Time Warner Cable patents method for disabling ffwd on DVRs

US Patent 8,180,200.

If I'm reading this right, the idea is that when the MPEG stream comes down the cable line, they will strip out any keyframes inside commercials. So instead of your keyframe interval being under a second, it would be several minutes long. I guess the assumption here is that DVRs implement fast-forward by scanning ahead to the next keyframe, rather than by decoding the whole stream and just not displaying some decoded frames, and the lack of keyframes at regular intervals would screw it up. But wouldn't this have exactly the opposite effect to what's intended? Wouldn't it make ffwd immediately skip the entire commercial block while scanning for the next keyframe, instead of showing the commercial in high speed as it does now?

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19 Responses:

  1. ryanlrussell says:

    Yes.. please proceed with marking the commercials in the stream in some distinctive way.

  2. Vincent Janelle says:

    Only if they send a keyframe after ending the commercials, if they send one much later you'll skip through a bunch of time in the actual show you're watching, or send one before it ensuring you have to watch at least one.

  3. Different Jamie says:

    Funny that patents are now built on circumventing other patents. (no, I didn't look it up, no idea what the patent thicket on MPEG looks like.)

    Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if people actually made stuff, instead of suing each other. Then I realize I don't believe in god, and get back to work.

  4. Yeah, it really seems like they're doing it backwards. Anyway, it also seems 100% dead-end.

  5. Stephen Harris says:

    Umm.. "At this juncture, it should be noted that compression techniques other than MPEG-2 may be employed." - Well, they have to follow certain standards for the content to be cablecard compatible. This patent might work with closed systems such as DirecTV, but for a cableco that has to follow FCC standards they can't change transmission standards so easily (and the crappy external boxes needed for timewarner's puniverse offering... shudder at least that's just a tuning adapter and not a content decoder).

    So if the result _is_ just dropping key frames and extending the interpolation, then customers will run away in droves as errors accumulate for longer and pictures look crappier for longer. And it won't solve the problem 'cos processing power is so much better today that "30 second skip" by processing each and every intermediate frame is now actually feasible.

    This is neither innovative nor clever nor practical.

    • jwz says:

      This is neither innovative nor clever nor practical.

      Give them points for the audacious evil of it, though.

    • Ian says:

      "compression techniques other than MPEG-2 may be employed"

      You have to include that sort of crap in patent talk. If you wanted to patent a cat flap, you'd say that it could be used for 'any kind of furry animal'. The reason is that at some point, other compression techniques will be used, and you want to make sure that your (evil) patent covers them too.

      The classic example is one of the people with a patent on smart cards. He thought you'd need something with the bulk of a watch in order to have a small computer in them, but his patent included a phrase along the lines of 'obviously, you could fit them in other things too'.

    • nooj says:

      And it won't solve the problem 'cos processing power is so much better today that "30 second skip" by processing each and every intermediate frame is now actually feasible.

      'feasible,' sure, but will it be possible in the DVRs that they provide for their service?

      i'm going with vincent janelle up above.

  6. MattyJ says:

    DVR's? Those are still ... things? How medieval.

  7. Thomas Themel says:

    Of course. They patent the perfect ad-skipping technique so that they can sue anyone implementing it into oblivion. The title is either high-grade cynicism or some organizational miscommunication artifact.

  8. Nathan Roberts says:

    Wouldn't this also mean that, if someone changes to a channel in the middle of a commercial break, they won't get any video until the actual content resumes? (Keep in mind, flipping channels is a time-honored method of avoiding commercials.) Not that that's any great loss, but I think a lot of people would end up not watching, thinking something is broken.

  9. Edouard says:

    At a guess, having dealt with decoding mpeg-4 streams in the past, I'd assume that your DVR will try to jump ahead 30 seconds, which it can do because it knows what frame that is, and then will be faced with having to decode 30 seconds of video from the last key frame, which will take, say, 3 seconds. Then you will skip ahead another 30 seconds, and the DVR might continue decoding from the existing point, but will more likely decode from the last keyframe again. So either another 3 second wait, or a six 6 one. Repeat for the next six 30 seconds adverts. The end effect being that the skip-30 seconds button has been effectively broken to the point where you won't bother anymore, but just check twitter on your phone during the adverts. The cable company doesn't care what you're doing, as long as you aren't skipping the adverts.

    Try creating a video stream with keyframes 7200 apart (4 minutes of 30 fps video) and see what even a desktop video player does with that when you try to randomly skip around in the stream. It's a remote kill of all functionality of your player other than "play sequentially".

    • Zygo says:

      This was my first thought when reading this too. They've found a bug present in many DVR implementations, and they're gonna exploit it until they can't. Some DVD authoring software messes with the timestamp encoding so that seek buttons send the DVD player into a loop for an hour (assuming you have one that respects your wish to even try seeking) or land on some random part of the disk, usually one immediately before the end of the title you were watching.

      The solution is trivial, though--decode and reencode the video with proper keyframes, timestamps, and what not, and watch that video instead. Yes, this is expensive (but well within the capabilities of modern hardware) and lossy (but live TV is horribly transcoded anyway), but it lets your TV have features that were invented after 1970.

  10. Marten Veldthuis says:

    Wouldn't this also mean that tuning in (live) during the commercial break means that you have to stare at a blank screen until the TV decoder finally sees the keyframe at the end of the commercials?

  11. Janas says:

    This is completely backwards! I can’t help but think that it’s not coincidental that Time Warner Cable did this in the wake of Dish’s Auto Hop feature. I know it’s been a big deal in the media, but being that I work for Dish and I happen to watch too much TV, I’m elated that a company is giving me the choice to skip commercials. It’s smooth in transitioning from the start of a commercial break to the end of that break and right to my show, and it’s saving my fast-forward thumb from working too hard. I thought we were progressing forward, not backwards, Time Warner Cable.