a lot of things. They are pretty focused right now on [OpenCable Applications Platform] and [consumer-electronics] negotiations, so those have to get developed first."

Another possible standards area could link broadcast systems with VOD content collection, allowing operators to better capture live and sporting events, Kanouff said.

For example, current VOD archiving systems don't have a way to deal with programs that stretch longer than their original airtime estimate, like when a football game goes into overtime.

"How do I know when a show ends and I need to stop real-time encoding the show?" Kanouff asked. "So it would be nice for standards to exist for video-on-demand systems to integrate more with broadcast systems."

Cue the cuing

Such a standard could cover the basics of show cueing — when a show starts, when it ends — and perhaps even provide metadata for the advertisements that run throughout the program.

The advertising metadata could set cues to swap out ads during later viewing, to reflect the end of sales promotions or time-sensitive advertising.

Billing interfaces also may see some attention in the near term, "because it is just so difficult, so unique per billing system and so expensive to integrate with every billing vendor version," Kanouff said. "It's very complex, and each billing system has different functions, so I think that is going to be another short-term one."

But is a lack of standards going to hurt VOD rollouts? Not so far, but as the on-demand industry grows, so too will the need for more consistent blueprints for its delivery.

"There are a lot of people out there with very set ideas. There is a lot of NIH — Not Invented Here," Pohl noted. "And that is probably the single biggest frustration people have.

"But operators are going to change that. If you listen to [Comcast Corp. chief technology officer] Dave Fellows and you listen to others at the recent cable show, we are moving to an IP-based network. We are going to do this on that network, and all of those things are going to be driven by standards."