Exclusive: Special Report: Sky HD, future plans
Of primary interest is the upcoming HDTV service. Sky’s channels are likely to be either 720p or 1080i; the platform itself is entirely 50Hz. Sky has not yet made a final decision on which channels will be in which format but the general consensus is that movies look better in 1080i and sport looks better in 720p. Each channel will be one format or the other; they won’t be switching formats between programmes. The STB has an output option to allow you to set the output to Auto / 720p / 1080i, where the latter two force the output to be, for example, 720p - even if the source is 1080i (there will be no 576p option). If in Auto mode then a SD channel will be passed through in SD to the HDMI connection. All material will be in 50Hz, even live material from the US, which will be rate-converted and encoded in MPEG 4 by Sky before broadcast.
Of Sky’s channels, the movie channels (9 & 10) will be 100% HD sourced material. Sky One HD will be a simulcast of the main Sky One channel; some programming will be in HD and some will be up-converted SD (the true HD material will be marked with a voiceover and a small on screen logo at the beginning of the show). In addition HD programming will be marked in the EPG when you push the “info” button. Sky Sports HD will contain a mix of programming from all 4 Sky Sports channels, maximising the HD content that is available, and the rest of the schedule will be filled by upconverted SD content. Artsworld will be a simulcast channel with a mix of true HD and SD upconverted material. Discovery and National Geographic will offer a selection of HD material.
Sky say they have a very high standard for the High Definition broadcasts and are making sure that all the sources they offer are of the highest quality and that there is a sensible and easy-to-understand labelling to ensure that people know when they are getting an HD broadcast. In addition, as part of this quality assurance, when you have Sky HD installed Sky’s installers will check the configuration of the setup – including the state of the dish and LNB to ensure there are no problems. The installers will also make sure that users have their TVs correctly configured for HD and know where the HD channels are and how to get to them.
At the launch of the HD service, or shortly afterwards, Sky will be offering an Octo LNB for the mini dish so that individuals can have up to 4 Sky+ boxes (8 feeds). Initially to ensure that boxes and setups are working well Sky’s HD box will only be sold with installation but down the road that might change. There will be an HDMI cable with the HD service but not a SCART to ensure that people with HD setup use the HD connection.
There are no immediate plans for use of the Ethernet or SATA ports on the back of the Sky HD box – the Ethernet port will be potentially used for some future Broadband enabled application and the SATA port is designed to allow potential hard disk expansion in much the same way that the USB port on earlier Sky+ models was but has not been implemented as yet.
Also on the horizon is the much-discussed ability to push green during a trailer to record or set a programme reminder. This will be coming in the next few months and will work with both Sky+ and standard Sky boxes. My contact liked the idea of being able to push “green” to go to the planner but said that because green was being used for this function it would not work but the aim is for it to work like that.
Shortly after that expect remote booking to be available via SMS, Sky by Mobile and on the Web. The SMS version first requires you have your mobile registered with Sky. Once registered, you just send a short message like “24.Sky1.Sunday” and it will set the recording for Sky1 on Sunday; if you don’t give them enough information it send back its best 4 guesses and you can reply with 1 – 4 to select the option picked. The cost for the SMS service has not been announced but it will reflect what Sky are charged for the SMS back to you – to confirm a valid receipt of the recording of a valid programme. If you use Sky by Mobile you will see the full EPG like on your digibox and simply selecting the programme allows you the option to record it – there is no charge other than the data charge for using your phone to access the Sky Mobile site. The Web service will again give you the EPG or recommendations with a single button to select the recording. In all cases the system is a one-way process where Sky send the request to your digibox (as a high priority “kept” programme) but there is no return path or guarantee that someone at home does not delete it. It was demonstrated to me and when we went round to his office the 9pm episode of 24 had been set to record on his Sky+ box.
So, what else are Sky looking at for the future? The three things that are top of their list are the HD launch, which is coming soon; followed by integrated broadband applications - Sky’s purchase of Easynet is designed to allow lots of options in this area - and finally, use of the reserved partitioned disk space on the current range of Sky+ boxes.
Looking further into the future, Sky are going through a major overhaul of the user interface - both navigation and functionality - but that will be quite some time away. Things like the extended A-Z EPG listing are on this list for things to be deployed, as is improving the functionality of the 'search and scan' function (e.g. the “info” button providing information about programmes on other channels).
Sky have been using their HD kit since the start of this year’s Premiership season and are learning how to get the best out of the equipment, and more importantly, trying out various different settings for the compression equipment, which has gone through a number of software cycles in the last few months. In addition they have been installing HD cameras in the Sky Sports Studios and the picture quality is truly outstanding. Of course the rest of us will have to wait for Sky to announce the launch of the service to see it in action. He did suggest that when they are ready to release Sky HD the marketing will move up several notches from what they currently describe as none at all.
Unsurprisingly, there are still no details of price, availability, nor the size of the disk – though it has been set! Sky have ordered all the boxes that Thomson can manufacture so they are rather hoping users will snap up the service when it launches. Sky are still giving the impression there will be a lead time from the launch of the promotional campaign to the first deliveries so we still have a little time to wait and see before the HD service is launched.