Video software

Imagine Connects With SeaChange

San Diego-area upstart Imagine Communications has notched its first integration deal, and it's with a biggie: SeaChange International Inc. (Nasdaq: SEAC).

Founded in 2005, Imagine's claim to fame is a variable bit rate (VBR) system that promises to boost a cable operator's bandwidth efficiency by 50 percent for video-on-demand and switched digital video applications.

Hooking up with SeaChange is important to Imagine because SeaChange has long-standing relationships with large MSOs such as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC)

Imagine says its VBR technology can enable operators to squeeze 15 standard-definition streams into a QAM (quadrature amplitude modulator), up from 10 streams when using traditional constant bit rate (CBR) coding.

Imagine says the efficiency gain is similar with high-definition streams, claiming it can cram three HD streams (rather than two with CBR) into the same QAM. In all cases, Imagine claims, it can create these efficiencies without degrading the video's quality.

"It's the no degradation [claim] that caused disbelief by people initially," says Marc Tayer, Imagine's senior vice president of marketing and business development.

But the company, he adds, has been gaining credibility externally, and confidence internally, following successful tests of what he calls "difficult" content -- fast-motion fare (such as a hi-def football game) that can stress a video compression system.

But Imagine is not the only one in the market that is attempting to improve HD efficiency. The Comcast Media Center (CMC), in support of its new HITS Quantum package, expects to offer three-to-one HD compression (the insertion of three HD feeds into one 6MHz channel) by re-encoding video before it's distributed to cable affiliates. More about those plans will likely be revealed in the coming months, and certainly by the end of the 2007 Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo, set for June 19-22 in Orlando,Fla. There, Ren Finley, the CMC's director of advanced engineering, is slated to present a paper titled "3:1 HDTV Using MPEG-2: Techniques for Delivering a Highly Competitive Customer Experience."

Under Imagine's architecture, the heavy lifting is done on the front end, where its Quality On Demand (QOD) Processor pre-processes the video. A network edge device called the QOD Gateway then reassembles and multiplexes the video and associated metadata and sends them on their merry way to the customer's home.

The complexity of Imagine's two-step process "worries me a little bit," says a video engineer with a top-five MSO. "I'm wondering if there will be a single-box solution that will do that. I don't know if there's anything that breakthrough or cost-effective [in Imagine's approach] that we'd want to jump on that bandwagon. But, ultimately, [deployment decisions] will come down to cost per bit."

For its part, Imagine believes it's on the right track with its architecture.

Tayer says there are plenty of reasons why Imagine decided to separate the video processing from the statistical multiplexing function, citing improved costs per stream and a faster response delay when the consumer tunes to a channel on a "switched" tier or initiates a VOD stream. The separation, he adds, also keeps system rack space under control, and ensures that the VBR system is compatible with centralized bulk encryption techniques used in today's switched broadcast deployments.

"Traditional [VBR] approaches are not viable technically or economically," Tayer maintains. "We're in various stages of discussions with just about everyone… because we have to be. We think we'll get to some deployments this year. That's our goal."

SeaChange marks Imagine's first announced integration deal with a VOD vendor. To gain access to the bulk of cable's on-demand footprint, Imagine will also have to complete technical hook-ups with vendors such as C-COR Corp. (Nasdaq: CCBL), Concurrent Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: CCUR), Tandberg Television , and Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT), which expanded its presence in the sector by picking up the VOD assets of Entone Inc. last year. (See Harmonic Spends $45M on Entone VOD-Ware.)

Imagine expects to make at least one more integration announcement before next month's The Cable Show .

The company, Tayer says, has enhanced its VBR platform with an "auto-detect" function that should improve its ability to interoperate with third-parties without requiring them to make big changes to their respective systems.

Last May, Imagine landed a $9.2 million first round of funding led by Carmel Ventures and Columbia Capital .

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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