TV Frontier: Time Warner Cable lab makes set-top boxes smarter
By Tim Clodfelter | Journal Reporter
Published: March 19, 2010
CHARLOTTE - In a room at Time Warner Cable's Charlotte offices, hundreds of servers buzz and whir. Fans blow constantly, adding to the noise, to keep the servers cool. But they aren't feeding programs to customers. They are testing the equipment used to provide customers with their favorite TV shows.
This is TWC's Advanced Technology Group, where engineers are working on improvements to the company's digital cable boxes and finding ways to keep up with the rapidly-evolving, high-definition TV landscape. Some of the servers feed into a room down the hall, where a wall of TV sets provides the first look at how the cable service is working.
The Charlotte building is used as a test site for the company's nationwide cable services. The tests are needed as TWC enhances its digital cable set-top boxes and tweaks Navigator, the new software for those boxes that was introduced last year. Navigator provides channel guides and recording options for those that have digital boxes that record programs (Digital Video Recorders, or DVRs).
"These set tops are not just tuners anymore," said Jim Ludington, the executive vice president of the Advanced Technology Group. "They're little computers."
And, as with all computer software, "there's a ton of testing that has to happen. You're going to find a bug out in the field every once in awhile. But we try like heck to scour them out here."
Some of the TV sets in the testing room are connected to the servers in the lab, while others are connected to the Charlotte cable system. They all serve to simulate viewer experiences at home, said Michael LaPierre, the senior manager of quality assurance with the group.
In addition to the software, LaPierre said that TWC is looking at ways to enhance the digital boxes and increase storage capacity. High-definition programming takes up much more space than standard-definition programming. The goal is to keep the customer able to store about 40 hours of programming on a DVR.
"HD content came at this industry very fast," Ludington said. "When HD DVRs started, we thought there would be a couple of HD channels and mostly SD (standard-definition) channels. That mix changed very quickly."
After Navigator was introduced, some customers complained about some of the differences from the old software program. Features they had come to enjoy were suddenly missing. Among the other complaints were changes to menu screens, guide layouts and recording options that some customers found confusing.
TWC has responded to some of the complaints by tweaking the software in overnight upgrades sent out to digital boxes. But they said that the new software package is necessary. The problem with the old software is that it wouldn't allow TWC to upgrade the system and add new features.
And it's in the test lab that the company is working on some new ways for people to make their cable boxes more useful.
In June, the company plans to add a "Remote DVR" feature that will let customers program their DVRs away from home by using the Web or a smart phone.
Also due around the same time is the Common Digital Lineup, which will allow customers to search for programming by genre -- for instance, all the sports channels will be gathered together -- and more easily find the high-definition versions of standard-definition channels. The channel numbers for most channels will change on the digital tiers, but the lower number channels for basic cable customers will remain the same.
In late summer or early fall, the company hopes to have a "Multi-Room DVR" feature.
"Some of our competitors have it today, but we'll be rolling it out shortly," Ludington said. "If you record stuff in one room, you can go to another room in the house and start to watch those recordings from any other room right off that DVR in the living room -- so you can watch them in the family room, bedroom, wherever else you go."
A customer could, for instance, start playing a show on their living room DVR and then go to bed, switching the signal to a cable box in their bedroom that communicates back to the DVR. Only one of the sets would need a digital box with recording capabilities.
Also in the works: increased interactivity, allowing customers the option to, say, vote for their favorite American Idol contestant -- which TWC customers are already doing in New York City -- or find out more about an advertisement by pressing a button on their remote. And more channels will have the Start Over feature, allowing people to start a show over at the beginning.
Some customers with older digital boxes may need to eventually replace their boxes to take advantage of the new features. For the most part, that switchover happens naturally, as customers swap out old boxes that stop working properly.
"Newer technology boxes will be able to do all of this," Ludington said. "And as people get excited about it, we'll change out the old boxes."