Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Microsoft Interoperability Lab Tour

Microsoft gave me a tour of its Mediaroom interoperability lab. The tour started with a demonstration of ATT's U-verse service that is based on Mediaroom. It looks very good and is quite fast. It uses picture in picture (PIP) in the EPG to show what is showing on the highlighted channel. The EPG itself is transparent so you can still see the channel that you are currently watching. It also uses the scroll up and down keys to give a description of the next channel up or down along with a PIP of what is playing on the screen. This approach shows only that single channel and does not obscure the currently playing program to the same degree.

The software also has a search feature that finds content that contain the specified word or part of word. It searches broadcast content and on demand content. Microsoft said that it would also present content that has been recorded on the set-top box's hard disk.

Mediaroom looks nice. I will certainly order U-verse as soon as ATT makes it available to me.

They then took me to their laboratory headend. It is a large system with analog, cable, and IPTV equipment. It is fed from an impressive set of satellite antennas located just behind the building. Microsoft uses this headend to provide live feeds as well as pre-recorded feeds to its engineering labs.

This is a large, well organized facility. It gives Microsoft a lot of flexibility in the content that it uses to develop and test its systems.

We then went to the interoperability lab. In this lab an encoder vendor can bring its systems and, together with Microsoft, test interoperability with Mediaroom. The purpose of this activity is to increase the number encoders that Microsoft can support with Mediaroom.

Microsoft provides the encoder company with an interface specification that describes the encoding schemes, speeds, and transport protocols that it supports. It starts the testing by testing basic functions and moves to full interoperability testing when the encoder appears to be basically sound.

This specification also defines common enhancements such as PIP, where the encoders are taking on functions that Microsoft originally implemented on its servers. Moving PIP to the encoders is significant because it removes a large load from the servers that have caused scaling problems.

Microsoft uses analyzers and server logs to identify interoperability issues during the testing. It finds in the end that visual inspection is the best judge. Visual artifacts and poor lip synching are readily apparent.

It has found that this testing process will determine interoperation. It does find occasionally, though, that particularly demanding content can cause the encoder to operate out of an acceptable range. It has the ability to capture these situations in the field and use them in future testing.

Microsoft stated that is has similar efforts underway that focus on set-top boxes and back office OSS systems.

This is a sound approach. Mediaroom is a complex system that needs to be well tested to be robust in the field.

No comments: