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Project Canvas: the big picture

Project Canvas chief Richard Halton used his keynote at Informa’s Digital Switchover Summit this morning to outline the BBC’s current thinking on the hybrid broadband digital-terrestrial on-demand platform in the wake of the BBC Trust granting it provisional approval in December.

Halton, programme director for Project Canvas, BBC Future, Media and Technology, said the platform would deliver both economic and creative benefits. On the economic front, he cited research commissioned by the BBC that indicated Canvas could accelerate growth in the market for connected TV devices by 70% up to 2015. Video-on-demand on the UK digital-terrestrial platform (including but not limited to Canvas) could produce revenues of £26.2m (€30m) per annum, excluding premium sport and movies. Canvas could also, he said, lead to between 500,000 and 870,000 homes going online, delivering a six-year net present value of £300m to the platform.

On the creative front, Halton kicked off his presentation with a demo designed to show how IPTV could deliver services and interactive applications around the forthcoming Olympic Games in 2012, “the next big event on the horizon”. The demo showed a screen that gave the viewer the option to cycle through various options overlaid on footage of sprinter Usain Bolt warming up before a race during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, allowing them to access archive footage, content from the IoC, highlights pre-selected by the viewer, medal table information and social networking features while waiting for the action to begin. While this demo was not intended to preview how Canvas will look (and included examples of commercial interactive services that would not be included as part of a BBC application), Halton said that it highlighted what could be done. “There is potential for lots of different types of interaction by consumers,” said Halton. He said the BBC had committed to air  “every single hour” of action in 2012 and it would be impossible to showcase that on its linear channels, so its Olympic application could allow viewers to set alerts for minority-interest events that they could then access on the on-demand platform.

Halton said that on the economic side, Canvas would also help create a horizontal market for devices, which he said was “absolutely critical” to the future of free-to-air. Touching on aspects of the plan that have excited controversy and the work being done to set a standard for the platform with the Digital Television Group, he said applications such as the one demonstrated for the Olympics “will only work if there is a reasonable common platform across devices”. This meant a common hardware profile for hybrid devices. “It will be fundamental to any growth in this sector,” he said.

On the software side, he said there would be a range of hybrid on-demand platforms in the market, but that Canvas was “trying to create a platform like Freeview” that was “very open” and “without a gatekeeper with regard to content”. He said the platform would allow pay-TV providers to manage the relationship with their customers. He emphasised that the BBC was working with consumer electronics manufacturers as well as ISPs and content providers to develop the platform. The aim of the BBC to create a common look and feel (unlike Freeview) has been one of the more controversial aspects of what the BBC proposes, given the desire of device manufacturers to differentiate their products via the user interface.

Halton said that there was a clear aim to move Canvas closer to the emerging European HBBTV specifications for hybrid platforms. He said he wanted to see alignment between the two by the end of the year and that Canvas was working closely with the EBU on the matter.

On the hardware side, in answer to a question about box specifications, Halton confirmed that a new box would be necessary and implicitly admitted that the price could initially be quite high. “We know that the first devices do not reflect the price a year later,” he said. “We want to make devices available quickly because we are aware of the launch of DVB-T2 and we want to make sure it’s the first purchase of DVB-T2 that consumers make.” The UK is deploying DVB-T2 in order to deliver HD services on the digital-terrestrial platform. Halton acknowledged that Canvas devices would not be ready in time for this, but that the ambition was still to keep the window as short as possible between the launch of HD services on Freeview and the launch of Canvas.

Specifications for the box will include sophisticated features such as the ability to set buffering thresholds to enable the viewer to be assured of continuous playback over a given broadband connection.