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So if the set top can become a plug, will it go away all together

Sigma Designs this week announced what it described as “a new class of set top box,” built around a new SoC chip and a reference design that effective

By PETER WHITE

Published: 23 June, 2011

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Sigma Designs this week announced what it described as “a new class of set top box,” built around a new SoC chip and a reference design that effectively sees the set top taken off the top of the TV, and placed into the plug in the wall. (See separate story).

Within hours of that going public we had journalists on the phone asking about the future of set tops – would they die out, would they get integrated into the TV set, would they be replaced by games consoles?

Sometimes we are too close to the subject matter, and from a consumer point of view the existence or otherwise of a set top box perhaps doesn’t matter. To a pay TV operator the existence of set top capabilities matters, but then again lately so much more matters than that, such as OTT capability.

If you think about the intelligence of what goes on when a video signal reaches the home, and what might go on in future, and what consumers would like, there is a lot of function to take care of. And it’s not the consumer that decides much about where this processing goes on. If it’s pay TV through a satellite or through cable, traditionally it is the pay TV supplier than decides on where “some” of that processing power is situated, and of course it’s not just processing power, it’s tuning capability for the most part. And of course, as tuning capability becomes more of a digital process this capability too can be shrunk. For instance last week Broadcom launched what it calls Full-Band Capture digital tuners which can tune up and down the entire 1 GHz of cable bandwidth. It can support multiple parallel demodulations in real time and for Broadcom’s this removed as many as 9 separate tuner components from devices.

Off the top of your head think about the roles that can have similar savings. Tuning, running Apps, wiring modulation and demodulation such as Gigabit Ethernet, MoCA, HPNA, G.hn and HomePlug, as well as WiFi signaling, and WiFi routing management. The video codec needs to be decoded, and within a single home resized for different devices. There needs to be storage space for both commercial and non-commercial video, music and images, and there needs to be instant format conversion between devices. The TV set itself needs innovation on the UI, with things like Search exported to the cloud, and so do other video capable devices. Video conferencing standards (or Skype) need to be supported, including real time video encoding. 3D and Full color has to be supported somewhere and on TV sets there is a lot of processing intelligence needed for power saving, for instance controlling LED switching, but also things like the adding of intra frame effects for smoothing of lines. And being “green” in any part of this process – cutting down power for any kind of processing, will also be a core management job. Security is a given and in the modern set top (whatever form it takes) there will be multiple layers of security, conditional access systems that decode and re-encode in DTCP-IP, as well as authentication, device registration and dynamic water marking. Of course getting video EPGs to show both traditional pay TV service and internet held content and DVR content and VoD stored content, and to provide internet or OCAP (tru2way) interactivity at any point along the way also requires processing power.

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