May 29, 2013
With Wednesday’s announcement, Hillcrest, which develops motion-control technology for cable set-tops and other video-enabled devices, is signaling renewed interest in the pay-TV business after a frustrating start in the cable industry a decade ago. By securing a license for Comcast’s RDK, a pre-integrated software bundle aimed at speeding the development and deployment of hybrid QAM/IP and IP-only set-top boxes and home gateways, Hillcrest can now start building new motion-based remote control features and applications for the entire cable set-top and gateway market.
Hillcrest thus becomes the latest equipment or software vendor to sign up for Comcast’s RDK, which seems well on its way to becoming the de facto industry standard for IP set-tops and other IP-enabled devices. Dozens of other vendors have also gained RDK licenses for various components of the RDK bundle.
From Cable to CE and Back Again
When Dan Simpkins founded Hillcrest in 2001, it was with the idea that his company could create an operating system for the television. Between 2003 and 2006, his team built an OS called the Home Media Environment, or HoME. HoME married linear television with Web-based applications in a single on-screen user interface. The concept was novel at the time, but Hillcrest soon discovered that the world wasn't quite ready for smart TVs just yet.
However, out of the HoME experiment, Hillcrest also branched into motion control technology. Simpkins reasoned that if television was ever going to evolve successfully, it was going to need a new type of user interface. Specifically, consumers would need a new way to interact with TVs so they could navigate through growing content stores and new types of television applications. Out of that realization, Hillcrest's motion control business was born.
Although Hillcrest is pursuing the cable market today, that's only after the company abandoned the industry and shifted its attention to the consumer electronics market in 2006. "One of the big hurdles in targeting [the cable] market was the time to integrate and implement and launch a new product on a cable set-top box," says Hillcrest Senior Vice President Chad Lucien. (See Hillcrest CEO: Cable Should Dump Old Set-Tops.)
Among CE companies, however, Hillcrest found a much more receptive audience, and a more nimble development environment.
In 2009, Hillcrest introduced the Loop TV remote control. Its idiosyncratic, circular design was meant to be eye-catching, and even a little jarring. But, most importantly, the Loop was created to draw attention to what would become Hillcrest's Freespace MotionEngine software.
Hillcrest’s developers believed that motion was the right way to control the TV experience, and several CE companies have come to agree. Big CE brands like LG Electronics Inc. and Roku Inc. are licensing Hillcrest's motion software for their remote controls, and Intel Corp. has embedded the technology in its own reference design kit for upcoming retail video set-tops. (See Hillcrest Goes Inside Intel.)
Beyond CE success, however, Hillcrest now sees new opportunity in the cable market. In particular, company executives believe that Comcast's RDK will open up doors.
"It's a really big deal. There's never really been a platform like this in the cable industry," said Lucien. "In order to do something like this five years ago, there was a lot of relationship building and red tape that you had to go through to get a cable operator interested enough in your technology that they would basically go advocate to Motorola or Scientific Atlanta, now Cisco, that they should work with the technology supplier prototype or do some development."
"And this was all a very tight-knit, closed community. And there was very heavy investment in sales as well as engineering, in some cases certification, that was necessary to get even to a demonstration stage with a cable operator."
In other words, the RDK platform is opening up a traditionally insular market to new technology providers. Instead of having to cultivate ties with one of the two main set-top manufacturers, software developers can now build on a single, accessible platform that is gaining widespread adoption through the cable ecosystem. (See Who's on Board with Comcast's Set-Top Kit?)
"For new entrants and smaller players in the market, I think it's a really big deal," Lucien says.
An RDK Revolution
The Comcast RDK is good news for more than just cable vendors. It's also a potential jumping-off point for major cable industry innovations. (See Set-Top Boxes: 'I'm Not Dead Yet!')
If the RDK can help cable innovate quicker, the industry has a chance to leapfrog CE competitors in the living room. Lucien points out that pay-TV providers already control the primary remote control in the home. They only need to take better advantage of it with developments like motion control.
"Cable operators can deliver interactive applications beyond your traditional TV services," he says. "They really do have control of the UI today. So things like games, things like social media applications, commerce. Commerce has been something that's been talked about for TV for a long, long time. Really the input device and the user interface are critical to the success and the usability of a commerce platform on TV. So the non-television-centric interactive features are … the most ripe opportunity for motion in the short term."
Farther out, Hillcrest sees much broader applications for motion control with the TV interface. Cable operators are already heavily invested in tablet TV apps, all of which are driven by a pointing motion. To foster consistency across platforms, operators could very well re-create that motion-based experience across the entire TV UI.
"Ultimately, we'd love to see the entire user interface being controlled with cursor and motion," Lucien says, "The operators have been forced to create these interactive applications for the tablet that become much more readily transferable to TV … and they've never really had something like that before. There's a big opportunity in the medium term to synchronize the user interface across the mobile, TV and PC platforms."
For now, though, Hillcrest is just getting re-acquainted with the cable industry. At the Cable Show next month, Hillcrest will demonstrate its motion-control software using a reference-design HTML5 browser on top of reference set-top hardware embedded with the Comcast RDK.
Lucien suspects that Hillcrest won’t be the only company demoing an RDK implementation. "I think the first real demonstrations of software applications on the RDK will be done at Cable Show." he says. "So it will be interesting to see how much work has already been done, and get feedback from the industry on how far we've come."
With its RDK software bundle, Comcast may be writing a whole new chapter for cable. If Hillcrest is any indication, the industry's days as a closed development community are quickly coming to an end.
— Mari Silbey, Special to Light Reading Cable
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