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.

How I became friends with jimmy john (4/18/2008)

Inroduction – I have ended up digging deep into my past while creating this blog. It was supposed to be a simple re-post of an email I sent many years ago. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 2008. Life was very different at that time. This blog even takes me back to the early days of my career, before the email you are about to read was written. Here goes.

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There are two separate topics in this e-mail, and the second topic is more of a reflection on longer-term happenings in my life.  It would be perfectly understandable if you skipped this second part.
 
So here I was walking through the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in the Convention Center in Las Vegas, when I heard a shout “Hello, Malayalee anoo”?  (Hello, are you a Malayalee?) I turned to see this guy walking up to me.  He started talking to me in Malayalam with a heavy accent.  I was totally taken aback at being accosted in this manner in the middle of a convention center in Las Vegas.  The gentleman mentioned that he had seen my badge and recognized that the name must belong to a person from Kerala.  Very quickly, before I could even recover, he asked me where I was from, whom I worked for, how long I was going to be in Las Vegas, etc..  I had no clue who this person was, and did not understand why he was talking to me with such familiarity and asking all these questions.  He must have noticed a bewildered look on my face because he paused for a moment.   “Am I asking too many questions?”, he enquired.  I did not know what to say.  He then noted that the way he was asking me questions was the manner in which people broke the ice and started conversations in Kerala.  He said that he was from Toronto, and in my confused state of mind I heard the word Trivandrum instead.  I looked at his badge and it said jimmy john (just the way I have written it!).  Anyway, jimmy soon realized that I was not too much of a Malayalee (even though my parents are from Kerala), but that did not deter him from continuing the conversation.  We continued to talk in English for a while about our backgrounds and I became more comfortable with the conversation.  I suppose he was a simble (inside Malayalee joke!) person, and perhaps we could continue talking because I am also simble (hmm, maybe not that humble).  Turns out that he produces a show in Toronto called Malayala Shabtham and his production company is called CKTV, Canadian Kerala TV Productions.  He seems to know people and politicians in Canada, and he sounds like an enterprising fellow.  For all I know, he is a well-known person in certain circles.  Perhaps one or more of you may have heard his name.  Anyway, we exchanged cards and then parted ways.
 
Now, changing topics:  Later the same evening I went out for a dinner organized by a gentleman from DIRECTV named Bob Plummer.  Bob had been at the David Sarnoff Research Center while I was there and had moved directly to DIRECTV after that. (He is one of the folks who encouraged me to move to DIRECTV.)  He is a very senior person, has a lot of friends in the industry, and will be retiring this year.  He apparently has been organizing this dinner during the NAB for several years for his friends in the industry.  This time he invited me to the dinner so that I could get to know some of the folks, and I also met an old friend from Sarnoff, Joel Zdepski, who has now gone on become a Senior VP in a company called OpenTV.  In any case, the food was very good (and very expensive) and there was plenty of wine to drink.  At a particular moment during this whole affair, Bob walked into a conversation that I was having with somebody else and turned to the person and said something along the lines of – Kuria is one of those people who can actually get things to work.  My goodness, what a complement!  It is quite possible that the number of drinks that had been consumed at that point inspired the comment.  But it got me thinking after I got back to my hotel room later in the night (and this is where the humble part goes out the window!).  In the early years of my career I had worked on some really unique and challenging problems that were cutting edge, without really realizing the magnitude of what I was doing.  At Sarnoff, we were trying to design the first digital high-definition broadcast TV system in the world, and were implementing certain concepts for the first time.  Without really thinking too much about it, I came up with a unique solution to a particular system problem that we had, and, although I did not have any hardware experience, I got into the thick of things and actually helped in implementing the concept and making the darned thing work.  I was working on something that I had minimum expertise in, and something far removed from the topic of my graduate studies.  I depended a lot on intuition. I was also quite naive and did not even realize the complex nature of the problem I was taking on and solving.  But others did notice and remember! And it is staggering to realize that the things that we worked on at Sarnoff have now become the foundation of a gigantic worldwide digital TV industry.  Wow!
 
I had a few other such “Eureka” moments during the early part of my career, some of them at Hughes Network Systems, but I think none matched the magnitude of the work at Sarnoff.  I think I had a real problem-solving mentality that is typical of an Engineer, and this ability compensated for a lot of my other personality issues.  But the years have gone by since then and the reality of life has caught up.  It is now more about shouldering responsibilities and trying to make sure that one does not screw things up.  I do not have to solve difficult technical problems.  I am more careful. Everything is more mundane.  And I have to find other less risky roads to follow to push myself and experience the excitement of learning new things and challenging myself.  And, although one accepts where one is in life without any regrets, one wonders once in a while about what might have been if other routes in life had been followed and if more time had been spent earlier in life on developing other talents. It is probably true that one can waste a lifetime simply asking questions and not doing anything else. But at least on that one magical evening in Las Vegas (under the influence of alcohol, of course) I felt like I had done something unique and special, something that not just anybody could have done.  Is it all about feeding the ego?
 
There used to be an advertising line having to do with the Las Vegas tourism scene that stated – Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.  You can see that this is certainly not true with what has happened to me in Las Vegas during my last two trips.

Such is life.
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Today’s postscript – While looking for pictures of people who I worked with while at Sarnoff, I came upon this website with details about the project I was involved in at that time. You can even find pictures of me from my youth (at least four of them in the section about the “AD-HDTV System Integration at Sarnoff Field Lab”). My signature is on a document that we signed at the end of the project. I directly contributed to the specification document for this project. I was responsible for something called the priority processor.

I do not know how long this website will stay up, but I might as well make use of it while it lasts. This is certainly taking me down a memory lane.
https://www.glennreitmeier.tv/advanced-digital-hdtv-prototype
https://www.glennreitmeier.tv/advanced-digital-hdtv-prototype?lightbox=dataItem-jkrigr9z2