Video software

CableLabs to Patch Up Enhanced TV

CableLabs is hard at work on a new specification that aims to patch up the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) and fill in some gaps when it comes to the handling of "unbound" applications and advanced advertising.

The goal of the forthcoming I05 specs, industry sources say, is to create a standardized way of configuring the "user agent" (the software that goes inside the set-top), with a particular emphasis on elements such as cache sizes and key mapping. The development of a common framework, the theory goes, will allow for better interoperability among a range of user agents that are on the market.

But I05 (which, predictably, follows the current version, I04) will come on the scene just as U.S. MSOs ramp up deployments of EBIF, a platform that will enable cable's entire spectrum of digital set-tops to deliver relatively simple enhanced/interactive TV applications such as real-time polling that synchs up with live programs.

U.S. MSOs are expected to enable EBIF in about 15 million set-top boxes this year, and perhaps double that number next year, according to a new Cable Industry Insider report, which identified some elements that the new specs will cover. (See If You Build It With EBIF, Will Interactive TV Come?)

The move by CableLabs is a positive one for EBIF applications developers. Several companies, including Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s wholly owned TVWorks LLC division, BIAP Systems Inc. , Navic Networks , Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and Zodiac Interactive , have developed EBIF players, but the differences between them are, according to some, great enough to cause integration headaches for applications developers. (See TV Apps Teams Face Cable Conundrum.)

EBIF developers note that an application that's written to the I04 specification will lose up to 25 percent of its functionality on some user agents. When the new I05 specification is completed and implemented, that number should fall to as low as 5 percent, or even 2 percent in some cases. An application developed for I05 "should be able to run across the board," a developer tells Cable Digital News.

On the advanced advertising front, EBIF client vendors have reportedly created "private extensions" that were not present in the original specifications.

Having a uniform method for EBIF-based advertising will be of tremendous importance as Canoe Ventures LLC , the cross-MSO advanced advertising company, prepares to launch an enhanced, interactive TV campaign in the latter part of this year. (See Canoe Rows Toward Enhanced TV .)

One key issue the new specification will address is the codified treatment of stand-alone, unbound applications (such as games) that aren't linked to a live program. Some of that work centers on how the agent requests the unbound application, and how it's delivered to the set-top box.

Perhaps more importantly, the specification will fix a nagging problem: Currently, an unbound EBIF application can be closed if the viewer decides to change the TV channel that's running in the background. The I05 spec is being designed so those applications can continue running even as the viewer changes TV channels.

I05 will also enable a cable operator or programmer to determine whether an EBIF-enabled application can be activated if its associated TV content has been recorded and stored on a DVR.

It's unclear when I05 might be released. Those familiar with the project indicate it could be published as early as this November, or sometime in early 2010. CableLabs had no comment about the work surrounding the new specification.

Once I05 is available, though, it should be implemented relatively quickly as all user agent providers are involved in the current process. "We're not talking about a cycle where it takes another six months for platform providers to implement those changes," a developer says.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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