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Project Canvas: How the future of TV is shaping up

The IPTV project's CTO, Anthony Rose, on progress so far and what else to expect from the BBC-backed scheme
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor on

The IPTV project's CTO, Anthony Rose, on progress so far and what else to expect from the BBC-backed scheme

Tucked away in London's White City, a team of tech developers is working on a project that could potentially change the way UK audiences consume TV: Project Canvas, a joint venture which aims to deliver IPTV to UK homes via specially designed broadband-connected set-top boxes.

With companies including Channel 4, TalkTalk and Arqiva now involved, Canvas is planning to bring on-demand TV - along with traditional broadcast programming, comprehensive listings and search functionality - to people who don't want to shell out for on-demand subscription packages offered by the likes of Sky and Virgin Media.

In the year or so that followed the announcement of Canvas in December 2008, the organisations who began the project - BBC, BT and ITV - worked to define the platform.

Canvas apps screenshot

A selection of the services likely to be available on Canvas
(Image credit: BBC)

Around 30 different technical components form the overall architecture which supports the Canvas platform, including video rendering, a user interface, analogue and digital outputs and video encoding technology - and the BBC's R&D department worked on many of them during that initial definition phase.

But while the BBC's development work on Canvas progressed, there remained a question mark over its involvement: the BBC's independent regulator, the BBC Trust, decided to investigate whether the broadcaster should be involved in the scheme at all.

In early 2009, the Trust launched a review to clarify whether Canvas represented a risk to competition in the market and whether it would represent a good use of the licence fee.

With something of a sword of Damocles hanging over its involvement in the project for the best part of a year, the BBC continued with its development work on Canvas.

According to Canvas' CTO, Anthony Rose, the BBC was able to devote resources to the platform before the BBC Trust approval as the work would have been carried out anyway as part of the BBC's remit.

All the technology that BBC R&D had been working on would have found a home with the BBC or another organisation, regardless of whether Canvas had got Trust approval or not, Rose told silicon.com.

"BBC R&D['s] brief is to invent the future... and this is in the same spirit - it's the next generation of online," he said.

Fortunately for the project, the BBC Trust gave...

...the green light for the BBC's involvement earlier this year.

Since the Trust gave the go-ahead, work on Canvas has shifted from planning and R&D to beginning to build the platform. As a result, the technology that the BBC developed is being fed into the project proper.

Canvas now has a 100-strong tech team, several members of which have been seconded from partner organisations including the BBC and BT.

The Canvas development team is spending much of its time testing sample set-top boxes for compatibility with the Canvas browser and for their ability to search for content. The team has also been successfully experimenting with PVR (personal video recorder) technology which will be a key feature of the Canvas set-top boxes, according to Rose.

"We want to have the world's best Freeview box in addition to doing all the on-demand stuff: click play [selecting programmes to start from the menu], the ability to pause and resume live - all of these sorts of things. There are quite a few developers working on parts of this and it's coming along actually really nicely," he said.

The three major set-top box CPU manufacturers - Broadcom, Intel and ST - are also working with the Canvas team to ensure that the technology, particularly the Canvas browser, works on a broad range of set-top boxes prior to launch.

Despite the growth in consumers accessing media on mobile devices - and the BBC's own plans for an iPlayer mobile app - the current focus for the Canvas team remains getting the platform ready to launch as a TV service before thinking about other technology platforms, according to Rose.

"If you think about things or spread yourself too thin, that's not good. My single focus is TV and set-top boxes propositions, together with giving people ways to use their mobile to interact with the website - for instance, book content or to look at what's on tonight or to share with friends - but the playback experience and fundamental proposition is a TV proposition," he said.

Mobiles and set-top boxes are also significantly different in terms of the components they use, said Rose, with technology such as linear tuners, MHEG video encoding and Digital Video Broadcasting standards currently very difficult to integrate into mobile devices.

"The playback experience is designed for the TV. I'm not even thinking about other platforms at this time. I think once we've got a great proposition we'll think about other alternatives," Rose added.

But mobile will still play a part in the future of Canvas: with the platform now taking shape...

...the Canvas team and partner organisations are developing all kinds of add-ons.

The BBC R&D team, for example, has developed a system whereby an iPhone can be used as a remote controller for a Canvas set-top box. The BBC accessibility team meanwhile has developed an iPhone add-on for people with impaired eyesight, which reads out text from the Canvas directory when it appears on screen.

"It's unbelievably cool and [Canvas is] still many months from release," said Rose, "and that's just a few people working on the side. I'm enormously enthused that thanks to some early developers like these, we'll have a nice rich set of APIs that will let a wide range of developers come up with very cool propositions."

The add-ons that have already been built hint at an area that the Canvas partners hope will be taken up by independent third-party developers, spawning a mini industry building applications that sit on the Canvas platform.

Canvas' CTO, Anthony Rose on Canvas

How the Canvas user interface might look
(Image credit: BBC)

"One of the really cool things about [Canvas] is it will actually power or enable a whole new economy segment - beyond the kind of apps that exist in Apple land and so on, there'll be a new class of services," Rose said.

The CTO hopes developers will build technologies that enhance the services on Canvas: anything from improved adaptive bit rate technology - which alters the quality of video streamed based on the user's available bandwidth, to make sure viewers get the best possible video quality - and video encoding.

Another possible add-on envisaged by Rose is a payment gateway for companies wanting to charge for content, such as sport or films - potentially offering an incentive for pay-TV operators such as Sky and Virgin Media to join Canvas.

Meanwhile, as the work to integrate and test the various technology elements within the Canvas platform and build add-ons for it continues, Rose hopes by the end of 2010, the project will have "a close to fully working, though not fully debugged, product" with a range of content from the content partners.

There are currently updates being made to the Canvas platform every few weeks and content providers are putting metadata into the system, enabling programme listings to be searched. The initial version of the user interface is close to completion with final tweaks now being made.

"We see it all coming together around the early part of next year, after which we'll do some consumer testing and hopefully around the beginning of Q2 we will have a reasonable number of boxes being used by consumers and can then ramp up marketing as soon as we think it's ticking along nicely," Rose said.

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