Project Canvas: TV's next evolution?
Published Jul 2 2010, 15:59 BST | By Andrew Laughlin
Last month, the BBC Trust gave its final approval
for Project Canvas, the joint venture which aims to create a new open platform for delivering IPTV services in the UK. Canvas chief technology officer (CTO) Anthony Rose believes that the hybrid platform will be the "next evolution" of on-demand service BBC iPlayer. DS
investigates whether the project will ultimately bring a new dawn for television or just end up a big white elephant in the room.
Rose only recently joined Canvas - which also counts ITV, Channel 4, Five, Arqiva, TalkTalk and BT among its members - from the BBC. At the corporation, he was head of digital media technology in the vision and online media group, including responsibility for delivering the next generation of iPlayer. Prior to joining the BBC, Rose was the CTO at media sharing service Kazaa/Altnet, where he handled end-to-end delivery.
The Canvas platform, which is widely expected
to bear the consumer branding YouView as a portmanteau of YouTube and Freeview
, will essentially upgrade the Freeview and Freesat digital TV platforms to support video on-demand and internet services. However, there has been a remarkable amount of confusion about Canvas, including major question marks about why it deserves to exist in the first place.
Speaking at a Screen Futures event in London organised by technology firm Intel, Rose said that Canvas is about capitalising on changes in the TV industry with a platform that makes sense for consumers. As the internet and television screens increasingly converge, Rose said that there are two emerging schools of thought: an open platform versus a closed environment.
A closed environment, according to Rose, offers benefits to platform holders and content providers in that the end-to-end process is controlled - a bit like iPlayer, where the content and access are carefully regimented by the BBC. However, closed platforms can mean that consumers miss out on innovative and diverse services due to the lack of freedom for a wider variety of developers to get involved.
In opposition, the open model is all about tapping into the unfettered freedom of the web, with users basically browsing the open internet on their TV screen. Google has thrown its weight firmly behind the latter approach, believing that TV viewers want unhindered access to web services in their living rooms. Rose said that he is sure that the "smart" minds at Google will make a success of Google TV
, which will launch in Sony products in the US this autumn, but he also thinks that there is a "sweet-spot" in-between the two approaches which makes more sense for consumers.
"I think that [the Google approach] is great as a disruptive use of technology to shake up the industry, but as a consumer it's possibly a bit too open. Using a keyboard in front of the TV, in the dark, is possibly the wrong approach," said Rose. "The Google folks are obviously very smart and they will have brilliant apps on it, so it will obviously appeal. But I think that there is space in the middle where you can search the internet but also in more guided environment, which gives the best consumer experience. There is a space between the closed video on-demand platform model and the fully open internet model that actually gives the best consumer experience."
Rose said that he sees Canvas as the "next evolution" of iPlayer, the catch-up service which he helped turn into a major success delivering over 120m streams per month. The on-demand platform has recently expanded to a wide variety of different devices, such as games consoles, smartphones and digital TV receivers. However, Rose believes that simply replicating iPlayer as a closed application just doesn't make sense anymore.
"Two years ago, a lot of TV and set top box manufacturers came to us and asked to get iPlayer, but actually none of them were very suitable. Their rendering technologies were too poor and they had all these crazy system and so on, it was just too much work," he said. "But the latest ones are getting much better and there are going to be a whole range of TV sets with iPlayer on them, which is very good. But the problem as a consumer is that it's only the BBC's content and even if the others are on there, then they are in separate units. So if you want to search something, you have to go into each application.
"TV works as a system, so why don't we have video on-demand players that just know what you like? They know what you want and they can work on a range of devices. That is what Canvas essentially is. You also want a centralised recommendation system for favourites so that it becomes a central place for everything. Then there are also video on-demand services and other internet services on there too. That, broadly, is the opportunity."
Rose explained that Canvas will use the best processing and rendering technologies, along with the sharpest adaptive bitrates to ensure the optimum user experience. When it launches, the platform will most likely bring together the linear TV channels on Freeview and Freesat with a variety of VOD and web services. It will primarily target
regular internet users who don't want subscription TV, which is estimated to be around 7m people in the UK. Most importantly, though, the platform will be open to a range of developers, both big and small, for them to create innovative services connected to the web.
There has been suggestion that the emergence of Canvas, Google TV and other hybrid broadcast services will result in the death of linear TV, but Rose does not believe that will be the case. According to BARB figures, online viewing still only represents 1% of total broadcast viewing, and that only increases to 2% among the more web-savvy 15 to 34-year-old age group. As linear TV still accounts for the vast majority of viewing, it seems that we are some way off viewers completely abandoning the programming schedule.
Rose said that iPlayer initially "denied the existence of linear television", but it has since embraced its connection to the linear schedule. He added that Canvas will aim to "leverage linear" by providing wraparound services for the viewer, such as recommendations and additional information. For example, imagine watching a World Cup game and being able to highlight a player on the pitch and then bring up a range of information and statistics about them.
The platform will have a dedicated website for all its content listings and there will be opportunities for developers to offer innovative things, such as metadata and RSS feeds for a variety of content. Possibly most interesting, though, is that Canvas will offer opportunities for more channels to launch by enabling them to make use of the drastically reduced operating costs of IPTV.
"You can use IP multicast so that new linear channels are delivered over the internet much easier than linear TV, which we feel will drive the industry to finally embrace multicast," said Rose, referring to the technology for delivering high-speed video to multiple receivers. "Canvas, and the ISPs behind Canvas will help enable multicast, which is enormously exciting. I think that there is a nice sweet spot in which Canvas can offer a solution for recommendations, favourites and other content while still embracing linear, which will create a great consumer proposition."
In developing the open Canvas platform, Rose said that the main challenge has been dealing with multiple manufacturers with a wide variety of technical specifications and architecture requirements. In response, the team set out to create a single user interface (UI) that will work seamlessly across a number of devices to create a unified experience. Rose is now working to specify a range of technical standards and create the UI so that box and CPU manufactures can produce a wide range of Canvas products.
"We hope to create the best of both worlds in that you can get the proliferation on multiple devices but there is a single layer of code that links them together," said Rose. "That means in three or five years' time when CPUs are ten times more powerful, there is still that single layer of code for device manufacturers and CPU manufacturers to innovate and make crazy things around. Then we can make a better and better proposition. Essentially, Canvas will hopefully be best of breed and will hit that sweet spot in how people want to access TV in the future."Sky
and Virgin Media
have been hugely critical of the Canvas proposition, mostly in regards to the use of licence fee money to create a potentially dominant platform in the nascent IPTV space. The two firms may still attempt to challenge the project, but they will not be able to use competition concerns as the Office Of Fair Trading has already cleared the project of representing a qualifying merger, thus negating a similar fate
to previous IPTV joint venture Project Kangaroo. When asked about the criticism expressed by Sky and Virgin Media, Rose gave a fairly guarded response.
"We would welcome both those companies onto Canvas, just as we would welcome any companies with their own commercial imperatives putting some, if not all their content on Canvas," he said.
Rose's main priority is now to get the technical specifications finalised, before working with the wide range of Canvas technology partners, such as chip maker Intel. Despite originally being mooted
for launch by the end of 2010, Rose said that the regulatory and development hurdles have meant that Canvas is now aiming to go live in the first half of 2011.
Also speaking at the Intel event, Sir Martin Sorrell, chairman of the world's largest communications services firm WPP, expressed his belief that Canvas will be a success, as long as it supports linear TV. WPP, which controls 25% of the media planning market via its GroupM and Mindshare businesses, predicts that 50-75% of households will receive IPTV services by 2020. Crucially, though, the group believes that 75% of viewing will still be via linear networks rather than timeshift or on-demand.
"We believe that commercial TV has a much stronger future than others may hitherto have argued," said Sorrell. "We believe that IPTV services will work around linear TV rather than replace it. Advertisers will also use the new methods made available to them in the digital world to unlock diverse ways to reach customers."
Later, he added: "We expect that Canvas will succeed because consumers want to have one relationship with their providers rather than multiple relationships. The platforms and ISPs will control access to the viewing data, which will be provided by the broadcasters and so on. That is how we see it evolving."