CableLabs Specs Tru2way Set-Back Box

CableLabs has quietly issued a new set of specifications that supply the technical underpinnings for a new "thin chassis" tru2way set-top designed to attach to the back of digital television sets.

The device, sometimes referred to as a "set-back" set-top, could rekindle tru2way's slowly developing retail ambitions while giving TV makers the product flexibility they desire. Instead of requiring TV manufacturers to build sets integrated with tru2way middleware and CableCARD slots and then hoping that they'll actually catch on and sell, those vendors can instead pair their regular lines of digital TVs with these unobtrusive boxes and sell them together. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs and Tru2way's Retail Forecast: Cloudy .)

"CableLabs has been facilitating ongoing discussions with cable operators and the CE industry, and the feedback from them was to come up with a new thin-chassis device to help them develop innovative products," said Phil Bender, the senior manager of vendor relations at CableLabs.

CableLabs issued the new "OpenCable Host Thin Chassis Device" specs on January 22, 2010, calling for a box that can display both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 signals. In addition to giving TV makers a new retail option that involves tru2way and the CableCARD, the specs also aim to reduce the physical size and costs of tru2way-complaint set-tops.

One way the spec intends to squeeze costs is by supporting only one digital connection: HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface). The specs don't require boxmakers to bake in a pricey 1394 FireWire interface or any analog outputs. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandates 1394 in leased MSO HD set-tops (though several parties are calling for a waiver on that rule), but not for those offered at retail, which is where this thin chassis box appears to be headed.

Although the specs don't reference the need for an analog connection, CableLabs senior architect Joel Michon says consumers can still get analog video by splitting off that signal and feeding it directly to the TV's integrated analog tuner.

The CableLabs specs also don't require the set-back box to be controlled with an infrared remote. It's again leaning toward HDMI and HDMI-CEC (consumer electronics control), a platform that allows one remote to control all the cable set-tops, Blu-ray players, and other home entertainment devices that happen to be connected to the television via bidirectional HDMI cables. (See Tru2way: Remote Chances .)

The presence of HDMI-CEC, a recent addition to the tru2way specs, might also give CE manufacturers an opportunity to create proprietary commands that go beyond the standard functions. This is also a reason why it's likely that these thin-chassis boxes will end up being paired with certain TV brands, though it's theoretically possible that these specs should allow a Panasonic set-back box to at least work on a Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) TV, for instance.

Who's making them?
So far, only two companies -- Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB) and Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) -- are known to have developed or are developing set-back boxes ahead of the recently issued thin chassis specs. CableLabs has already certified ADB's initial model for retail, with Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) expressing some interest in pairing it with some Bravia HDTV models. (See ADB Develops Tru2way 'Set-Back', Sony-Comcast Store Has Tru2way 'Set-Back' Box , and Sony Drives ADB's Set-Back.)

Panasonic has shown off its initial stab at it at recent cable events, and has been talking up the benefits of making it FireWire-free in filings to the FCC. (See Panasonic Appeals Over 'Set-Back' Ruling .)

But that's it so far among the companies contacted by Light Reading Cable.

Funai Electric Co. Ltd. (OTC: FUAIY), which is making tru2way boxes and sells TVs under the Emerson and Sylvania brands, does not presently have a tru2way-based set-back device on its product roadmap, an official said. (See Funai Makes Tru2way Play .)

Samsung, which has shipped tru2way boxes to MSOs such as Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Bright House Networks and has gained tru2way certification on some LCD TVs, has not announced any plans to create a tru2way thin-chassis box.

Evolution Digital LLC president Brent Smith said his company has no plans to offer a tru2way-based device of any kind since the "heavy capital investment" of that platform is likely out of the reach of its target customer base of Tier 2 and Tier 3 MSOs. (See Evolution Passes on Tru2way .)

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) had no comment when asked if they intend to develop set-back boxes of their own.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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