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BBCi On Freesat

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 06:30 UK time, Friday, 9 May 2008

So you've got to get as much of the BBCi service completed as possible...
...it needs to be ready for an unknown date in Spring 2008...
...the hardware it needs to run on is just in the specification stage...
...and it's a highly important project that lots of people are watching.

Well, the job of helping to launch the BBC's interactive TV services on the new Freesat platform wasn't sold to me in quite those terms eight months ago (although I think the term "exciting challenge" was used somewhere...).

But those words do sum up the reality of building BBCi on the first new digital TV platform in seven years.

As Senior Producer, working within the FM&T TV Platforms team, I realised the scale of the task in hand, but with the stirring words of Managing Editor, John Denton, ringing in my ears (maybe it was John who said "exciting challenge"?), the team got on with facing the many challenges ahead.

One of the biggest was improving the user experience. BBCi has grown a lot since it first became available to OnDigital users nine years ago. The full service covers a range of text- and video-based services - from reading the news headlines for your area through to choosing your court at Wimbledon - and it now reaches 11 million viewers a week. With Freesat offering HD and more and more people buying big screen TVs, we needed to make sure the new service looked its best.

freesat_bbci_sport.jpg

Not surprisingly, we weren't able to build everything for Freesat in the little time we had available. If you own a Freesat set-top box and press red on a BBC channel you will notice that things are a little cut down. The service consists of News, Sport, Entertainment, Business and Community News. The Weather service will be available mid-May.

An enormous amount of work has gone on behind the scenes just to get the basic service working.

Freesat actually uses the same satellites that are used to broadcast Sky's services; in fact, the video is the same in both cases. But when it comes to interactive services, the two use incompatible technologies. On Sky, we build in OpenTV, while Freesat uses MHEG - which means that we couldn't just re-use the existing code that we'd built for our Sky service.

So, we had to build something new. Thankfully, our technical team know a bit about MHEG. It's used to power interactive services on Freeview, and this did help us. While technical differences between Freeview and Freesat meant that we couldn't simply re-use our Freeview code, our technical team could re-use code in some areas.

As with any codebase which has grown up over nine years, there were many areas which could be improved on, and the chance was taken to make some improvements which, while slightly slowing development down in the short term, would give us a huge benefits in the long term - enabling us to roll out future releases quicker and simpler than we'd been able to in the past.

One of those improvements was the use of Redhat Package Manager (RPM) to deploy our code to the live servers. (For those who aren't Linux users, RPMs are used to install, remove or update programmes on many Linux distributions.)

For many years, we've used a variety of deployment methods from interactive scripts, through to simply giving the deployment team a great big list of commands to execute - for big projects it would often take a day or two to complete the installation. The new RPM method, which we've been increasingly using on a number of projects recently, simplifies things enormously.

Another improvement we have introduced is automated testing, and Freesat is the first BBCi platform to be completely tested in this way. Our test team has written something like 3,000 different tests which are run every time a member of the technical team checks code into the code repository. Very quickly, it's possible to see whether a code change has accidentally broken something else in the service.

The automated tests cover all number of things, from checking all the colours used on screen, making sure that pressing the yellow button always takes you back, and that menus all work correctly. They complement the manual testing by our test team, and help ensure preventable bugs are rarely seen. And not just for this project team - the suite of tests developed will be used for years to come.

freesat_set_top_box.jpg

One of our biggest problems on the project, though, was simply down to hardware. The project started in September 2007 at a point when there were no Freesat set-top boxes available. The code, written on normal PCs, is played out internally. We have development TV environments for all our platforms, allowing the team to view and test code on a normal set-top box and TV.

However with the lack of top boxes, we had nothing to test the code against. Instead we used a number of "reference receivers". These are basically specially-made Linux PCs in a slimline desktop case with TV cards, infrared receivers and remote controls. Installed on the hard drive was a copy of the software used to display MHEG that will be used in the normal set-top boxes.

While the reference receivers weren't perfect, when we did test the new code on proper set-top boxes, we were pleasantly surprised at how few problems were found with what had been written.

The project wasn't purely technical, however. At the same time, we also took the opportunity to give BBCi a "lick of paint", with a new, lighter colour scheme, and a number of little enhancements including a new "scrollbar" which indicate how many pages of text there are in a story or on a table.

While the launch may have happened, there's still a lot more to be done - adding the News Multiscreen, Travel, Children's services and more. First up on the blocks will be the BBC's interactive service for this year's Olympics: the starting gun has already been fired and the team is on the way.

And if you've already got Freesat, or if you're just about to get it installed, do press red and let me know what you think.

Andrew Bowden is Senior Producer, TV Platforms Team, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Thankyou for your very interesting article I have only recently discovered this blog. It is interesting to see how Linux is being used more and more in such a wide range of applications.

    Your decision to make interactive services platform neutral is highly commendable. Unfortunately this is not the case with ITV which has choosen to use your interactive service as form of encryption to prevent access to ITV HD from FTA or Sky boxes. I do hope that the BBC will bring try to get ITV to change thier policy on this.

  • Comment number 2.

    Why are you still making interactive services with graphics designed for a 4:3 aspect ratio?

  • Comment number 3.

    Apologies to anyone who doesn't have a detailed knowledge of TV aspect ratios :)

    The world of interactive applications and aspect ratios is a whole minefield of problems and our designers have had more than a few debates on it.

    What the designers normally do therefore is to design the actual graphics to be in 14:9 so that they don't look quite right in 16:9 and they don't look quite right in 4:3! It's a bit of a compromise.

    Looking at the screenshots now it looks like this time the graphics might be in 4:3 rather than 14:9 - I'll check with our designers on Monday. However the screenshots here are actually from the designer's original designs and I don't yet have my own Freesat set top box at home to check on.

  • Comment number 4.

    Does the new MHEG for Freesat take advantage of the improvements in STB and display technology to offer a higher resolution service on setups with these capabilities or is it stuck in the SD domain?

  • Comment number 5.

    The Freesat MHEG profile does have HD options for (if I have remembered correctly) both 720p and 1080i - for use with HD set top boxes. However at this stage, we've just concentrated on providing a SD service that can be viewable by all.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think that the only issue will be stock, working for one of the very few retailers selling them (Currys.digital) we sold out of the boxes with in an hour of having them last week. And with customer asking for them all of the time i think free sat could over take both freeview and may be one day sky. And the feed back from 2 customers that came right back after selling them to tell us that the picture etc the best they had ever seen, Now i just wait to have a play on one when we have a few spare ones in stock!! and take a look at the "red button" and EPG work you have done :-)

  • Comment number 7.

    @jamcamuk: I think it's quite possible that Freesat will take over from Freeview as the principal means of receiving subscription-free TV in the UK, but much will depend on the forthcoming trials of HD on Freeview. What I've seen so far suggests that Ofcom has devised an extremely messy compromise, as a fig leaf to cover their indefensible decision to flog off the analogue spectrum post switch-off rather than simply reallocating it to HD Freeview broadcasts.

    What they are proposing will never result in a full range of terrestrial HD services. It's the 21st century equivalent of insisting that some TV channels will never be allowed to upgrade to 625 line, UHF colour broadcast from 405 line, mono VHF. Utterly ludicrous.

    If the regulatory regime in this country is such that the bandwidth necessary to do proper HD on terrestrial broadcasts will never be available, then the effect will be to push the UK into becoming a place where it is normal to use a dish, rather than a directional UHF aerial, to receive TV pictures.

    I already live in an area with very poor UHF reception and little chance of getting the full Freeview SD line-up even after analogue switch-off, so we took the decision years ago to have a dish on our roof instead of a 'traditional' aerial, and it's not so bad, except for the inconvenience of not being able to tape one programme and watch another (without paying Sky, of course). Now, thanks to Freesat, I can ditch my Freesat-from-Sky box and get my TV viewing back on a similar footing to where it was before the digital 'revolution' started trying to tell me what I could and couldn't do with my TV and my video recorder.

    I'm glad to see that the BBCi team are hard at work so that when we get our first Freesat kit - hopefully this Christmas - it will all be up and running. Can't wait!

  • Comment number 8.

    Following up from comment 3, the Freesat graphics have actually been done in 14:9 - the way to tell is that in 4:3 the square BBC logos are slightly taller and in 16:9 they're slightly fatter. But not (hopefully) enough for most people to notice!

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Andrew

    Nice to see the service running at launch and I appreciate that things are going on 'behind the scenes' however you did ask for comments..

    Great service to get us going but my gripe is that unlike BBCi on Sky, Freeview etc there are far too many presses of yellow to back up.

    eg I go to News (102) and choose UK, then look through 5/6 pages of headlines but when I press yellow to get back to UK, World, Politics etc I go back through pages 5,4,3,2,1 then to 102. I already know what's on these pages so don't need to see them again. We've already got 'Previous / next' buttons for this task if necessary.

    Nothing major but still a niggle. Keep up the good work with the rest of the rebuild.

    Cheers

    S

  • Comment number 10.

    Hello Sooteee - can I ask you a couple of questions?

    Firstly, whiich set top box are you using (manufacturer and whether it's HD or not)?

    Second one is how are you changing between stories - I presume you're using the left and right buttons, rather than pressing back then selecting it from a menu, but would just like to make sure.

    And the third is, are you always pressing yellow to go back, or are you using the back key on the remote?


    The reason I ask is that what should be happening is that when you press back/yellow, the stories you've already read should be skipped - you should go back straight to the UK News (or whatever) menu.

    It's all working correctly when I try it, however there could be a bug that has been missed, so obviously if there is, I'd like to track it down and get it fixed.

    Thanks

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Andrew,

    I'm Using a Humax Foxsat HD box. Normally i'll use left / right to switch stories but have been known to press yellow/back to get to the headline page.

    I use yellow on remote not the remote 'back' button. I tested this again last night and had the same experience in the news and sports sections.

    I know that on my freeview and Sky it does what you say and goes back to the menu, but not on the Humax box.

    Also I tested it by going through 6 pages of headlines on UK then using 'previous ' at the top of each page to get back to page 1, then pressed 'yellow / back' and it remembered all pages so I went back through pages 2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1,menu!

    Hope this helps you out any more queries let me know and I'll gladly help out.

    Steve

  • Comment number 12.

    Can you do me another favour - can you press the menu button, scroll down to the bottom and select Diagnostics and tell me what the Software Version and System ID are?

    We've got a couple of the Humax Foxsat HD's here, and they're all working exactly as we'd expect so this is rather confusing!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi again.

    Software Version - HZPTSF 1.00.04
    Loader - U7.22
    System ID - 35F1.000

    Just tried a full system reset (just in case) anyway after restarting, rescanning etc the news pages are still playing up.

    I am going to start a thread on DigitalSpy and ask the members for their experiences, so that may shed some light on it. I'll report back with the feedback and link later.

    Steve

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi again

    DigitalSpy link is

    http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=796018

    I'll see what people post in.

    Steve

  • Comment number 15.

    We have not had any boxes back or customer issues as of yet, But i do wish we had more stock we could sell 10-20 a day but stock is so slow coming in from Humax etc, Does the BBC know how many have signed up for the service in week 1?

  • Comment number 16.

    @IanPtv

    Support for HD MHEG has been thought about for Freesat. The difficulty is supporting both SD and HD services without broadcasting two versions of the service. You could liken it to the aspect ratio problem discussed in this comment thread.

    Whilst I can't remember the exact details of how HD displays are accommodated I can tell you a lot of work went into providing the best viewer experience possible within the constraints.

  • Comment number 17.

    Steve - they're exactly the same as our Humax boxes which means, I'm afraid, you've got us completely flumuxed. Would be good to hear from anyone else who is seeing the same problem - will keep my eye on Digital Spy as well.


    jamcamuk - I haven't heard anything about sales figures myself (I'd like to hear), however it's still early days and I'm sure the something will be said in due course.

  • Comment number 18.

    Andrew

    Just try this sequence to see what happens, BBCi>102 News>UK then select 'More' at the bottom of each page to flick through the headlines without going into a story, then when at the last page with 'UK papers' (usually) as the last item press yellow to go back.

    See if you go back to the section select page (102) or back through the previously viewed pages.

    I would expect to go back to 102 but I re-visit each page of headlines in reverse order.

    If your boxes go to 102 then it's just me, typical!

    Steve

  • Comment number 19.

    Oh right! I'm with you now. You're talking about going through the different menu sub-pages - when I first read your post, I thought you were going through each of the individual story pages one at a time, which was really confusing me!

    I totally agree that going back through the menu sub-pages isn't perfect. The logic behind it is surprisingly complicated, and we unfortunately we didn't have time to pefect it for launch. Bringing it inline with the way it works on Sky is on our list of things to do down the line, however it might be a while away I'm afraid.

  • Comment number 20.

    Hi Andrew

    Glad we got there in the end, it's not just me then.

    I look forward to the functionality and other exciting stuff that is coming our way.

    Thanks for you help with this one and good luck to you and the rest of the team for the coming months with the continuing improvements to the service.

    I'll be in touch soon no doubt, when I spot something! ;-)

    regards

    Steve

  • Comment number 21.

    Andrew, sootee ... get a room, dudes!

  • Comment number 22.

    @ Christownsend

    We've finished now! ;-)

    You can have it back!

  • Comment number 23.

    i Have now been able today to have a play with the red button bits on freesat via the HD box, and i think it's far better than on sky and it does seem to work a bit faster (that might just be me) we have had it up on both the freesat feed and the sky feed at the same time.

    The EPG is real good as well far better than that of SKY and the feed back just today after set up is real good. Do you have any tips for us to show off the service and make them customers happy!!:-)

    Also do you think the BBC could maybe update the HD Feed in in the day as we use this as a demo channel in store to show off the HD and it's now getting a bit old! It's all still a bit freesat mad on the high street and it looks like the stock is now (for now) getting better!!

  • Comment number 24.

    "...if you've already got Freesat, or if you're just about to get it installed, do press red and let me know what you think"

    Put simply, where is BBC Sports interactive? I have just installed my SD freesat box. When I press the red button there is no option for BBC Sports Interactive. On freeview and on freesatfromsky friends and relatives have been watching the french open tennis via the red button. This choice just isn't appearing. I am really disappointed.

    When will this situation change? When I chose freesat I was expecting the red button to behave the same as it does on freeview. It doesn't. I am not interested in HD or dazzling new features. All I wanted was for a minimum of what friends with freeview (and freesatfromsky) get.

    Will wimbledon be on the red button? (i.e. choose a court - like what happens when using freeview)?

    From reading your blog it appears that maybe the olympics will be available. Is that it?

    I should explain that my disappointment stems from feeling misled. The freesat website "What's on" section lists BBCi as being available. When I clicked the link for BBCi info from the freesat website the page it links to lists BBC Sport interactive as a feature. Now I find that having spent the money BBC Sports Interactive isn't there. My wife wanted freesatfromsky, but I assured her freesat would be the best choice. Do I now have to tell her that the extended Wimbledon coverage she thought she'd be able to get won't happen? Will I have to buy a sky box in time for wimbledon?

  • Comment number 25.

    Come on Andrew - a marriage might be at stake here. We can't have Mrs freesat_sports_fan being proven right!


    Also, any chance of some more screencaps of the BBCi service on Freesat - and will this look be implemented elsewhere.

    I notice BBC Sport on Freeview has now changed to a grey colour scheme - not too sure about it myself. The full screen pages look OK with the yellow bar down the side, but the others with the picture in view look a bit unfinished.

  • Comment number 26.

    Mrs freesat_sports_fan, on reflection, cannot bear the thought of Murdoch kit in the house and will instead take the simple and reasonable step of buying a house in a freeview area for the duration of wimbledon and moving back again afterwards, so marriage not at risk. I have had to eat some humble pie though :-)

    Seriously, though, I think my grumble is more for the folks at freesat than Andrew. I've noted the severe time restrictions imposed; I work in software industry myself and know the apparantly simple is often far from that.

    I phoned the freesat contact centre but they said "Freesat can't tell us what Sports interactive content will appear or when but it will be soon." So, my grumbles are: (1) "freesat" contact centre aren't really freesat employees and can only spout whatever vague info freesat decide to give them (no easy access to people like Andrew who really know what's what.). (2) Better information on this blog than freesat are willing to give (ie nothing before the Olympics then more later). (3) Their website not accurate - they should manage expectations by being very clear about "available now / later".

    So, Andrew, my comments: Weather maps showed symbols against a grey background, but no map or place names visible. We had to guess whether our area had a sun or a cloud over it. There was no traffic news. Otherwise layout and menu control pretty good and seemed to be pretty fast (compared to freesatfromsky).

    I must say we think the sports interactive we've seen on freeview is brilliant (best thing since Listen Again for radio 4) so we're really looking forward to what, hopefully, will be an even better service, once you've got everything sorted.

    If you could slip in a few overtime hours to get wimbledon up and running though, Mrs freesat_sports_fan would be grateful. ;-)

  • Comment number 27.

    Sorry for the delay in replying - I'd forgotten to check for additional comments!

    Unfortunately we have a huge backlog of work in order to bring Freesat up to speed with our services on Sky and Freeview. We're working through as fast as we can, however it does take time I'm afraid.

    On the Sports Interactive, we're in the process of building it right now, and it will be ready for the Olympics - we've passed that information on to the Freesat call centres as well, so people are hopefully now getting told that information.

    Travel - I can't tell you exactly when that will appear at this stage, because we're still working out the next stages of the project.

    On the weather maps, we know there's an issue on the Bush SD set top box, so if you have that set top box, that's why you're not seeing the maps. Bush have a fix which they're hoping to release soon apparently - they'd be able to tell you more.

    Phew. Hopefully that answers everything for now. And thanks to one of my colleagues for proding me to come back here!

 

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