Personal television comes of age

Viewers love the notion of pausing a TV program to deal with a telephone call; door knock or brief emergency while the program is temporarily stored on disk.

After returning, the viewer can resume the program while a large disk drive keeps recording, allowing the viewer to synchronize with the prime time broadcast. Using DVB technology also allows viewers to skip through commercials 100 times faster than the fastest analog VCR skip feature.

‘The PVR market is brimming with potential,’ said Jay Srivatsa, Sr. Industry analyst at Dataquest. ‘PVRs offer consumers access to brand new interactive TV services, and this experience consumers will find compelling.’ Dataquest predicts that the personal video recorder market will grow from 65K units in 1999 to 6.5 million by 2003 and companies accelerating the development of advanced PVRs, will benefit from the growth of personal television in consumer homes.

To add value to this technology, many television producers, technology, and media companies are turning their attention to an emerging medium called ‘Enhanced TV’, a type of interactive television (ITV). This ‘e-TV’ may transform mass media such as broadcast television and the Internet. Enhanced TV allows two powerful technologies from the world of television (broadcast video) and the Internet to merge.

However, while broadband networks such as cable, DSL, fiber and satellites, provides a quick and efficient way to deliver text and still images from point to point, high quality motion video content transmission over these high bandwidth networks requires innovative digital video encoding solutions.

Because of these demands, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was founded in 1988 with the objective of specifying an audio/visual decompression system. Composed of three basic elements: systems, video and audio, the MPEG standards have achieved broad market acceptance and have been accepted as a HDTV standard. As a result of the availability of a number of cost effective MPEG-2 encoders, MPEG-2 has become the standard for video compression/decompression in the broadcasting community.

Encoding is a key to minimizing storage space and bandwidth requirements, while providing high quality video for recording, storage and transmission applications, the standard is now adopted in DVD players, Video-CD players, CD-i players, CD-ROM drives, Direct-TV and set-top boxes.

However, most of the current MPEG-2 encoding solutions are based on previous generations of MPEG-2 silicon that are very expensive, complicated and do not support all the features required by the rapidly evolving digital video market. Because of this, company’s such as Exatel are looking to provide OEM manufacturers of TVs, set-top-boxes, and computers and with low-cost off-the-shelf products that allow such products to digitize, store, and display digital video images in a user-transparent fashion.

Digital Video Broadcasting

According to Dataquest, the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) and DSS (Digital Satellite System) market is $3.2 billion dollars and growing at 18.6% compound annual growth rate through the year 2002. According to Insight Research, global sales of consumer devices that use MPEG-2 encoders and decoders will reach $23.9 billion this year and top $125 billion in 2003.

Currently, the DVB market is in its rapid development stage. With standardization by TV stations during 1999/2000, this will create a massive need for DVB solutions. According to Metronet, there are 2,773 TV station in the US alone and majority of these stations plan to convert to all digital by year 2002.

According to FCC, Office of Engineering and Technology, local broadcasters will be initiating DTV service at different times. A station may begin DTV service as soon as it has received its FCC permit. The FCC has also established a schedule by which broadcasters must begin DTV service.

This schedule requires that stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC in the ten largest markets begin service by May 1, 1999. Stations affiliated with these networks must begin service by November 1, 1999. All commercial stations must begin DTV service by May 1, 2002, and all noncommercial educational stations must start by May 1, 2003. A number of stations started DTV service in November of last year. Once established, these digital video signals will be transmitted via cable, satellite and digital subscriber lines using a number of different technologies.

Delivery methods

Both cable TV and telephone companies have been rewiring the country for a decade. But bringing true broadband services to residences and small businesses is a complex and expensive process. For over a hundred years, telephone companies have been building a universal network based on twisted pair copper wire technology. In thirty years cable companies have achieved similar reach with their systems. Unlike the phone companies’ twisted pair network, cable systems are broadband, supporting several hundred megahertz of RF bandwidth.

Broadband technologies can be classified as either one-way or two-way. One-way technologies send digital information to the end user at very high speeds, but rely on some other means (usually an analog modem and a phone line) to receive information from the end user. One-way broadband technologies include digital television (DTV) and satellite. Two-way broadband technologies, such as cable and digital subscriber lines (DSL) send and receive digital information at very high speeds over the same medium. Two-way broadband technologies usually require a wired infrastructure.

Because broadband technologies can deliver video, audio and data, consumers can receive data enhancements, including video, graphics and educational applications along with their traditional TV programming. For a fee, users may request content that interests them and have it delivered immediately to their home. To realize these opportunities, consumers will need a broadband-enabled PC, set-top, or digital TV to receive enhanced digital content.

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) can bring high-bandwidth information to homes and small businesses over ordinary copper telephone lines. Assuming a home or small business is close enough to a telephone company central office DSL service, one may receive data at rates up to 6.1 Mbits/s (of a theoretical 8.448 Mbits/s). This enables continuous transmission of motion video, audio, and even 3-D effects. More typically, individual connections will provide from 1.544 Mbits/s to 512 Kbits/s downstream and about 128 kbits/s upstream.

DSL installations began in 1998 and will continue at a greatly increased pace through the next decade in a number of communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Compaq, Intel, and Microsoft working with telephone companies have developed a standard form of ADSL called GLite that is accelerating deployment. DSL is expected to replace ISDN in many areas and to compete with the cable modems in bringing multimedia and 3-D to homes and small businesses. Dataquest, a market research firm, forecasted 5.8 million lines installed by the end of 1999.

What’s new in PVR

This month, Exatel Visual Systems completed development and field-testing of its personal video recorder (PVR) module, targeted for consumer electronics applications. The self-contained PVR Module, intended for OEMs, enables rapid integration into variety of consumer electronic devices, including TVs, set-top boxes and digital VCRs.

This module augments existing features of these devices by adding enhanced capabilities like: personal instant replay, time-shifted program watching, instant access to any recorded scene and video cataloguing and indexing. It also enables the storage and electronics manufacturers to introduce PVR-based products to the burgeoning consumer multimedia market.

The advanced architecture of the PVR module utilizes the latest technologies available on the market, including KFIR, the Audio/Video MPEG-2 encoder from VisionTech and STi5512, the highly-integrated MPEG-2 Decoder from STMicroelectronics. Utilization of these technologies assures compatibility with variety of electronic programming guide (EPG), personal television (PersonalTV) and interactive television (iTV) programs.

By utilising a standard set of interfaces and a simplified module control, the fully contained PVR module enables rapid integration with existing OEM designs, thus beating time-to-market and development cost requirements. ‘We are working closely with our customers and technology partners to enable expedient and effective integration of our PVR technology within their designs,’ said Israel Bar, Co-Managing Director of Exatel. ‘This strategy assures the PVR products a prominent market position,’ he added.

‘Exatel’s module takes PVRs to the new level of integration. It makes personal television a source of useful information and enjoyable entertainment for today’s busy TV viewers,’ said Amir Morad, President & CEO of VisionTech. ‘New PVR functions, powered by VisionTech’s Kfir Technology, have the ability to fundamentally change the way viewers watch and use television, and to open up new markets for television content service providers and consumer electronics entrepreneurs.’

‘We are delighted that Exatel have decided to take advantage of the flexibility of the STi5512 decoder in their PVR module,’ said Matthew Hatch, Business Unit Director of STMicroelectronics’ Digital Video Division. ‘Exatel’s module makes the addition of PVR functionality both easy and affordable, enabling personalization across a wide range of TV applications.’

The module is compatible with variety of storage options, including permanent and removable media. Advanced interfaces include direct storage access, digital video input and output, Ethernet and IEEE-1394 ports.

Exatel’s web site is at http://www.exatel.net

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