Roger Lambert of Pace Micro Technology is working hard to turn us all into square eyes, unable to resist the interactive delights of the digital TV revolution.
General manager for technology at the West Yorkshire-based electronics specialist, Lambert has spent a decade helping to develop the set-top boxes that convert packets of digital data into Premier League football, Sky News or The Simpsons. If you are a subscriber to Sky or one of the big cable operators such as NTL or Telewest, there is a good chance that you have a Pace box in your home.
According to Lambert, Pace’s engineers tend to be fans of the latest home entertainment technology and gadgets generally. ‘A lot of us are enthusiasts for the type of technology we work on,’ said Lambert. ‘We’ve probably got the biggest density of iPods [Apple’s music device], MP3 players and suchlike of anydemographic in the world.’
A Pace engineer is certainly far more likely than average to live in a ‘networked home’ stuffed with the latest entertainment technology, though Lambert admits that sometimes, after a day’s work at the cutting edge of high-tech TV, he just wants to switch off.
But despite Pace’s undoubted technical prowess – it is recognised as one of the world’s leaders in its field – the company has recently found things tough commercially, especially in its UK heartland. The cable TV operators that Pace relies on to buy its boxes are struggling to get their own businesses in order after their dramatic expansion in the mid to late 1990s. They have had to rein in their spending, with an inevitable knock-on effect for Pace.
Another of its key customers, the ill-fated multi-channel TV venture ITV Digital, collapsed altogether.
According to Lambert, it was entirely predictable that the ‘early adopter phase’, in which the naturally technology-minded snapped up digital TV, would slow down.
‘What we did not expect was for it to coincide with a world recession,’ he lamented. To prosper in the future Pace needs to expand in new markets abroad. That is easier said than done in a cut-throat global industry in which the UK company faces competition from the likes of Scientific Atlanta, the US set-top box giant.
It is the technology developed by Lambert and his colleagues that will give Pace a fighting chance. That explains why engineers make up the bulk of its 600 employees and its R&D is its biggest asset.
One area of particular significance to Pace’s ambitions in the US is its work on High-Definition Television (HDTV), a high-resolution digital broadcasting standard that is beginning to gather considerable momentum across the Atlantic.
It may come as a surprise that America – the TV addict’s heaven and home of a hundred channels when the UK was getting by with four – has long been lumbered with an inferior broadcasting transmission system. The decades-old US standard is based on displaying 480 lines of resolution on the TV screen, compared to 625 lines in the UK and most of the rest of Europe.
HDTV boosts this to up to 1,080 lines with, according to Lambert, amazing results on picture quality and colour. ‘The quality is stunning,’ he said. ‘A football pitch, for example, will look green in the way it would if you were actually there.’
The downside to HDTV is the huge amount of bandwidth needed to support it. It is, however, slowly but surely gaining ground with Americans reluctant to settle for second best. Crucially, the US networks are beginning to respond to the demand by supplying HD-ready programmes. ‘It’s starting to take off,’ said Lambert. ‘There are already people over there saying they only want to watch HD content. That’s good for us, and good for HD.’
According to Lambert, HDTV is not likely to be a big issue in the UK. It turns out that the 150 or so extra lines of resolution we have enjoyed over the years have made all the difference. ‘In the US the resolution of a standard TV is poor. I’ve never seen a decent picture from analogue cable in the US,’ he said.
The UK’s 625 standard, by contrast – while not approaching the crystal-clear quality of HDTV – is good enough to satisfy all but the most demanding of viewers.
Pace, and many others in the broadcasting industry, are more concerned with convincing the UK public of the wider merits of digital TV. These include a stable picture (no more weather interference), the need to point your aerial towards the nearest transmitter and the ability to receive additional, interactive data along with the programmes themselves.
Pace, along with other interested parties such as the BBC, went some way to accelerating the take-up of digital through Freeview, a sub-£100, no-subscription service that gives viewers access to a range of popular digital channels. However, as Lambert readily admitted, this budget end of the market is now awash with competition. ‘The technology has become commoditised,’ he said, reflecting ruefully on the fact that with dozens of manufacturers offering boxes that will do the job many people will plump for the cheapest.
As with HDTV in the US, Pace’s strongest card will be the type of higher-end broadcasting technology that utterly transforms people’s viewing habits. In the UK there is no better example than the personal video recorder (PVR), an amalgam of digital decoder and hard disk technology that aims to consign the video recorder to the dustbin of history.
The PVR eliminates the need for tapes, allowing you to, for example, set up the recording of an entire TV series at once with minimal effort. It also has a host of snazzy features such as the ability to pause live TV viewing when the doorbell rings.
The highest profile manifestation of PVR technology is Sky+, for which Pace supplies digi-boxes. Lambert insisted that once tried the technology is compulsive: ‘Anyone who has Sky+ absolutely loves it. I’ve got it at home, and it’s the first piece of technology my wife has ever taken to.’
Sky+ is, by common consent, a quantum leap forward from the humble VCR, which Lambert labelled the electronics industry’s longest-standing joke due to its complexity and erratic performance. ‘It’s never been a great piece of technology,’ he said.
PVR systems such as Sky+ eliminate a lot of the frustrations of the video recorder, but they are currently rather expensive. For example, a Sky+ box will set you back £249 and a £10 monthly subscription on top of the existing cost of your Sky programming package, itself likely to be in the region of £30 per month.Lambert said the affordability of digital TV generally is coming down slowly but surely. ‘As the price comes down it will filter into the mainstream,’ he said.
This is important, because the success of digital broadcasting lies in the hands, or more accurately the wallets, of mass-market consumers.
But after a decade with Pace Lambert said he has long since realised that broadcasting technology will always present these challenges. Lambert was one of the team that worked on Pace’s first digital product in the mid-1990s.
As well as being hugely complex ‘it was phenomenally expensive, and at the time we wondered how on earth we were going to get it down to a price that people could afford,’ he said.
And it is clear that this process won’t stop any time soon. Pace is already heavily involved in the next stage, the much-vaunted convergence of digital broadcasting with other technologies such as the internet and wireless networking that will connect video, audio and computing into one seamless service.
To Lambert this process is inevitable. ‘For some people it is still the stuff of science fiction. But we can already see how it will come about,’ he said.