When TiVo got all the fame for bringing personal digital video recorders to the UK in 2000, Sky was already working on a PVR of its own. It would be known as Sky+, and would go on to become the most popular PVR in Britain.
Back then, it wasn't called Sky+ – it was X-TV, the brainchild of NDS, a technology firm that's been a lifelong partner to Sky. From its early days with Videocrypt, NDS has branched out into developing new ideas which pay-TV operators like Sky might one day offer their users. It's been pretty successful too, with worldwide more than 12 million PVRs now based on X-TV.
We were lucky enough to get a look at a few ideas NDS thinks might turn up over the next couple of years.
Hail the master UI
The demo doesn't just revolve around the classic set-top box and TV combination, but involves PCs, personal media players and mobile phones – anything which can play video.
At its heart is Master UI, a next-generation user interface which includes all the features on Sky+, plus many more we haven't seen – at least not yet.
It's running on a hybrid box with both Ethernet and satellite connections, to demonstrate how the worlds of the internet and broadcast TV can merge.
Master UI offers dozens of features for operators and broadcasters, like targeted advertising, or re- formatting videos from YouTube for the TV screen, but here are just a few of our favourites.
Sky has toyed with portable devices for a few years with ideas like Sky2Go, but nothing has ever come of them. The closest is Skyplayer on the PC, but that still doesn't extend your PVR beyond the home.
Nigel says NDS has a solution based on a technology called Secure Video Processing, where manufacturers build an open-standard security module into media players and mobile phones so that encrypted, paid-for content can be played back.
'It's getting to the stage where we're going to have terabytes in DVRs,' he said. 'There will be content in there with dust and cobwebs around because it will be so old. I've got a DVR that's got stuff that's over a year old on it because I just can't get around to watching it.
TV to go
"People still have 24 hours in a day and, given the ability, they will watch it. There's a lot of time when you're not in the front room. You're out and about, travelling to work or whatever. Our thinking is, take the programme with you. On this personal media player it's the same interface as the TV, and this is a working example with the security chip in. You get home, you put it in a cradle or connect through W-iFi, it syncs with your DVR to put on all the content you haven't watched.'
Nigel is convinced that this 'side-loading' will be a huge hit.
'It's going to be bigger than iTunes. If you look at iTunes, for music you can't beat it, but for videos it's pretty rubbish compared to a broadcaster. There are probably about a thousand movies and maybe a few thousand episodes of series. A digital broadcaster who's got, say, 300 channels – they're sending in the region of 5,000 individual programmes per day – greater than the whole of iTunes video.
Return to the CI
'Most people don't watch movies, they watch series. They download series they haven't watched and that's where the broadcasters have got stuff ready to go. You don't have to pay the £1.99 for each episode because you've got your subscription with the broadcaster.
SVP isn't built on NDS's Videoguard security – as used for Sky Digital – but it can cope with many different systems. For Nigel it's a return to the days of the Common Interface, when manufacturers got together and created an open standard that would enable new technology to flourish.
'It's an open standard so anybody can join and work in it, and that is definitely the better way to go than the Microsoft or Apple "Do it our way or forget it" approach. The SVP is definitely a route towards the openness needed for true innovation. You won't see the operators blocking it; for them, the danger is that their innovation is going to be stalled by whatever Microsoft will allow them to have.'
NDS also has plans for the humble PC that go far beyond today's Skyplayer. The entire Videoguard system, including your identity, can be securely stored on a special USB memory key or dongle, along with Gigabytes of memory for shows downloaded from your PVR.
'The problem with the PC is it just ain't secure. A lot of the content owners are not clear on having their content put on PCs. If you're going on an aeroplane, for example, you just stick the key into your STB, download content onto it and then stick the key in your laptop as you get onto the plane.
'The dongle also acts like a smart card for broadcasts, so if you've got a TV tuner like a Skystar card coming in, you plug in the USB key and get it unlocked. If you've got a movie and you're going round a friend's house, you can plug it into their STB or PC and watch the content even if they don't have the subscription.'
At home, the dongle also lets you connect directly with your PVR over whatever network is available, so a laptop becomes a multiroom receiver without extra boxes.
The first UK viewers to see these new functions are likely to be those with today's Sky HD box. These have high-speed processors and enough memory to resize and re-encrypt files for a portable player, or play across the network to your PC. Sky's probably already working on these features but, as we learned with the new HD EPG, there can be years of user-testing before Sky's happy to release them into the wild.