TCS Daily

A Smarter Boob Tube

By Edward B. Driscoll - November 14, 2005 12:00 AM

In the early 1980s, computer users experienced a dramatic change, as keyboard and command function operating systems like DOS gave way to mouse-driven graphical user interfaces such as Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft's Windows OS. The television viewer may be about to undergo a similar shift, with the introduction of what might be called the postmodern set-top box.  

The box is designed to reduce the amount of repetitive and frequently boring grid-like channel interfaces the television viewer has to click through, especially as pay-per-view, video-on-demand and user-created content increases exponentially.  

One of the most intriguing examples is a product that is undergoing design and testing by Hillcrest Labs of Rockville, Maryland.  

Hillcrest's HoME, short for "Home Multimedia Entertainment", has two potentially revolutionary features. First, it replaces the traditional grid-based graphical interface of digital cable and DBS set-top boxes with a multi-dimensional interface that allows for a huge variety of intuitive navigational choices. And perhaps equally radically, it replaces the traditional button-laden set-top box remote control with two buttons and a scroll wheel, internally called "The Loop" by Hillcrest employees after its circular shape.  

The result is the possibility for a whole new archetype of television navigation, which made quite a splash at the prestigious "D: All Things Digital" conference in late May. The interactive grid-based guide was copied from TV Guide and similar newspaper program directories that are almost as old as TV itself. "And it worked quite well", Andy Addis says. "It still does, in instances where there are 100 to 200 linear channels. But it fails miserably in an environment where digital media is seemingly exploding: a cable company like Comcast offers 5000 choices on demand, and plan on doubling that amount each year over the next two years. You just can't manage that kind of content in a grid-based environment."  

Addis is Hillcrest Labs' executive vice president for product management and business development. Prior to joining Hillcrest, he spent eight years as the senior VP of marketing and new products at Comcast, a position where he learned the dangers firsthand of providing too complicated an experience for home viewers.  

Addis helped launch Comcast's digital cable services in the mid-1990s, and talked his parents into getting the service. But when Addis visited them a month later, they had disconnected their box and returned to basic cable. Astonished, he asked them why. "There were just too many buttons, and the up, down, left, right, and the onscreen guide were all way too complicated", his parents told him.  

Peeling The Onion  

Addis believes that the radically new architecture of Hillcrest's HoME will avoid that feeling of technology overload. The drastically simplified "Loop" remote is a first step. We've all fumbled about trying to remember which button does what on our DBS or digital cable remotes.  

But the real key is the interface on the set top box. When consumers turn the box on, they're presented with a handful of icons, each of which can be clicked on to go to live TV or games, as well as personal media, such as shows recorded via the box's optional internal DVR and photos or audio and video clips copied over for big screen viewing. "And that's how you start peeling the onion", Addis says.  

The first layer of that onion is live TV. For the first 100 to 150 channels of basic cable, HoME uses the traditional grid style that we've all grown accustomed to.  

It's after those channels where Addis believes that the Hillcrest box will pick up the slack. "From there, there's a whole video-on-demand application. These are visual directories with over 100 pieces of jacket art that show up on the screen that make it highly scalable. So within a few clicks of the remote, you can literally search through thousands of choices, but in a very visual and experiential way."  

The DVR section of HoME is also unique in its visual presentation. "There will be jacket art for say, Friends. So you click that, and then all of the Friends that you have recorded would be underneath that. You click another button, you get all upcoming Friends, and then you just point and click to record those shows."  

Beyond that, there is a separate suite of services for personal media, including all of the applications and features related to managing photos, videos, personal music collections and/or purchased music services from the Internet.  

"Semantic Zooming"  

Addis compares the feeling of surfing through the various elements of the HoME box as similar to the motion of a fast-moving helicopter. "Just envision on your screen that there's over 100 pieces of jacket art. It's a zoomable interface; it's almost like you're at 100,000 feet when you're looking at a hundred pieces of jacket art, and then you can zoom in to 10,000 feet, down to 5,000 feet. Then you start picking stuff. If you select one, and it recommends another one, if you click on the recommendation, you'll zoom up, over and down into the section of the menu where that particular piece of jacket art is offered up."  

Hillcrest plans to tie in e-commerce aspects of their box with whatever movie or TV show is chosen by the viewer, including its soundtrack. Depending upon the business arrangement of the cable company, soundtracks will be either downloaded to the box's hard drive, or mailed out as a physical CD from an e-tailer such as "If you click on the soundtrack, you go up, over to the music app and then down into music app", Addis says. "You see the zoom up, the zoom over, and the zoom down. So that you as a viewer know exactly where you were, where you're going, and how you got there. It's almost like 'visual breadcrumbs'. And cognitively, that's really important. We call it 'semantic zooming', and it's a really important part of the technology and of the experience."  

What's Next?  

So when will consumers experience HoME in their homes? First, Hillcrest plans to make "a whole lot more noise in the marketplace" this fall, followed by CES, the industry's huge annual Consumer Electronics Show, this coming January in Las Vegas. After that, it will be beta tested amongst actual consumers. And then it's just a matter for those cable (and DBS, if Hillcrest gets their wishes) to install the product on their more powerful existing set-top boxes, after sending out the Loop remotes to the viewers at home.  

Will Hillcrest's HoME work? Obviously, it's too soon to tell. Hillcrest is actually trying to break the traditional Windows model of computer and Internet navigation -- which in fact is over 30 years old, going back to the days of Xerox PARC. But because it's that old, it's familiar to a lot of people.  

It is a safe bet, however that over the coming years, the next generation of set-top boxes will grow increasingly more advanced. And how we interact with them has the potential to change the television viewing experience quite radically, much as how interacting with a computer was changed radically 20 years ago, when we all got our first mouse.

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