A look at advanced guides from Cablevision, DirecTV, AT&T, and the future of channel surfing

Steve Donohue, FierceCableIt's already been a big month for advancements in interactive program guides, with the debut of AT&T's (NYSE: T) voice activated U-verse remote control and the rollout of Cablevision's (NYSE: CVC) cloud-based Optimum Program Guide in Long Island. DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV) may raise the bar this week with the launch of Genie, a DVR that recommends TV shows and movies to subscribers based on their viewing habits.

For years, cable operators and satellite TV providers focused on the quality of HD video or the pricing of their programming packages to win subscribers. With viewers finding it difficult to sort through thousands of live and video-on-demand programming choices, we're beginning to see more multichannel providers tout advanced program guides as a competitive differentiator. The latest IPGs integrate recommendation engines that suggest titles to viewers based on their viewing habits and recommendations from friends, and can respond to voice or gesture controls.

Cablevision has come a long way since the 1980s, when it didn't offer subscribers remote controls. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and my family subscribed to Cablevision. Instead of using a remote control, we had to press buttons on the clunky Jerrold cable box that was connected to a converter behind the TV in order to change channels. There was no interactive program guide available to search for TV shows and movies. The only way to find out what was on TV was to check out Cablevision's channel 14, which displayed a passive, scrolling guide of listings. Or you could pick up a newspaper.

Today, Cablevision, like most major pay TV providers, offers subscribers apps for smartphones and tablets such as Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad that subscribers can use to channel surf. The Optimum Program Guide that Cablevision began rolling out last week uses an interface that is similar to guides that it has developed for mobile devices, PCs and Macs. It lets subscribers store their favorite VOD programs in an archive, and rate TV shows. It also recommends titles to subscribers who can browse 30 days of TV listings that are stored on cloud-based servers.  

What DirecTV will offer to subscribers with its Genie DVR isn't a new idea. TiVo has been automatically recording programs to subscriber DVRs for years based on their viewing habits. The late Jeffrey Zaslow documented TiVo's recommendation engine in a great feature in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, headlined "If TiVo Thinks You are Gay, Here's How to Set It Straight."

You can expect other cable and satellite TV providers to add recommendation engine technology to their program guides soon. Several technology vendors are pitching recommendation engines aimed at driving increased viewing and video-on-demand sales, including Digitalsmiths, ThinkAnalytics and Jinni.

AT&T is the first pay TV provider to let subscribers use voice commands to channel surf. Rather than deploy a voice activated remote control to subscribers--an expensive proposition that was floated years ago by Gary Lauder's AgileTV--AT&T is letting subscribers who download its U-verse app for smartphones and tablets navigate and search for content with voice commands.

Subscribers of AT&T, Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) FiOS TV and Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) who own a Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) Xbox with Kinect can use Xbox apps to navigate a limited number of cable networks with voice commands and hand gestures. In theory, it sounds great--the idea of being able to channel surf without a remote control. But I have an Xbox with Kinect at home, and haven't had much success using it to navigate channels in my FiOS TV subscription. A few months ago, I tried using the voice controls to channel surf while feeding my infant son a bottle in the middle of the night, thinking it would be an easy way to be able to change channels without having to hold a remote. But you have to speak commands such as "Xbox next" and "Xbox previous" in a strong voice to in order for the Xbox to change channels, and I startled the little guy. The gesture controls also aren't very easy to use, even when you're not holding a baby. Try holding your arm out straight for a few minutes--you'll grow tired of waving at the TV, and return to using a traditional remote control.

Social TV applications are also offering tech savvy pay TV subscribers another way to find something to watch. DirecTV and AT&T have been the most aggressive providers in integrating social TV applications such as GetGlue and Miso with their pay TV platforms, and letting subscribers use the apps to control their set-tops from a smartphone or tablet.

In the world of advanced interactive program guides, another key player to keep an eye on is Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and its Google Fiber TV project in Kansas City. Rather than deploy a traditional cable remote control, Google is supplying subscribers with a Nexus 7 tablet to be used as a remote, and the Nexus will accept voice commands from subscribers. In the next year, I think we'll see at least one cable operator conduct a market trial that will involve supplying a tablet to subscribers that can be used as a remote control. It may not be a $500 Apple iPad. It's more likely that an operator would deploy a less expensive device, such as the Motorola Xoom or the Technicolor Media Touch tablet. Once a cable operator is able to put a tablet in the hands of every subscriber, you may see some very creative approaches to channel surfing emerge, such as an idea Verizon has patented for letting subscribers navigate programming through an immersive virtual world type interface that could be accessed on a tablet.

And while Microsoft's Kinect may not yet be ready for primetime for use as a cable or satellite TV remote control, there's still a lot of potential that could come from integrating gesture and voice controls with a cable or satellite set-top. I'd expect PrimeSense, the Israeli company that built the technology for Kinect, to sell similar motion control cameras to a set-top vendor or cable MSO. The motion control cameras could finally make use of the empty USB ports on millions of digital cable and satellite set-tops. The cameras will be able to do much more than help a subscriber channel surf. They may be used to target programming and advertising to individual subscribers since the infrared cameras would be able to recognize whether an adult or child is viewing a program.  The cameras could also open new opportunities for t-commerce, and let a subscriber buying a suit or a dress have clothes custom fitted from measurements that are taken with the cameras. I know, it sounds like science fiction, but all of this will happen one day. It's going to be fun covering each step along the way.--Steve