Set-top boxes (STB) might soon become as ubiquitous in the home as the televisions underneath them. These digital electronic devices will do more than just enable those with conventional (analog) televisions to be able to receive digital TV signals; they will provide a gateway for digital services, hastening convergence between the television and the Internet, and bringing interactivity into the home.
STBs come in two flavors: “standard,” allowing for TV viewing and listing of program guides, and “advanced,” which are actually computers that drive increased functionality such as Internet access and the ability to interact with what is being watched. But while most know the names of the popular television manufacturers, the same can not be said for those producing the set-top boxes that will soon be adorning them. The following is a list of some of the major companies.
DISH NETWORK (ECHOSTAR COMMUNICATIONS)
The DishPlayer consists of an integrated DISH satellite receiver, a hard drive-based digital PVR (Personal Video Recorder) and WebTV. Unlike stand-alone digital recorders, the DishPlayer records a digital signal directly to the hard drive — the playback being essentially indistinguishable from a “live” broadcast. While the Microsoft operating system integrates television/digital services via satellite, Internet access must be served through a dial-up modem. However, some information (such as a seven-day program guide, news, sports, weather, games, etc.) can be downloaded from the satellite onto the hard drive for later access. Retail of unit is $399.99 and there is a monthly service charge for the PVR functions.
The Motorola DCT series is based on software provided by the Microsoft TV Platform. The DCT-2000 — Motorola’s core interactive digital set-top box — can deliver digital-television services such as Internet access, e-mail and interactive gaming. The DCT-5000+ will be able to offer VOD (video on demand) from four providers: DIVA; Intertainer; nCUBE; and SeaChange International. In addition, the unit will allow users to simultaneously surf the Internet while watching television, or the ability to watch TV and talk over the telephone via the STB using voice-over-cable IP (Internet protocol) telephony.
A number of software suites are in use for the DCT series, among them being navigational support by Pioneer’s Passport software application suite (see Pioneer below for more details on Passport), and OpenTV software, which supports multiple interactive services including electronic program guides, e-mail, e-commerce and VOD.
PACE MICRO TECHNOLOGY LTD.
Pace’s D1501 is a Pegasus compliant box (gateway) incorporating PowerKEY conditional access and a cable modem for high-speed interactive services. Also in development (for Comcast’s Motorola networks) is a new design STB incorporating DigiCipher II conditional access, a cable modem for high-speed interactive services, plus a hard drive option for integrating PVR functions such as pausing, instant replay and recording live programs. This Pace STB will support both Liberate and Microsoft TV for interactive services and provide for an optional capability for High Definition Television. Delivery of the set-top boxes is expected at the end of 2001.
PIONEER NEW MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES
The Voyager series digital cable terminal STB combines traditional analog features and advanced digital applications such as video decompression, IP addressing, and increased channel capacity. The operating system is provided by PowerTV and Pioneer’s own Passport Navigation software, which provides such functionality as interactive program guides, channel banner browsing (revealing what’s playing on other channels and at other times), “virtual” channels with on-demand downloadiable programs, and support for real-time, two-way applications such as e-mail, network games and Web browsing.
The next generation in the series, Voyager 3000, will ship in the first quarter of 2001, according to a company spokesperson. It will feature increased memory, speed and functionality at a cheaper price and a smaller footprint.
Philips Digital Set-Top Box Platform
The Philips STB’s core technologies include the latest MPEG4 streaming compression system, PVR functions (via an internal hard drive) and an advanced programmable media processor. Multimedia applications include digital TV and radio reception, enhanced television (datacasting), multi-channel audio, Internet services, e-mail, e-commerce and video telephony. In-home networking capability with other networked appliances is also available through conforming to the HAVI (home audio video interoperability) standard. Software for the Philips STB will be provided by Microsoft TV.
FTTC/VDSL Set Top Box (SMT-F200)
The FTTC/VDSL Set Top Box incorporates voice, data and video with analog/digital CATV, VOD, telephony service and fast Internet access (utilizing a Web browser/JAVA virtual machine operable in Microware OS-9000). An interactive EPG (electronic program guide) combines with closed caption/Teletext functions and Macrovision anti-taping copy protection functions.
The Explorer series are Internet protocol (IP)-based digital interactive set-tops. They deliver a full suite of two-way interactive applications, including interactive program guides, VOD, enhanced TV, Internet access, cross-platform gaming, e-mail and online commerce. In addition, the Explorer set-top is compatible with other household gadgets including digital cameras, surround-sound stereos, printers, MP3 players and personal digital assistants, etc.
Software is supplied by Scientific-Atlanta’s subsidiary PowerTV, Inc. and is designed for the unique needs of digital interactive set-tops. PowerTV’s SofaSOFT — a suite of interactive TV services designed to enable consumers to browse the Web, compose e-mail and use other services while watching TV — is in field trials with several major cable operators in anticipation of full-scale rollouts this fall (while the suite is built in and ready to go, it’s up to the cable operators to upgrade their networks and roll out the interactive services).
An AOL-branded STB is being developed which will allow for a version of its service to be viewed on a television set. The box will also include digital video recording capability developed through a strategic agreement with personal television provider TiVO (AOL has a 15% stake in the company). Liberate Technologies (www.liberate.com) will be providing some of the interactive software. No statement has been made as yet as to whether anything other than a dial-up connection will be used for transmission of content. The AOL STB featuring TiVO’s technology is slated for delivery sometime in early 2001. The box is being manufactured by Philips, with software provided by Liberate. No price has been set.
The RCA satellite receiver system (DS4290RE) will incorporate DirecTV programming, 30-plus hours of digital video recording, plus Internet access/interactive television services. Dual tuners will allow for picture-in-picture capabilities and for watching one show while recording another. Internet access will work through a dial-up modem connection, although the dual tuners will allow for high-speed satellite downloads to be integrated into Internet use in the near future, according to company sources.
The Ultimate TV software, based on Microsoft TV platform software and provided by Microsoft WebTV Networks, Inc., will power the system. Rollout nationwide is planned for the beginning of the 2000 holiday shopping season. Price has not been set.