What’s Coming in Cable Tech?
by Leslie Ellis // August 27 2012
Last week’s email included one from a friend who lives on the periphery of cable technology: “I was asked recently if I’d seen cable MSOs developing any new businesses, aside from home security, Skype and business services. I couldn’t think of any others – do you know of new technical products that are in early development stage?”
Where to start? Wireless seems a good place. Ever since mobile became mobile, the world has wondered about cable’s wireless play
Wall Street wants it, but only if it doesn’t cost a fortune to build. Consumers want it, if it means taking your broadband with you, sans the $50/mo. fees charged by mobile carriers for a dongle that works half the time. Operators want it, as a way to keep customers “sticky” to them in a hyper-competitive marketplace.
Step one was the Clearwire consortium, which continues to trundle along. The bigger action, though, is in mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. East Coasters already know about this, given the cableWiFi happenings along the mid-Atlantic corridor. Cox is now on-board, so it’s a footprint that will widen.
Also of interest: Secondary SSIDs (service set identifiers) inside wireless routers, inside homes. I’m in Comcast territory, in Denver. I visit you, in another part of the country, also served by Comcast. On firing up the laptop, I’m automatically connected to your Wi-Fi feed, drawing bandwidth from a secondary SSID provisioned inside your router – but my usage counts against my account, not yours. Ultimately very handy for when high-bandwidth relatives are in town.
This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s an example of “early development stage” launches.
Then there’s the whole consumer device scene, and the APIs (application program interfaces) operators can and will use to extend their “service icons” into connected screens. Different devices contain different native abilities – witness the Cox demonstration of video navigation on a Sony PS3, which lets viewers control video playback with the joystick, frame by frame.
It’s hard to predict where and how this will go, but, it’s going. We’ve already seen our phones and tablets become the remote control for the TV. Those apps will evolve, such that you’re using the touch pad to swipe-navigate the TV screen – this is already happening in the UK, with Sky TV’s iPad app. Or using hand gestures, a la Microsoft Xbox Kinect. Or with your voice.
So, Ms. J, there’s your answer. Happy to report that we’re just warming up here. Three years ago, I’d still be staring at your mail.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Review: Sony’s New GoogleTV Device (Snappily Called the NSZ-GS7)
We recently got a new addition to the lab: Sony’s new Internet Player with Google TV (NSZ-GS7). The NSZ-G27 joins the ranks of two 1st-generation Sony Google TV devices in the lab — a Blu-ray player and an integrated Smart TV. (Sony is rumored to be making a 2nd-generation Google TV Blu-ray player as well, but we haven’t seen release dates yet.)
Our experience with Google TV devices up to this point leaves plenty of room for improvement, so eager is an understatement when it came to seeing firsthand what Sony’s new device brings to the table.
Because when something is half-baked, usually it just needs a little more time in the oven.
And so we held out hope that the second generation of Sony Google TV devices would fix some of the things that drove us crazy in the first — namely, a lack of streaming content, coupled with a hefty beast of a remote control. Think 82 (eighty-two) buttons, yet confounding in terms of basic navigation.
Alas, Sony’s had Google TV in the oven since 2010 and it’s still not done.
Speaking of ovens: The new Google device holds the (dubious) honor of putting out more heat than any other streaming player we’ve tested in the lab, even when idle. This was brought to my attention by Raya the cat, who grew quite fond of the thing during the time I tested it at home. To each her own, I guess:
Raya loves her some hot GoogleTV.
Sadly, although the new device could double as a space heater, content and apps on the Google TV are right about where they were when we got the Honeycomb update last fall. The “Featured for TV” apps are pretty much unchanged, and “Aol HD” is still in the top 10.
Clearly, the content issue can’t be fixed with new hardware alone. But I was hopeful about the user experience when, at CES, I got a peek at Sony’s new remote control. The demonstrator was holding it with ONE HAND!
But although the more traditional shape gives the impression of one-handed operation, it didn’t work so well for me in practice. Which is probably why the Sony booth guy at CES demonstrated the remote control for me, instead of handing it over.
Sony has again managed to create a totally inconsistent and overly complicated remote control experience, with 89 (eighty nine!) buttons. There are three methods of navigation (a touchpad, a D-pad, and arrow keys on the reverse side), but not all of the input methods work for all apps.
For example, both Netflix and Crackle use tile-based interfaces, but Netflix requires that you browse using the D-pad, while Crackle only works with the mouse cursor. Also unclear: Within the Netflix app you can see and move the mouse cursor using the touchpad, but you can’t select anything.
This is probably not entirely Sony’s fault. Application developers don’t always use the same APIs, the same way. But still.
Chances are, most users are going to find one method of navigation more natural than the others. It’s frustrating to the point of non-use to be required to remember what works where. We should be able to pick the control that’s easiest to use, and then use it for every app. Right?
The buttons for pause, fast-forward, etc. are located below the touchpad, so I had to perform some thumb acrobatics in order to use the controls one-handed. The rewind/fast-forward buttons are also tricky – they’re integrated into the bottom corners of the touchpad, and they behave differently depending on the app. Example: When fast-forwarding video in Amazon you have to hold the button down, but if you do that in Netflix you’ll skip to the end almost immediately.
Like the previous remote control, this one also sports a full QWERTY keyboard. But instead of putting all the buttons on a single plane, this time they’ve moved the QWERTY keyboard around to the reverse side (a la Boxee.)
I do like that Sony uses the motion sensor to shut off the touchpad and buttons on one side, when the remote is flipped over to the other side, so that you don’t accidentally move the cursor while typing – this is a feature I’d really like to see Boxee add.
Sony’s keyboard is also backlit, which wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. The backlight is orange, and the keys are so crowded that it’s hard to find the character you need in a bright room, let alone a dim one. The rubber keys on the QWERTY keyboard also feel a little mushy. I had a much easier time entering text with the plastic keys on the last remote.
As for the 3-axis motion sensitivity, it’s pretty well hidden on the Sony device right now. It’s not used for web browsing, or general navigation, or for 99% of of the apps I tried.
(NOTE: the LG device I tested at CES used motion-control input for general navigation, web browsing, etc. so the motion control aspect does appear to differ between manufacturers. But we haven’t yet tested an LG Google TV in the lab, and so can’t speak for any changes since CES.)
Finally, after hours of searching, I found a game called “Dot” that uses the 3-axis motion controls, albeit not very well (hat tip to theVerge.com)
Even once I figured out that I had to hold the controller perfectly level, I still found it twitchy and hard to use – my cursor kept getting stuck at the edge of the screen. The Verge actually mentions the same issue in their CES report, chalking it up to “early prototype issues” back then.
And that, essentially, is the problem – Sony’s device still feels like an early prototype, both in terms of hardware and content.
While searching the Google Play store for any apps that might use motion control, I noticed that there are quite a few games available on the Google TV that should use this input – that is, the developer specifies in the app description that the game uses the tilt sensor of a mobile phone to control gameplay, and Google found the app fit to include on Google TV. But to my surprise, most of these apps don’t take any input from the remote control at all – not the motion sensor, the D-pad or the touchpad. You can install them on the Google TV, but after that, they just don’t work.
If you’re familiar with the concept of Android Fragmentation, then you know this is bad news. See, normally the Google Play Store filters the selection of apps that are visible to you depending on the capabilities of the device you’re using. The idea is to ensure that any app you install will work on your particular device. This is deemed necessary because of the millions of devices, all running different versions of Android (this is where the fragmentation part comes in.)
So if you’re using a modern Android smartphone, you’ll see apps that use touchscreen input (“Fruit Ninja,” for example,) but you won’t see those same apps if you access the Play Store from a device that doesn’t have a touchscreen.
Unfortunately, this plan seems to be backfiring in that we’re now seeing a situation where apps that don’t really work on Google TV are available for download. Simultaneously, we don’t have access to the apps that would probably be useful even if they’re not optimized for TV (Spotify comes to mind.)
It’s the worst of both worlds, really.
There may be hope for more motion-control apps on this device, though, because Sony recently acquired the gaming service Gaikai (meanwhile, the LG devices and Vizio CoStar will support OnLive, a competitor to Gaikai.) So in the future, perhaps we’ll see some applications that make good use of this functionality. Which brings us back to the bit about this feeling like an early prototype.
Bottom line: Though we came into it with high hopes, the Sony NSZ-GS7 GoogleTV just isn’t ready for primetime. (Or even daytime.) And as with the last device, it’s a two-part problem: a little bit Sony, and a little bit Google TV.
We can still hope that the LG and Vizio hardware for GoogleTV won’t have the same issues as Sony’s, it seems unlikely that any of these devices can live up to their full potential until Google fixes the fragmentation issues, rights issues, and gets some more TV app developers on board.
Judging by the “progress” during the past 9 months, it’s probably going to be a long wait.
The tool that sees around corners
Innovation can happen in the strangest places. Latest example: A tool built from a tangent of the DOCSIS cable modem specification, which lets cable operators find, map and fix network problems — before they impact consumers.
Up until now, technicians could see “green-yellow-red” notifications about network impairments, but not their precise location. (Squirrels and rats don’t typically tweet their whereabouts when chewing through wires.)
The source of the invention are the “pre-equalization” techniques within the DOCSIS specification (versions 1.1 and above), which anticipate and correct distortions between cable modems and the headend.
Turns out that those same distortion “signatures” can be mined to triangulate where a problem is. On a map. Which makes this a tool that can see around corners.
Or, in tech terms, it means that every fielded cable modem becomes a spectrum analyzer (which go for about $10k apiece otherwise.)
I saw the invention in action last week, when an engineering pal at Comcast (we’ll call him Larry, because that’s his name) showed me, on my laptop screen, while I was in New York, that the cable modems in my Denver office were working just fine. All green.
Then he switched the screen to show the diagnostics from his house. An older house, with older wiring. Uh-oh: Yellow lights. Why: Larry’s modem’s upstream transmit levels were huffing and puffing, trying to push the data through the aged wires.
That tool, designed for customer care people, plus one tailored to line techs, and another that shows network health, by region, are all built on top of a foundational tool Comcast calls the “network scout.” (Internally, it also goes by “flux capacitor.” Again: Who says engineers aren’t funny?)
Next, Larry showed me a “ripple” – shorthand for a micro-reflection, caused by an impedance mismatch. (Those happen when connectors aren’t connected right, or when coax gets kinked or squished.)
And then – poof – he overlaid the ripple data onto a network map, showing major plant components (nodes, amplifiers.) From there, he overlaid a street map, with the precise location of the fault.
The scout tool stems from a CableLabs effort called “Proactive Network Maintenance,” which was “productized” by Comcast. (Cox, Charter and others built or are building versions, too.)
Anything that can see around corners is spooky, in my book. Fixing problems before they occur? Spooky-cool.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Move over, Moore — Shannon’s Law Is On
A few weeks ago, an engineering elder called to pose this bit of industrial wisdom: “For the last 20 years, we’ve seen the monetization of Moore’s Law. From here on out, we’ll see the monetization of Shannon’s Law.”
Haven’t heard of Shannon? Welcome to this week’s translation.
First off, one important distinction: There are laws, and then there are “laws.” Think laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, and physics here. Not legal law, or laws of unintended consequences, or marketing lingo that sounds peppier with “law” in the title.
In that sense, Moore’s Law isn’t technically a law; Shannon’s Law is a law of physics. It’s a physical law, meaning it’s true, universal, simple, absolute, and stable.
Moore’s Law is more of an economic observation, eponymized by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corp., who wrote a paper in 1965 stating that the number of transistors (processing power) within chips was doubling about every 18 months. It’s still true.
By contrast, and more relevant every “connected” day, is Shannon’s Law. It’s named for Claude Shannon, who did his work 20 years before Moore, in the 1940s.
Shannon’s Law defines “the theoretical maximum rate at which error-free digits can be transmitted over a bandwidth-limited channel in the presence of noise.” (It comes with an equation but we’ll spare you the math.)
In other words, Shannon figured out a way to calculate how much stuff can be crammed over a broadband network, without problems, even when there is noise, which there always is.
The dramatic rise in broadband usage – upwards of 50% compound annual growth – is true on fixed and mobile networks. In London last week, some social media outlets got bogged down because of all the gadgetry trying to send Olympics pictures and videos. We are gunking up networks.
Which is why it’s important to be able to calculate throughput maximums on data networks. And to be able to ease the situation – by adding spectrum, or mitigating noise.
In cable tech circles, invoking Shannon usually means you’re having a conversation about upstream (home to headend) signaling. It’s why there’s so much talk about advanced modulation, and finding ways to make that slender spectral area carry more stuff.
Will Shannon’s Law get monetized like Moore’s Law did, with a fury of investment and development that lasted a half century? Let’s hope so, for the sake of clear connections and unclogged networks.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.