More U-verse Tricks
7:00 AM -- We've established that, for AT&T, the IP in IPTV really matters. (See The U-verse Experiment and AT&T's iPhone Trick.) But what's next for U-verse? Here are more notes from my recent visit to AT&T's Atlanta Labs:
Beware of the humans. AT&T benchmarks the quality of its IPTV service against satellite and cable in various markets. It considers the human factor when determining how much compression should be done to its video streams. To me, that means sending a huge, uncompressed HD signal to each home is pointless when consumers can't really tell the difference. Give the proles something on par with or slightly better than they're used to, and they'll love you just the same.
So why beware? Blu-ray. The human factor now includes Blu-ray players and, as AT&T points out, there is finally a baseline for what real HDTV should look like. So cheating on an HD signal is not out of the question, but it's going to be a lot tougher. Those are my words, not their's.
The HD bandwidth thing. AT&T is able to provide 25 Mbit/s to homes within about 3,000 feet of its video-ready access devices (VRADs), or neighborhood nodes. Just a short time ago, the company had to use about 8.5 Mbit/s of (capped, variable bit rate) bandwidth per HD stream it delivered, with another 700 kbit/s to 1 Mbit/s of overhead for audio. That's why it could only manage to get one HD video stream per home. Now, with new encoders and software, its base video rate is down to 6.5 Mbit/s, with about the same audio overhead.
That allows U-verse to send two HD and two standard-def live channels per home. Again, though, the data coming into the home is just one part of it. You can also view an additional program from your DVR, in high- or standard-definition, on the TV connected to the DVR. So you can record two HD streams while watching a third from the DVR. Of course, this should get more interesting when AT&T launches its whole home DVR product.
WHDVRs RCK. When most folks thing of a whole home DVR (WHDVR), they may only see the obvious advantage of sharing a single program between two TVs, in different parts of the house. That's thinking too small, apparently. Peter Hill, AT&T's VP of video and converged services, showed off a WHDVR demo that allowed for the recording of two standard-def shows and two high-def shows simultaneously, while playing back three high-def shows and one standard-def show, simultaneously.
While a lot is made of the limited amount of bandwidth coming into a home, AT&T's demo hints that the carrier can call attention to a different yardstick: Don't worry as much about how much is coming into the home. Think about how much stuff is available throughout the home.
Collabra TV. One application/concept AT&T showed me was a MST3K-type of chat application that revolves around live TV. So the scenario would be something like this: My buddies and I all watch the same program, which fills the top 3/4s of our respective TV screens. Below the live TV are a bunch of avatars in theater chairs, cracking wise about the show, each other, or what-have-you. We're not in the same room or even the same state, but we could get together this way, virtually, over a game or a really awful movie.
During the demo, Peter Hill used a laptop to write text for his avatar. I used Peter's iPhone. And PR guy Wes Warnock stared longingly into space. His mouth was moving but we couldn't make out what he was saying.
Media Sharing. One of my favorite parlor tricks over the years is to see various takes on getting a photo from one device to another inside the home. Apple does it. Cisco thought it wanted to do it. But AT&T's idea of this is straightforward, with no extra hardware needed. A photo or music file, residing on a laptop, can be accessed and played from an Xbox or a U-verse set-top from anywhere in the home, so long as all devices are logged into the home network.
AT&T's Hill and Scott Morris have rigged several other devices (without a Microsoft operating system) that can also view media on a variety of screens. So long as the devices used are DLNA-compliant, running software such as that made by TVersity, the media sharing doesn't end when someone goes Mac and doesn't go bac. Hill says the initial setup for media sharing, as implemented in his lab, is "not for the faint at heart." But it is a possible feature AT&T could someday produc,e should there ever be a business reason to go beyond what users can do with Flickr photo-sharing.
Timely reminders. U-verse made its commercial debut two years ago this week. The ability to watch/record two HD streams per home is rolling out now. The WHDVR will be introduced sometime between now and the end of the year. There's no telling how many markets will get WHDVR across the whole U-verse footprint. One million U-verse customers are expected to be in service by the end of 2008. The company expects to pass 30 million living units by the end of 2010. Just spit-balling here: Assuming all those "living units" are occupied, and AT&T sells its service to 7 percent of those people, that'll give them 2.1 million U-verse users overall by the beginning of 2011. Does that seem high or low?
— Phil Harvey, Editor, Light Reading