Show Me The Way

The mid-nineties! We were in the process of building a revolutionary product. It was a Set-Top Box (STB) that would be capable of processing multiple input signals – two differently formatted digital TV signals broadcast via satellites; digital TV signals from local broadcasters at a time when the standards for such broadcasts (called ATSC) were being created, and as these broadcasts were going on to the air for the first time; and also traditional analog TV signals (called NTSC) from the local broadcasters. Yes, the product had to be able to tune to and process any one of the four different kinds of input signals based on what channel was being tuned to. The components of the hardware that was going to be used were brand new, and some of these components were still in the process of being developed. There were many unknowns, including a full understanding of how a system would operate with all of the components integrated on to a single platform. We also had to come up with a concept for a single integrated Program Guide for display to the customer that would encompass data from all the different kinds of inputs. And all the differently formatted video inputs from all the different input signals that we had to process had to be converted into every one of all the different output formats that the customers could possibly be using in their homes to view the content on their television set. It was a novel and complex exercise in overall system design for the times, and I had overall responsibility.

An army of workers went into action. There was a laboratory where we tested the system as it came together, feeding input signals for testing into our hardware, and outputting audio/video signals to the display devices of that time. These were the days before flat screen TVs. I still remember the original Sony 16:9 aspect ratio CRT Trinitron HDTVs that we used for testing. They were really heavy and bulky. I have a feeling I tore something and perhaps even got a hernia (which must have healed itself over time) lifting one of these behemoths on to the top shelf of a table in the lab.

Anyway, these were the days during which HDTV transmissions were still a novelty. DIRECTV’s HDTV broadcast included audio/video content that they were using primarily for testing purposes and for keeping the channel going continuously. And included in these test signals was the video of a live performance by Peter Frampton of a song I was familiar with. My memory is fading but I do believe it was the following video. (If you are a aging rocker like me, you know that you have to crank up the volume for this!)

This video became a part of the background soundtrack of my work life in those days. I think I might have even watched the video at home when I brought a STB home for testing. The family will surely remember if I did!

We did put a product out into the market at the end of the project. The product was far from perfect, including a critical aspect having to do with the heat being generated by the hardware components. In spite of its faults, the product did serve its purpose during the lifetime of its existence.

Sometimes I have to get into a particular state of mind to properly remember the pioneering aspects of some of the work that I was involved in in the industry in those days. It was thrilling, physically and mentally stressful, and exhausting! Of course, all of this technology is now a part of the mainstream and, dare I say, easier to deal with. Hardware and software for many of the functions that we implemented early on in bits and pieces are more integrated, and I suspect that people do not even have to understand the basics of how these packages work. And other things have changed. Operations of products and devices have been better rationalized and simplified, and also standardized, through many years of experience.

And there have been many more other changes in the industry, including perhaps as an ultimate step, the emergence of audio/video streaming via the Internet as a generic approach for mainstream content distribution. DIRECTV itself is now an endeavor that is in a state of decline.

I have to say that in my life I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to learn many new things, and to also participate in building a few new things.

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Kuriacose Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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