Category: Commentary

Supporting hubs and repeaters in the Thunderbolt 3 standard

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

The same connector being used for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C may lead to confusion in more sophisticated setups

Increasingly Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 very-high-speed data connection standard has come on the scene as a product differentiator for computer products.

This standard works over the USB-C physical connection, thus allowing for a logical Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C data transfer setup.

But USB-C, like the preceding USB connection standards allows for a “tree-like” connection from the host computer device. This is facilitated through self-powered or bus-powered hubs which allow multiple device to be effectively connected to the same physical connection on the host computer or previous hub, subject to certain conditions like power budget.

On the other hand, the Thunderbolt connections can only be connected in a “daisy-chain” manner where only one device can be connected to another. This is also limited by the fact that you can only have six devices connected in a Thunderbolt data bus.

A situation that can easily crop up with the Thunderbolt 3 connection is the fact that there could be an expectation to run a connection setup for multiple devices in a “tree-like” approach. This is along with an expectation to have more than six devices on a Thunderbolt 3 data bus. It is aggravated through some of the devices that have their own power supplies being expected to be USB hubs along with these devices being equipped with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

The classic example would be a Thunderbolt 3 RAID direct-attached-storage array along with an external GPU module and, perhaps, a Thunderbolt 3 dock (expansion module) as part of a workstation setup.

But there can be the desire to hang off more than six Thunderbolt 3 devices or establish a “tree-like” approach. This can happen where there is a desire to connect multiple storage or interface devices or you are dealing with low-tier Thunderbolt 3 devices that only have the one connection for the host computer.

In the audio recording studio environment, the Thunderbolt 3 connection can appeal with analogue-digital interfaces or digital mixers where there is the desire to connect many microphones, musical instruments and speakers to a digital-audio workstation. This can extend to the video sphere with ultra-high-definition cameras connected to a suitable AV interface for digital video production.

Similarly, Thunderbolt 3 offering support for a virtual “PCI Express” card bus may appeal to computing users running with multiple “card-cage” devices like the external graphics modules. Here, it may be about increased input-output abilities or working with high-performance graphics cards. Such a setup will become relevant with portable, all-in-one and small-form-factor desktop computers which don’t have the necessary support for the traditional interface cards that were the norm for regular computers.

A situation that can easily crop up with these devices is attempts to connect Thunderbolt 3 peripherals to other USB-C connections on upstream peripherals. This can lead to error messages and the whole setup not performing as expected.

What needs to be looked at is an extension to the Thunderbolt 3 specification to cater towards different bus layouts. This is more so to allow a peripheral to effectively reiterate one or more Thunderbolt 3 buses as if it is the equivalent of an Ethernet switch. It can also lead to the possibility of implementing active repeaters for a Thunderbolt 3 connection, something that could appeal to longer connection runs like the obvious stage-based applications.

It could be simply facilitated through a hardware-software device class for this specification that addresses “hub and repeater” behaviour. This can also include the ability for these devices to work as USB-C hubs including support for different power-supply paths and power budgets for the Power Delivery device class.

The same issue also includes a requirement for the host computer to identify where each Thunderbolt 3 peripheral is and map the bandwidth in a similar way to a city’s road system.

But it will be something that Intel will have to approach when they revise Thunderbolt 3.

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Designing for highly-compatible Internet Of Things

Article

D-Link DCH-3150 myDLink motion sensor

Smart Home and Internet Of Things devices need to be designed for compatibility and security before they become popular

How to bring true interoperability to the Internet of Things | Network World

My Comments

Increasingly, the concept of the “smart home” or Internet Of Things is becoming very real. Here, we are seeing a lot more consumer-electronics devices, home appliances and similar devices become connected to the home network and the Internet.

The “app-cessory” approach to network-controlled devices, where the only way to control these devices via your home network is through a manufacturer-supplied mobile-platform app, has now had its day. This typically asked that the device to be connected to your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet using one of three paths: a Bluetooth connection to the mobile device in the same vein as a Bluetooth headset; a Wi-Fi network created by the device that is controlled by the mobile-platform device; or the home network’s Wi-Fi segment.

The trend that is affecting these devices is to interlink them with a platform-based voice-driven “home assistant” of the Amazon Alexa or Google Home ilk. Here, the requirement is for the manufacturer to provide a “skill” or something similar to the “home-assistant” platform so that Alexa, for example, can interact with the device.

But the article is now highlighting the requirement for increased compatibility with the Internet Of Things. This is where the same device can operate across a range of different network setups and operating platforms.

Use of highly-capable hardware interfaces at the media-connection level

A direction that has assured “out-of-the-box” interoperability for regular-class and mobile-class computer devices along with an increasing number of consumer-electronics devices is to implement one or more multi-mode front-ends when handling the different interface types.

In the case of radio, it can mean being able to handle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee or similar technologies concurrently.With the wired networks, it would be about working with different media protocols over the same kind of wire, being Cat5 unshielded twisted pair, TV-antenna coaxial cable, AC wires used to power your appliances or traditional telephone wires.

Devolo Home Control Central Unit (Zentrale) press photo courtesy of Devolo

Devolo Home Control Central unit connected to router

In the case of a wireless connection, this is represented by the use of Bluetooth for peripheral-class device connection and Wi-Fi wireless networking to the latest standard for connecting to the home network and the Internet. Smartphones and some tablets will also implement a mobile-broadband modem that works across recent cellular mobile-telephony standards as well. As well, some consumer-electronics devices may implement a multifunction radio front-end that supports Zigbee or Z-Wave, typically to provide support for an RF-based remote control.

There are a significant number of “smart-home” or “Internet Of Things” devices that are designed to work solely with Bluetooth, Zigbee or Z-Wave. Examples of these range from temperature sensors, smart locks and movement sensors. These devices, typically battery-operated devices, use one of these technologies because of the fact that they are very thrifty on battery power thus allowing them to work on up to 3 AA Duracells or a 3V “pill-size” battery for months at an end or to work only on “harvested” power like kinetic energy.

But, if they want to liaise with your home network and the Internet, they have to deal with a gateway device that links between them and the home network. It is because, at the time of writing, no-one has effectively brought a Wi-Fi-capable single-mode or multimode radio front-end chipset that permits a battery-operated device to work in a power-efficient manner.

But another approach being called for is to have an Internet gateway device i.e. a home or small-business router being equipped with support for Bluetooth, Zigbee and / or Z-Wave along with Wi-Fi and Cat5 Ethernet for the home network. To the same extent, a Wi-Fi infrastructure device like an access point or range extender could simply be a bridge between other radio-network types like Zigbee or Bluetooth and the home network facilitated by the Wi-Fi or wired home-network connection.

Some manufacturers even have an “IoT hub” or gateway that links their Bluetooth, Zigbee or Z-Wave devices to your home network via an Ethernet connection. Here, this is offered as part of enabling their devices for online control via a Web dashboard or mobile-platform app. The current situation with most of these hubs is that they have the online-service hub that works with the manufacturer’s device.

There needs to be the ability to facilitate setups involving multiple gateways that link the home network with Zigbee or similar “IoT” radio segments. This is a reality with most of these devices being limited in their radio coverage in order to conserve battery power because they are expected to run on a commodity battery supply like two or three AA Duracells for months at a time or, in some cases, work on harvested electrical energy. You may find that having one of the gateways located near an IoT endpoint device like a smart lock may assure reliable connected operation from that device.

In these setups, there needs to be the ability to see a collection of these “IoT-specific” radio segments as one logical segment, along with the ability to discover and enumerate each device no matter which gateway or bridge device it is connected to and what kind of networks is used as the backbone.

Flexible software to the application level

Kwikset Kevo cylindrical deadbolt in use - Kwikset press image

To provide extended monitoring and control to the Kwikset Kevo deadbolt, you have to use a Bluetooth bridge supplied by Kwikset

Another issue raised regarding the Internet Of Things is compatibility across multiple software platforms and protocols.

A design practice that has been known to be successful was for recent network-connected home-AV equipment like Wi-Fi wireless speakers to support Apple AirPlay, Google Chromecast and DLNA “out of the box”. Here, you could stream content to these devices using most computer devices, whether it be your iPhone, Android tablet or Windows computer, or whether it is hosted on your NAS device.

Here, the goal is for a device to support many different software platforms, frameworks and protocols that are needed to do its job. To the same extent, it could be feasible for a device to work with different cloud services like Google Home, Amazon Alexa or IFTTT. What this can mean is that a device can work with different control and display surfaces from different manufacturers. It also means that the data that a piece of equipment shares is set in a known standard so that any software developer working on an IoT project can make use of this data in their code.

For example, the Open Connectivity Foundation’s standards which include the UPnP standards and are supported by the “open-frame” computing community, along with the Apple HomeKit framework will be required to be supported by network-connected devices.

Here, it will be about identifying every one of the standards supported by the physical medium that the IoT device uses to link with other devices and the network. Then implementing all of the current standards supported by that medium in a vendor-agnostic manner.

Secure by design

An issue that has been raised recently is the issue of data security practices implemented by the software that runs Internet-Of-Things and dedicated-purpose devices. Situations that have come to the fore include the Mirai botnet that scoped in network videosurveillance cameras and home-network routers to perform distributed denial-of-service attacks against online resources like the Krebs On Security Website and the DNS records held by Dyn, a dynamic-DNS provider, affecting a large number of Internet household names.

Here, the issue being called out is designing the software in this class of device for security along with a continual software-maintenance cycle. But it also includes the implementation of secure-software-execution practices not uncommon with the latest desktop and mobile operating systems. This includes secure-boot, trusted-execution and sandboxing to prevent unwanted code from running along with data-in-transit protection and authentication at the network level.

The concept of a continual software-maintenance approach where the firmware and other software associated with the Internet Of Things is always updated with these updates installed “in the field” as they are available, allows for the removal of software bugs and security exploits as they become known. It also allows the software to be “tuned” for best performance and manufacturers can even roll out newer functionality for their devices.

In some cases, it could even lead to a device being compatible with newer and revised standards and protocols rather than seeing one that ends up being limited because it doesn’t support the newer better protocol. But there can be the question about this kind of software update being used as a way to enforce unpopular device-design requirements upon an existing installed base of devices and changes how they operate. This could be brought about by a government mandate or an industry expectation, such as an eco-requirement for HVAC equipment required by a state energy-conservation department or a digital-rights-management expectation required at the behest of Hollywood.

To make the IoT hardware and software ecosystem work properly, there needs to be an underscored requirement for compatibility with prior and newer devices along with the ability to work securely and with properly-maintained software.

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VOD content-search aggregation

Article

Netflix official logo - courtesy of Netflix

Netflix – one of many SVOD providers

Say Goodbye to Video on Demand Browsing Fatigue | LinkedIn Pulse

My Comments

A common situation that will happen is for us to sign up to Netflix as well as using our Apple ID and credit card to purchase or rent video content on iTunes. But we subsequently know of one or more other video-on-demand services that have a content library that appeals to us. This becomes more real as boutique video-on-demand enters the spotlight or newer operators join the video-on-demand scene.

SBS On Demand Windows 10 platform app

SBS On-Demand – an example of an advertising-funded boutique VOD provider

Here, we end up heading down a path where we have to switch between multiple user interfaces on our smart TV, video peripheral or tablet to find the content we want to watch. In some cases, it could end up with us acquiring extra video peripherals and selecting different sources on our TVs in order to go to different video-on-demand providers, because they don’t appear on the connected-video platform we primarily use.

But what can happen is that we are after a particular title or shows like it and want to know where it is available without spending a lot of time searching for it. This is where content-search-aggregation can come in handy.

Multiple VOD and catch-up TV providers on a smart-TV or set-top box vie for our attention

What is this? It is where you supply the name of a particular piece of video content and the content-search-aggregation engine lists which video-on-demand providers have the content you searched for. It would support the different business models that video-on-demand providers work on such as subscription, transactional and advertising.

It is very similar to the success of TuneIn Radio, vTuner and Radioline in providing an aggregated Internet-radio directory used in Internet radios, both of the “big set” (hi-fi system) and “small set” (table radio, portable) kind;  and  the Internet-radio apps available on every desktop, mobile or smart-TV platform.

I would like to see these aggregated-content-search engines have, as part of their personalisation efforts, the ability to provide a results view that is based on the services you deal with such as the subscription VODs you subscribe to, the transactional VODs you have registered with and the advertising VODs you regularly visit. In the case of transactional services including “download-to-own” or “download-to-view” storefronts, the results could be sorted by the cost to view in your local currency. But it could be feasible to provide an advertising service on these search engines that list other VOD services carrying the same kind of content in your area, especially boutique providers that run with this content. This can put new streaming or download-driven online-video providers “on the map” as far as the viewership is concerned.

Client-based implementations could work with your downloaded content library along with the streaming and download-based services in order to search through these catalogues for what you are after.

Similarly, these search engines can aid in the content-discovery process by allowing us to find content similar to a specific title or having specific attributes hosted by the providers you deal with. If you are using a VOD service that has an account system for payment or personalisation, it could be feasible for these search engines to “pass” the title to the service so you can put it in your viewing list or favourite-content list, instigate a purchase / rental transaction for that title in the case of a transaction-driven service or immediately have it playing.

To the same extent, the aggregated-content-search platform that links with your accounts on the various VOD services can provide the ability to show an aggregate view of the content recommendations that the services provide based on your past viewing.

Another factor that influences our viewing choices is the content recommended by film critics, radio hosts and other personalities that we follow. Here, some of these personalities or the publishers and broadcasters they work with maintain some form of Web presence, typically through a social-media account, blog or something similar. Here they may use this presence to provide a list of content they recommend or simply cite a particular film or TV series.

But these Web presences cam be made more powerful either through RSS feeds for “recommended-viewing” lists or the ability to link a film’s title to the search engine. These can be facilitated through an express hyperlink to the aggregated-content search engine’s entry for that title. On the other hand, the combination of standardised structured-data-markup and software that interprets this markup and passes this data to these search engines could provide for a competitive approach. In the case of “recommended-viewing” lists delivered as RSS feeds, aggregated-content-search engines could implement a mechanism similar to Web-based newsfeed readers of the Feedly kind for adding these lists.

To the same extent, these personalities could contribute their knowledge about titles to an aggregated-content-search engine to turn it in to a rich video-content portal that helps viewers choose the content they are after.

There are a few of these aggregated-content-search engines existing but these are primarily Web-based or mobile-based services, with Roku offering theirs as part of their set-top-box platform. They currently link with the main video-content resources like IMDB and RottenTomatoes along with the current popular VODs.

But they have to be able to work across multiple platforms including smart-TV / set-top-box platforms, support extensive end-user personalisation along with allowing users to follow content recommendations that their favourite personalities offer. As well, if the concept of “download-to-own” picks up, an aggregated-content-search platform could be used to find content that you have in your collection or could “pick up on” through “download-to-own” storefronts,

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Software-defined microphone arrays–an idea worth considering

Creative Labs LiveCam Connect HD Webcam

A Webcam could end up being part of a multi-microphone array

Increasingly there are some setups where multiple microphone devices are becoming available to a regular or mobile computing device like a laptop or smartphone. Examples of these include:

  • A headset audio adaptor (whether USB or Bluetooth connected) that has an integrated mic but is used along with a headset that has its own microphone system
  • A (wired or Bluetooth) headset with an integrated mic connected to a computer that has its own mic or is also connected to a Webcam or similar peripheral that has its own mic
  • The use of one or more stereo-microphone setups, whether a single-piece (2-element) stereo microphone or a pair of mono microphones, connected to a computer.
Dell A2 Performance USB Headset

as could the microphone integrated in a feature headset

All these setups can lead to the creation of a multiple-microphone array which can lead to accurate voice capture and improved background-noise rejection. This becomes important for telecommunications but is also as important when you are dealing with voice-recognition applications like voice-driven personal assistants (Siri, Cortana, Google Now) or voice-to-text transcription.

Here, this would require that the microphone array is created at the operating-system level rather than the hardware level. It would require that the OS enumerate all microphone devices that are connected and active to establish a software-defined microphone array based on these mics.

This would lead to the software having to learn about the microphone-array setup including the proximity of the mics to each other as well as how they pick the sound up. This is to create an ideal “voice focus” that is required to gain benefit from the microphone array.

to improve Cortana’s speech recognition

In some cases, this may be achieved automatically but there are situations where it may require the operator to adjust the settings manually. These situations may come about with microphones that have different characteristics like pick-up ranges and sensitivities.

Another factor that affects this kind of setup is whether a microphone device will be active at all times during the usage session. This can happen with, for example, a headset that is connected to or disconnected from a tablet or laptop on an ad-hoc basis. Similarly, the user may move around with their headset while using the microphone-equipped tablet or laptop, an activity more feasible with a Bluetooth headset or adaptor. Here, this factor requires the software to re-define the microphone array so as to “catch” the user’s voice.

In the case of a user moving around between microphones, the requirement would be about readjusting the microphone array in real time to identify the key sounds to put the focus towards.

These are issues that may limit the idea of creating a software-defined microphone array, especially for voice recognition or telecommunications. Let’s not forget that a software-defined microphone array will also be demanding computer resources which can be very limiting with not-so-powerful setups.

But once the concept of software-defined microphone arrays is proven and able to be implemented at the operating system level, it could be a path towards allowing users to gain the benefits from a microphone array while being able to use a combination of existing microphone-equipped devices.

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Two niche video-on-demand providers are starting to show up strong

From the horse’s mouth

Acorn TV – SVOD provider offering the best of British telly to the USA

Native Clients

Mobile: iOS, Android

TVs and Set-top Devices: Apple TV (tvOS), Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV (newer)

SBS On Demand – AVOD provider offering foreign and art-house content to Australian audiences

Native Clients

Mobile: iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire, Windows Phone

Regular Computers: Windows 10

TVs and Set-top Devices: Apple TV (tvOS),  XBox 360, XBox One, PS3, PlayStation 4, Humax, Fetch TV, Telstra TV, Telstra T-Box, Sony Bravia Smart TVs, Android TV, Google TV, Samsung Smart TVs, LG Smart TVs, Panasonic Viera Smart TVs, HBBTV, TCL TV

My Comments

As the mainstream “over-the-top” video-on-demand market becomes saturated with service providers who try to cover all the bases, a few companies are rising up or will rise up to offer an “over-the-top” video-on-demand service that targets a niche audience.

Some of these companies are based on an existing media-publication or distribution platform that already courts that particular niche like a home-video distributorship, a TV broadcaster or a bookstore. Here, I would simply see a niche video-on-demand provider very similar to an art-house cinema or a specialty bookstore.

The different companies provide these services on one or more of the following three business models

  • AVOD (Advertising Video-On-Demand) – advertising-funded with TV commercials run during the show like with traditional TV. It is commonly used with services that started out as “catch-up TV” services offered by TV broadcasters who sell advertising.
  • SVOD (Subscription Video-On-Demand) – funded by users paying a monthly or yearly subscription fee to see all of the content offered by the video-on-demand provider. It is the same kind of business model that Netflix operate on.
  • TVOD (Transactional Video-On-Demand) – viewers pay to have access to a particular movie or series title either on an infinite basis or for a certain time period. It is similar to the video offerings provided by the platform app stores (Apple iTunes, Google Play or Microsoft Store).

These providers may find that the business model that they choose may please the audience that views their content, especially if they are capitalising on their media-distribution heritage. On the other hand, they may have to operate the different business models together such as taking a “freemium” approach with an advertising-funded service but allowing viewers to subscribe to a premium ad-free service.

There are two services I am calling out in this article that are answering to the niche video-on-demand market.

 

Screenshot of Acorn TV website

Acorn TV – the best of British telly in the USA

One of these is Acorn TV, a subscription video-on-demand service that is supplying the best of British telly to the American market. It was based on the Acorn imprint which sold British shows on packaged home-video media (VHS videocassettes and DVD / Blu-Ray discs) in to the USA since 1994. Acorn are even heading towards creating their own content as well as redistributing the content offered by the British TV channels in to the USA. It appeals to British expats who have moved to North America along with Americans who appreciate the high-quality content that British TV is known for.

SBS On Demand Windows 10 platform app

SBS On-Demand (Windows 10 native app) – foreign-language TV in Australia thanks to SBS

The other of these is SBS On Demand, an advertising video-on-demand service that is supplying Australian viewers with foreign and art-house content. This service evolved from a “catch-up TV” service that SBS, a publicly-funded radio and TV service that focused towards Australia’s ethnic communities since the late 70s, ran in conjunction with their free-to-air TV service. Here, they have become the Australian TV outlet for the rising classes of subtitled content like Nordic Noir crime fiction even before such content came on the scene in the UK and USA. SBS still create their own edgy TV content to show on their regular TV service or directly on this on-demand service.

Most of these providers work on traditional content trees with content grouped primarily by the standard content genres with opisodic content listed by series title. But as this class of on-demand video provider evolves,  there will be the curated thematic content groups appearing in their content trees, focusing on particular themes like content classes that underscore the niche very well like the “Golden Age of British Comedy”.

What needs to happen is the ability for those niche video-on-demand content providers not to just represent themselves as just another app in your smart TV’s or mobile device’s app store but to expose the fact that they provide a particular class of content.

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Dual-device videocalling–how about it?

Arcam of Cambridge: Solo Movie system incorporate the latest technology and components from Arcam’s 2016 AVR & Hi-Fi ranges, including the acclaimed Class G amplification, High-End Blu-ray and DVD Replay and full App Controlled music networking / streaming. www.arcam.co.uk. PR by Robert Follis Associates Global - www.robfollis.com

TV setups with large screens and powerful sound systems could also appeal to videocalls where many people wish to participate

A reality that is surfacing with online communications platforms is the fact that most of us prefer to operate these platforms from our smartphones or tablets. Typically we are more comfortable with using these devices as our core hubs for managing personal contacts and conversations.

But there are times when we want to use a large screen such as our main TV for group videocalls. Examples of this may include family conversations with loved ones separated by distance, more so during special occasions like birthdays, Thanksgiving or Christmas. In the business context, there is the desire for two or more of us to engage in video conferences with business partners, suppliers, customers or employees separated by distance. For example, a lawyer and their client could be talking with someone who is selling their business as part of assessing the validity of that potential purchase.

Old lady making a video call at the dinner table press picture courtesy of NBNCo

This is more so when there is that family special moment

But most of the smart-TV and set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to work with the plethora of online-communications platforms that are out there. This is although Skype attempted to get this happening with various smart-TV and set-top platform vendors to allow the smart TV to serve as a Skype-based group videophone once you purchased and connected a Webcam accessory supplied by the manufacturer.

The Skype situation required users to log in to the Skype client on their TV or video device along with buying and installing a camera kit that worked with the TV. This was a case of entering credentials or searching for contacts using a “pick-and-choose” or SMS-style text-entry method which could lead to mistakes. This is compared to where most of us were more comfortable with performing these tasks on our smartphones or tablets because of a touchscreen keyboard or hardware keyboard accessory that made text entry easier.

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

An Apple TV or Chromecast that has the software support for and is connected to a Webcam could simplify this process and place the focus on the smartphone as a control surface for videocalls

The goal I am outlining here is for one to be able to use a smart TV or network-connected video peripheral equipped with a Webcam-type camera device, along with their mobile device, all connected to the same home network and Internet connection to establish or continue a videocall on the TV’s large screen. Such a goal would be to implement the large-screen TV with its built-in speakers or connected sound system along with the Webcam as the videocalling-equivalent of the speakerphone we use for group or “conference” telephone calls when multiple people at either end want to participate in the call.

Set-top devices designed to work with platform mobile devices

A very strong reality that is surfacing for interlinking TVs and mobile devices is the use of a network-enabled video peripheral that provides a video link between the mobile device and video peripheral via one’s home network.

One of these devices is the Apple TV which works with iOS devices thanks to Apple AirPlay while the other is the Google Chromecast that works with Android devices. Both of these video devices can connect to your home network via Wi-Fi wireless or Ethernet with the Apple TV offering the latter option out of the box and the Chromecast offering it as an add-on option. As well, the Chromecast’s functionality is being integrated in to various newer smart TVs and video peripherals under the “Google Cast” or “Chromecast” feature name.

Is there a need for this functionality?

As I have said earlier on, the main usage driver for this functionality would be to place a group videocall where multiple people at the one location want to communicate with another . The classic examples would be for families communicating with distant relatives or businesses placing conference calls that involve multiple decision makers with two or more of these participants at one of the locations.

Social networks and mobile messaging

Most of the mobile messaging platforms offer some form of videocalling capability

In most cases, the “over-the-top” communications platforms like Facetime, Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are primarily operated using the native mobile client app or the functionality that is part of the mobile platform. This way of managing videocalls appeals to most users because of access to the user’s own contact directory that exists on their device along with the handheld nature of the typical smartphone that appeals to this activity.

It is also worth knowing that some, if not all, of the “over-the-top” communications platforms will offer a “conference call” or “three-way call” function as part of their feature set, extending it to videocalls in at least the business-focused variants. This is where you could have multiple callers from different locations take part in the same conversation. Such setups would typically show the “other” callers as part of a multiple-picture “mosaic” on the screen. Here, the large screen can come in handy with seeing the multiple callers at once.

How is this achieved at the moment?

At the moment, these set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to allow for group videocalling and users would have to invoke screen-mirroring functionality on their mobile devices once they logically associate them with the video endpoint devices. Then they would have to position their mobile device on or in front of the TV so the other side can see your group, something which can be very precarious at times.

How could Apple, Google and co improve on this state of affairs?

Apple TV - Mirroring on - iPad

Should this still be the way to make group videocalls on your Apple TV or Chromecast?

Apple and Google could improve on their AirPlay and Chromecast platforms to provide an andio-video-data feed from the video peripheral to the mobile device using that peripheral. This would work in tandem with a companion Webcam/microphone accessory that can be installed on the TV and connected to the set-top device. For example, Apple could offer a Webcam for the latest generation Apple TV as an “MFi” accessory like they do with the game controllers that enable it to be a games console.

When users associate their mobile devices with a suitably-equipped Apple TV / Chromecast device that supports this enhancement, the communications apps on their phone detect the camera and microphone connected to the video peripheral. The user would then be able to see the camera offered as an alternative camera choice while they are engaged in a videocall, along with the microphone and TV speaker offered as a “speakerphone” option.

What will this entail?

It may require Apple and Google to write mobile endpoint software in to their iOS and Android operating systems to handle the return video feed and the existence of cameras connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast.

Similarly, the tvOS and Chromecast platforms will have to have extra endpoint software written for them while these devices would have to have hardware support for Webcam devices.

At the moment, the latest-generation Apple TV has a USB-C socket on it but this is just serving as a “service” port, but could be opened up as a peripheral port for wired MFi peripherals like a Webcam. Google uses a microUSB port on the Chromecast but this is primarily a power-supply and network-connection port. But they could, again, implement an “expansion module” that provides connectivity to a USB Webcam that is compliant to the USB Video and Audio device classes.

These situations could be answered through a subsequent hardware generation for each of the devices or, if the connections are software-addressable, a major-function firmware update could open up these connections for a camera.

As for application-level support, it may require that the extra camera connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast device be logically enumerated as another camera device by all smartphone apps that exploit the mobile phone’s cameras. The microphone in the camera and the TV’s speakers also would need to be enumerated as another communications-class audio device available to the communications apps. This kind of functionality could be implemented at operating-system level with very little work being asked of from third-party communications software developers.

User privacy can be assured through the same permissions-driven setup implemented in the platform’s app ecosystem that is implemented for access to the mobile device’s own camera and microphone. If users want to see this tightened, it could be feasible to require a separate permissions level for use of external cameras and audio-input devices. But users can simply physically disconnect the Webcam from the video peripheral device when they don’t intend to use it.

An alternative path for app-based connected-TV platforms

There is also an alternative path that smart-TV and set-top vendors could explore. Here, they could implement a universal network-based two-way video protocol that allows the smart TV or set-top device to serve as a large-screen video endpoint for the communications apps.

Similarly, a smart-TV / set-top applications platform could head down the path of using client-side applications that are focused for large-screen communications. This is in a similar vein to what was done for Skype by most smart-TV manufacturers, but the call-setup procedure can be simplified with the user operating their smartphone or tablet as the control surface for managing the call.

This could be invoked through techniques like DIAL (Discovery And Launch) that is used to permit mobile apps to discover large-screen “companion” apps on smart-TV or set-top devices in order to allow users to “throw” what they see on the mobile device to the large screen. As well, the connection to the user’s account could be managed through the use of a session-specific logical token established by the mobile device.

This concept can be taken further through the use of the TV screen as a display surface, typically for communications services’ messaging functions or to show incoming-call notifications.

Conclusion

What we still need to think of is to facilitate “dual-device” videocalling with the popular mobile platforms in order to simplify the task of establishing group videocalls using TVs and other large-screen display devices.

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