Hillcrest Snags Comcast RDK License

Hillcrest Labs has come back to the pay-TV business in a big way, snagging a key software license for Comcast Corp.'s Reference Design Kit (RDK).

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.

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