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Intelligent Machines

What's (not) on the Telly?

A research project out of the BBC has digital video recorder fans all abuzz.

The ever-increasing density of computer chips has opened up the possibility of countless technological breakthroughs – from an online catalogue of all the world’s great art to monitoring global weather patterns. Oh, and why not also create a PC-like device that will record everything on TV automatically?

At least that’s the idea behind a challenge issued in the research and development labs at the BBC, which has led to the unveiling of a prototype personal video recorder (PVR), called Promise TV, that successfully recorded and stored all the shows running for a week on all 12 channels in the UK.

With each new development in digital video recording (DVR) – DirecTV, TiVo, and the like – more intelligence has been built into software and guides, allowing for easier navigation and better software-based estimates of what a user might want to watch.

But the Promise TV device removes even that modest level of work, since it records every single program on every channel and stores it, until either it runs out of memory or a user deletes material.

Although Promise TV is still just an experiment – the BBC teams says it has “no commercial” plans for the device at this time – the innovation caused quite a stir at the OpenTech conference in London on July 23, among bloggers and some industry leaders.

“It’s compelling. It changes everything about television,” says James Chiddix, CEO of Open TV, a company that creates software used by cable and satellite DVR providers, such as Comcast and DirecTV. According to Chiddix, such an all-at-once recording device “will be built into the set top boxes in the future. The problem with the TiVo approach is you have to plan what is going to be recorded. Really the only questions [with Promise TV] are more business and legal questions than technology questions.”

The device itself is built on just a “commodity” PC, according to Dominic Ludlam, the lead developer of the Promise team. Well, not quite. It also links together several hard drives that combined can hold a massive 3.2 terabytes worth of video. Since their demo at the conference, the BBCers have had “a lot of interest” in the device, according to Ludlam.

Promise TV includes an electronic programming guide, to help users sift through all the massive amounts of content. It works by automatically erasing the first day’s content on the eighth day, and so on.

Beyond a few details, though, the Promise team is keeping mum, until the product is officially unveiled in August on their website (see Notebook). According to Ludlam, they will also be releasing the design information to the open source community for further development and “uptake amongst as many individuals as possible.”

What the Promise researchers are attempting to create – an all-you-can-watch buffet of prerecorded TV content – has been tried before. In 2003, Time Warner Cable ran limited trials of Mystro TV, a project to offer consumers TiVo-like functionality on almost every show on television, with the distinction that fast-forwarding and other functions would be done at the server level, not on individual device hard drives. Not surprisingly, copyright holders for the shows that Mystro TV was planning to offer objected to the service, and they were able to get the project scuttled.

So would a Promise TV-like project run afoul of U.S. copyright laws? Probably not.

“If you merely offer a device that records TV and lets you watch it later, that’s protected by the law,” says Jason Schultz, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It falls squarely under the Sony Betamax ruling.”

Still, some other industry observers (and bloggers) aren’t as excited about the Promise box.

“Consumers are going to have to dig deep into all this [program] material and sift through it,” says Todd Chanko, an analyst with technology research firm Jupiter Research. “It would make a consumer’s life more difficult.” 

Ludlam responds that such a device would actually make consumers’ lives easier, though, since not having to select shows in advance “means that TV programs need never be missed.”

Then again, Ludlam probably hasn’t experienced the literally hundreds of channels available in the United States – not all of them as must-see TV as, for instance, classic episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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