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Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs) is expanding its support base for developers of advanced set-top-box applications un-der a new program, called FOCIS, for the Forum for OpenCable Interactive Services.
In September, CableLabs and its OpenCable unit delineated the software architecture it will specify for advanced digital boxes. Called OCAP, for OpenCable Applications Platform, the specifications comprise two main ways to display and engage interactive content delivered to the advanced set-top.
However, Don Dulchinos, CableLabs advanced platforms VP, noted that writing a series of specifications is one thing, and having suppliers translate the specifications into interactive applications that run well and integrate quickly is quite another-which is why FOCIS is important.
"Once the OCAP specification is finalized at the end of this month, it makes sense to take the next logical step, and that is to involve content developers in the process," he said. "The point is to inform and involve interactive TV developers and service providers about how to take the next steps."
After the OCAP specifications are completed, expected in early 2001, FOCIS will be convened in a series of conferences beginning in February 2001. In that sense, Dulchinos explained, FOCIS is a software-centric adjunct to the many OpenCable hardware developer conferences and testing for hardware interoperability held throughout this year.
OCAP separates set-top software into two distinct parts: a presentation engine and an execution engine.
The presentation engine specification, which will be jointly written by Liberate Technologies Inc. and Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies Inc. and Microsoft Corp., is an HTML-based method to tell an advanced digital set-top where to display an Internet-based interactive application on the TV screen.
The presentation engine supports, for example, ATVEF (Advanced Television Enhancement Forum)-type applications, which send an interactive "trigger" in the vertical blanking interval, or in the in- or out-of-band signal path. The trigger is usually a Web URL (Universal Resource Locator) displayed via an onscreen icon.
The execution engine will include Sun's JavaTV programming environment, which CableLabs will license. Here's how it works: Content developers write interactive applications in Java, using the OCAP specification. When a cable customer outfitted with an OpenCable-compliant set-top accesses the application by clicking on the icon that represents it, the application is downloaded transparently into the box. A Java engine, sometimes called a virtual machine, that resides in the set-top sees the incoming application, unfolds it and runs it.
The presentation engine handles the point at which HTML-based interactive-enabled content needs to be displayed on a TV set. When a subscriber clicks on any HTML-delivered icon, a session is established between that set-top and a headend server to fetch the requested content.
Say, for example, the trigger translates into an icon offering $10 off a musician's latest CD. The cable customer clicks the icon, and the request is sent upstream to a server, which "fetches" more information about the coupon, including the subscriber's mailing or e-mail address. The process repeats itself to fill out the form and transmit it.
To make that application work within OCAP constructs, interactive developers need a learning forum such as FOCIS. As part of their involvement, FOCIS participants will be able to gain early access to some OCAP-related draft documents and provide comments.
CableLabs envisions a long list of interactive applications fostered by FOCIS, including chat, instant messaging, e-commerce, interactive program guides, games, impulse pay-per-view (IPPV), t-commerce applications, interactive sports, IP telephony, near video on demand (NVOD) and video on demand (VOD), on-demand information, and Internet access.
The advantages of OCAP and FOCIS accrue to software developers, hardware manufacturers, service providers, and, ultimately, TV viewers. For software developers, OCAP provides a content-authoring environment that is "write once, run anywhere."
For hardware manufacturers, OCAP translates into a specifically designed software environment, which aids in integrating multiple interactive applications onto existing and forthcoming hardware platforms.
For service providers, OCAP assures parity among interactive TV suppliers, so that no single operating system or middleware vendor gains control over the interactive authoring or execution environment and restricts the range of services that may be provided.
For TV viewers, OCAP, while transparent to their usage, assures a wide range of interactive applications, both HTML- and applet- (Java) based.
"Quite simply," said Dulchinos, "FOCIS is the next logical step in interactive cable television, and it follows well with the finalization of the OCAP specification. That's because FOCIS brings with it a neutral, technologically advanced forum, CableLabs, to guide OCAP interactive content.
Looking ahead to next year, I expect we'll see an opening of the floodgates for interactive television developers, if for no other reason than the fact that set-top hardware and software platforms will be capable of doing more than channel expansion and a guide."
An organizational meeting of the FOCIS group was held at the Western Show in Los Angeles in late November. Next year's schedule is still being developed, but CableLabs anticipates a second FOCIS gathering in February 2001.
This column was written by Cable Television Laboratories, a nonprofit research and development consortium of cable television system operators, and an information clearinghouse for technological developments in the cable industry.