Intel, Yahoo, Comcast to partner on widgets for live TV

Are you ready for 3D, overlaid, interactive widgets to move off of the PC desktop onto your television set? An initiative announced yesterday by a powerhouse team of developers will probably make it happen, whether you're ready or not.

In one of the many intriguing developments to come out of this year's Intel Developers' Forum in San Francisco, both Yahoo and Comcast stated yesterday they will partner with Intel in the creation of a system that will conceivably deliver interactive, overlaid widgets -- the kind you see on the Mac OS X Dashboard or the Windows Vista Sidebar -- directly through live, digital TV.

The concept will be based on the Yahoo Widget Engine, the already existing platform for Windows and Mac OS that was born after the company's purchase of Konfabulator in 2005. Granted, a great many existing Yahoo widgets are the sorts of tools people would use for computing (CPU usage meters, battery power gauges, remaining disk space), or the types of little puzzles people will tinker with while computing.

But the three companies now see the possibility of extending the functional base for those little utilities onto a new and thus-far unexplored platform: right in the middle of viewers' TV screens.

"TV Widgets will enable consumers to engage in a variety of experiences, such as watching videos, tracking their favorite stocks or sports teams, interacting with friends, or staying current on news and information," reads a statement from Yahoo this morning. "Viewers will be able to use TV Widgets to deepen their enjoyment of the programming they are watching, discover new content and services, or share their favorites with friends and family." It will be interesting to see how developers plan to integrate video-watching widgets with, what's essentially, the ultimate video-watching tool without widgets.

The distribution mechanism for these made-for-TV widgets will be known as the Widget Channel, and though this part of the information has been buried, that channel will rely on Intel Architecture (IA). Intel has been fighting to gain traction in the set-top box space since 2003, when it introduced a reference design for STB architecture...coincidentally enough, at the IDF show that year. At last year's CES, Intel CEO Paul Otellini really did stun the crowd with an announcement of a major new investment in expanding IA to the digital television realm, including its next-generation system-on-a-chip architecture, called "Canmore," for STBs.

Though these devices are still called "set-top boxes," in actuality, they're being integrated directly into HDTV displays more and more, and could eventually become a core component in 100% of the world's HDTVs. In such an environment, Intel could quite possibly find itself competing once again on the platform level with its old nemesis from the 1980s, Motorola -- which has a sizable stake in the STB market today.

What could differentiate Canmore from its competition is its inclusion of 3D graphics technology and sophisticated image processing, similar to the on-board codecs being microcoded into GPUs today. The first demonstrated applications for this technology included interactive video program guides and on-demand program selection menus, which could be rendered using much of the same technology going into PCs today.

With the addition of Yahoo's technology to the mix -- which adds JavaScript as the functionality provider -- Widget Channel could provide for HDTV viewers what Blu-ray's BD-J was supposed to provide: a way for programs to interact directly with their viewers. Think of "Deal or No Deal: The Home Game," and you'll see where I'm going with this.

Interestingly, Comcast's announcement about the same technology indicated that the functionality layer for Widget Channel would be provided by tru2way, the Java-based scheme that Comcast has already been actively developing for its interactive program guides.

As Comcast Cable CTO Tony Werner stated, "The Widget Channel enables interactive applications and tru2way technology has opened the door for these types of innovations to work in the cable industry."

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