Archives for March 2009

What's On BBC Red Button (28 March - 10 April)

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John Horth | 17:18 UK time, Friday, 27 March 2009

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Here's our fortnightly look at what's coming up under the red button...

BBC Sport Multiscreen

sportmultiscreenf1.jpg Catch up on all the latest sport via the BBC Sport multiscreen. Headlines are available around the clock with up to five additional streams available to cover the best that BBC Sport has to offer.

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Football scores and Freeview set top box issues

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 15:27 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

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Normally our services run without problems, however we've recently had two issues which some users will have noticed - one for football scores, the other relating to problems on some Freeview boxes.

Football Scores

The first was a problem with Football scores not updating correctly in our sport section.

The problem was inadvertently introduced as part of a change to one of our publishing systems.

Traditionally the sports scores and results data has been supplied by the same systems that publish Ceefax. However the process of converting the Ceefax pages to digital was often slow and prone to mistakes.

In order to improve the reliability and speed of the service, the sports feeds have been moved to a new XML based system which has given a huge speed improvement - previously updates to BBC Red Button could sometimes appear 20 minutes after the same update had appeared on Ceefax. This has now been reduced to seconds at most, and updates are now sometimes appearing on BBC Red Button before Ceefax.

There is still some reliance on the old system, as not all the scores come via the new XML process. It was a code error indavertantly introduced in the processing of data from the old system that resulted in the football scores not updating on screen.

When it was spotted on Saturday, an interim fix was deployed to ensure the scores updated properly. The same problem also occurred on Sunday, with the fix again being applied.

Our engineers have now deployed a permanent fix which should stop this particular problem happening again.

Freeview issues

The second problem occurred on Friday and saw a small number of Freeview boxes crash when tuning to a BBC channel - according to a thread on the Digital Spy forums, boxes made by Wharfdale, Tevion and Nichimen were amongst those affected.

When you tune to a BBC channel on Freeview, a hidden application is run in. This application adds the ability to press red to access BBC Red Button - there would be no way to do this otherwise.

A code change was made to the application last week, and it's this change that appears to have caused problem. As soon as we heard reports of boxes crashing, we reverted back to an earlier code version which we knew should work fine.

We're working to find out why these particular set top boxes didn't like the code change. We test all our changes extensively before launch in order to prevent such issues arising.

We also work very hard to ensure our code is completely standards compliant, which means it should work perfectly on any set top box or TV which carries the Digital Tick - this appears on digital equipment which has been tested and confirmed that it will work correctly during and after digital switchover.

There are hundreds of different Freeview boxes and TVs and because of this, it is not possible for us to test each and every one. We test on a large, representative sample of the boxes on the market, and unfortunately this did not include any of the affected boxes.

Red Button Arcade

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Mark Hatton Mark Hatton | 08:45 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

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The Red Button Arcade One in Ten project was borne out of a realisation that, whilst they're nowhere near as powerful as the average PC or modern games console, digital set-top boxes are considerably more powerful than classic home computers such as the BBC Micro. As such they should achieve comparable or better performance when running video games.

In my youth I spent countless hours writing games on my Acorn Electron, a BBC Micro compatible machine. I was really quite young, so the games I wrote were not very sophisticated. Normally they were text adventure games with occasional graphical elements, all written in the BASIC programming language.

Because the games were written in BASIC, they were "sandboxed" within the BASIC run-time environment. That is, they could not interact directly with the computer's hardware; instead they solely interfaced with the BASIC run-time. This had a performance penalty.

The Red Button Arcade project aimed to deliver concept games that ran on the Freeview platform. Freeview set-top boxes have a run-time environment in them called MHEG. The entire BBC Red Button Freeview interactive service uses MHEG, this gives an example of its power. However, MHEG is to set-top boxes as BASIC was to the BBC Micro - it sandboxes applications and denies direct interaction with hardware.

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Making matters worse, MHEG was certainly not designed with video games in mind. Much needed trigonometric functions like sine and cosine are absent. Further, MHEG does not provide a data type for storing decimal numbers - integers (whole numbers) are the only kind supported. And, frightening to most software engineers, MHEG does not allow data elements to be held in arrays or programmer-defined data structures, which greatly simplify programming.

Against the odds, three games were written during the Red Button Arcade project. I'll attempt to describe each of these games here as well as the challenges in implementing them in MHEG. These games are concept work only and are not publicly available.

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Flight Arrivals and Weather

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Farah Fahmy Farah Fahmy | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 20 March 2009

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Last week, a viewer made the following query: "When I access the flight arrivals screen, the picture changes from that which was on television to a rolling weather forecast. Why is this? Why would I want to know about the weather?"

This happens when using BBC Red Button on Sky, and there is actually a technical reason behind these seemingly unconnected pieces of content. But before I get into that let me explain how our channels, extra video content and text allocation are set up for the Red Button service on digital satellite.

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BBC Red Button in the Freeview EPG

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 16 March 2009

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In our What's On post on Wednesday, we mentioned that one of the comments heard regularly is that people don't always know about some of the content we have on the red button.

As well as our What's On posts, there's schedules for our Sport and Music services, available on the BBC website.

And if you've got Freeview, there's now another another way as you'll now find BBC Red Button entries in the electronic programme guide on channels 301 and 302.

Channels 301 and 302 are the two channels we use to broadcast our video based services, like Sport Multiscreen, CBBC extra and music concerts, and technically they act and behave as any normal TV channel would - and that means we can put programme information for them in the EPG.

This data hasn't traditionally been held in the BBC's normal schedule database, hence it hasn't been available before.

Getting the data isn't as simple as it would be for a normal TV channel. Our schedulers often schedule long blocks of content that is then repeatedly looped over a number of hours - for example, the Sport News Loop in our Sport section (page 300) is usually scheduled in six hour blocks, whilst the video is a couple of minutes long. As the loop can also vary in length, the schedulers don't normally know in advance when each instance will begin and end, which means breaking down the six hour block is not easy.

On the other hand some items like Five Live's 606 - which is broadcast under the red button every Wednesday night from 10pm - are on for just an hour and a half and are therefore much easier to work with!

At the moment, only Sport content is featured, although the aim is to extend the listings for non-Sport services in time once we have the relevant data plugged into our scheduling systems.

We're also currently only able to offer the information on Freeview, although we are looking at how we can provide similar data on other platforms.

What's On BBC Red Button (9-27 March)

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John Horth | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

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Every fortnight we have an internal newsletter which highlights the content coming up on BBC Red Button. And as one of the comments we hear regularly is that many people don't know about some of the content we have on the red button.

As a trial we decided to publish the edition for 9 - 27 March. Let us know what you think using the comments box below.

Red Nose Day '09

Once again Sky viewers will be able to use their remote controls to make a donation to Comic Relief. Since 2001, BBC audiences have used the Red Button to raise £8.5m for charitable causes.

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Welcome to Press Red!

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 11:39 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

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Hello.  You made it over here then!

Welcome then to Press Red - the new name for BBCi Labs.  The name change is reflects the fact that the BBCi name is no more, having been replaced by BBC Red Button.

The name "Red Button" was chosen because research showed that was what many of our users called the service when using it - prompted no doubt by the fact you're prompted (ahem) to "press red".

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Although we're now called BBC Red Button, the service on air is simply branded with the BBC blocks, in line with BBC Online and BBC Mobile.

We started replacing the logos throughout the red button service since last summer, with the work only recently being completed.

In total, 77 logos had to be replaced.  Just two of those were on Freesat - a black version and a white version.  Freeview had a few more - 13 to be precise - whilst on Sky we needed to replace 20.

However the real winner for changes was on our Virgin Media service, which, for various reasons, needed 42 BBCi logos replacing with the new i-less version.   21 of these were related to our radio services on the platform - one for every radio station.  

In the end, the last real bastion of BBCi turned out to be this blog and as part of that we needed to change the web address of the blog.  Unfortunately we weren't able to provide an automatic redirect from the old blog to the new one.  It was also not possible to import all the old comments over, although we'll be working to copy the comments into the new blog as and when we can.

All of which reminds me of a conversation I once had on the Points of View message board where I told a correspondent that something on the red button service was hard coded, only for them to say "But it's digital!  It should be easy!"

If only that was always the case!

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