Rory Cellan-Jones

Canvas and the connected home

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 12 Dec 08, 10:22 GMT

As a BBC veteran, I'm obviously not the best person to take a completely impartial view on the importance of Project Canvas.That's the plan outlined on Thursday by the BBC, ITV, and BT to co-operate on a common platform for IPTV - or, as an ITV statement put it rather more usefully, to "bring broadband and television together in one box". There are plenty of obstacles to be cleared - regulatory rows, technical teething troubles, standards snafus - before we start plugging a set-top box into our broadband and watching the iPlayer and other online video offerings on our televisions rather than on a computer.

But I think that this is an exciting development that could be an important step on the road to the connected home that technology gurus have been promising us for so long. Just one question - by the time the rough sketch of Canvas becomes the full picture, won't millions already be choosing different ways to pipe web content around their homes?

By chance, as Thursday's announcement was being made, I was in a house that is already wired for the future. We were filming at the home of Bill Thompson, top technology pundit and columnist on this site, as part of a report on the way we may all consume the media five years from now.

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By linking together his various computers and a games console over his wireless network, Bill has got himself just the kind of arrangement that a Canvas box may deliver in 2010 - and quite a bit more. At the heart of the set-up is a Mac mini computer and an Xbox 360 linked to a projector. They are also linked wirelessly to his main desktop computer and a PC.

We watched as Bill and his 16-year-old son Max put the system through its paces - selecting iPlayer programmes to stream onto the wall, watching YouTube videos, and using the Xbox 360 - not just to play games, but to store and play video previously downloaded to Bill's desktop computer. With a 20Mbps broadband line, it all seemed to work pretty smoothly - a slower internet connection might have struggled.

The result was extremely impressive - and it was clear that the home's old cathode ray tube television sat in the corner and got little use. For those who've already got a computer or two and a games console, this kind of set-up would not be that expensive or difficult to imitate. So will Canvas look a little bit tired by the time it arrives in 2010 - and will customers who've already got a computer capable of delivering IPTV to their television really want to buy what is in effect just another one?

Well, I'm going to stick my neck out and say "no" and "probably" to those two questions. For one thing, Canvas, if the partners do their work properly, should deliver the kind of cross-platform internet television experience that we've struggled to get until now. For another, there are still millions of people who do want to use the iPlayer but don't want the "computer" experience - all that fiddling around with settings and menus that installing any network requires. Freeview shepherded the large slice of the population who are not early adopters into the digital TV age and, if Canvas turns out to be simple and elegant, it can take those same people into the era of broadband television.

By the way, apologies for the standard of the video interview with Bill Thompson. It was shot by a rank amateur, using a £120 camera. It just goes to show that however much technology changes television, there's still a place for professionalism.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm of the opinion that now is the time for all out ISPs to come together and admit that they made a mistake. Admit that there is a last mile problem and start working out what we can do about it, a solution that is great value for customers and good value for ISPs.

    Without such an admission, all this technical innovation is in vane as without the appropriate infrastructure, none of the current innovations will be properly enjoyed.

    And if we do nothing, the problem will only get worse. The landscape of media consumption is changing and there is now or soon to be a generation of consumers who turn to IP based broadcast networks before they'll look towards the more traditional broadcast channels.

    Looking back over the last seven or so days, only around 20% of my TV viewing has been done sat in front of the television. With iPlayer et al and my SlingBox I really don't see much need for the television set anymore.

    As for Bill's set up - I love it. I've been thinking about a similar set up and now that the projectors and other hardware is inexpensive I doubt I'll be delaying much longer.

  • Comment number 2.

    The important common denominator for either option to work is the sixteen-year-old son!

  • Comment number 3.

    Connected home is where it's at. I have a PS3 (much better at streaming and DLNA than the 360), and a couple of Terratec Noxon2 audio recievers.

    It's all served up by PacketVideo TwonkyMedia server.

    Totally flawless playback of any content I throw at it, including HD streams.

  • Comment number 4.

    The BBC is a publicly funded organisation. A significant proportion of the country are not provided by BT with a sufficient quality service to be able to use this service. Neither is there any legal obligation on BT to do so, as they like to point out. Neither is it inevitable that without proper planning, services such as this will not degrade other core Internet Services.

    I agree with the BBC looking to make a profit to subsidize itself, providing it does not take "corporate sides" with a private company ( for example the rumours about the telegraph ), however I do not agree with it providing free services which the government does not care about providing to all.

    When the Government, BT, ISPs and broadcasters sit down and agree what they are going to do to provide a proper broadband solution then fine, until then let them concentrate on the broader manadate. Market forces do not ensure a good or efficient infrastucture on their own. If Mr Brown wants to spend on infastructure here is a chance for him to ensure that it boosts the Uk economy.

  • Comment number 5.

    I really think when you talk about the issue of in home media, you really do look very out of date.

    I mean, have you ever even hear of media portal and xbmc?

    With media portal the infrastructure is there for an amazing piece of free software that has the structure to be a complete home entertainment system. It just lacks 2 things, a way for people to download media legally, and a few more developers to help clean up around the edges.

    If you are happy to get your stuff by bit torrent (even if that means going out and buying the "legal" old fashioned dvd or cd), you can have all of your media on one box and some fairly cheap "players" dotted around the house linking up to the main server.

    It seems that most mainstream journalists are out of touch on this subject, and so when these systems come out they make it sound like they are groundbreaking, when in fact they are not really at all.

  • Comment number 6.

    Mr "ringsting-iom", I think you're missing the point. I wasn't suggesting - nor would Bill Thompson - that his setup is groundbreaking. Indeed, he says he could have done all this years ago. But faster broadband and better software of the kind that you describe is making it easier and more worthwhile.

    It is still far too complex, however, to appeal to the mass market. We've all been talking about the networked home for at least a decade ( the internet fridge anyone?) but it's still a minority interest. That may now be about to change.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think the main problem with this concept has to be connectivity around your house. I know people that struggle to figure out how to connect their Sky box, DVD recorder and tele together correctly. Asking them to set subnet masks, gateway and network addresses is just ridiculous. is everyone going to need an N+ certificate before they can buy one of these new boxes?

    What we need is a simpler method of setting up wi-fi that allows people to easily and securely pair devices, preferably with no more than 1-2 button presses.

  • Comment number 8.

    If i read this correctly then starting from the home and working back....

    The hardware exists and is probably already in a number of homes

    Content exists in a format that may not suit (VHS,DVD,mp3, avi's etc)

    Delivery infrastructure is sketchy. Perhaps large cities might have 20Mbps broadband but mine is 1Mbps at best and a fairly on/off relationship

    New, emphasis on new content, has yet to be standardised into a format suitable for delivery.

    To look at this simplistically commercial organisations are driving delivery of mainstream services which in essence already exist, albeit for enthusiasts. All at a very slow pace.

    Seems that the problem lies squarely with the back end providers and not in peoples homes and until these things are sorted out I see a duck on it's deathbed and a continuation of pirated material being swapped in the usual manner.

    ps. would love to use iplayer only I can't be bothered to wait 4 hours to download 30 minutes of low resolution repeats

  • Comment number 9.

    Such a shame my last 800 metres is aluminium and barely supports the 512/256 ADSL I run ont it. I'll have to wait for BT to put the FIOS into my house before I'll get the bandwidth to run the whizz-bang new stuff.

    So for TV I'm having to stick with Freeview from Hannington (which will be the last transmitter to go 100% digital) until BT get the go-ahead for fibre for the local loop.

    Even when the infrastructure is all in place I bet we still have a struggle to find the decent programmes that we'll want to watch (on demand programming may solve the schedule overlap problems we currently get). I'm convinced that more channels == lower quality.

  • Comment number 10.

    Looks like RJBrad forgot that we'll have to upgrade to IPv6 and then the subnetting and routing becomes a lot easier (totally invisible if we do it right). For example, my phone number can become my network id (the full number with the +44 prefix is unique Worldwide).

    For networked kit as a consumer product you can't expect folks to know what address range/subnet they're using. They'll want a plug'n'play (could be SIM based like a mobile phone) stuff that just works out of the box. (We don't have that today with IPv4 and NAT.)

  • Comment number 11.

    Like DougieLawson, we struggle. We get a nominal 512, and the reality is less. And we can't get Freeview, so I'll have to wait for FreeSat PVRs to be widely available (I'm NOT going to get digital TV which I can't record) - and as I live in a National Park I'll probably have to get consent to put up a satellite dish.

    What Bill can do with the content he can reach looks great, but I won't be holding my breath to put something similar in our house :-(

  • Comment number 12.

    Im happy with my set up of PC, wireless internet, and PS3.

    The PS3 connects to PC wirelessly, and uses free software such as TVersity to stream any content (music, video, images) from PC to PS3 on my TV.

    It also supports various video content which can be downloaded from the web.

    Youtube and other services are supported.

    If I want iPlayer I can now use the built in PS3 browser to view it.

    I prefer the all in one devices, dont want additional PC's, and projectors, its all too expensive.

  • Comment number 13.

    Nice set up @billt. I find that the biggest hurdle to enjoying any of these different modes of video consumption is not technology but money (it costs) and will.

    Money is an obstacle for many - and for this reason alone I hope Project Canvas is a success. A cheap, Freeview-like, box that can bridge TV and web for the mainstream will be essential.

    The other is the will to break out of traditional modes of viewing.
    I use, iPlayer, downloads, PVR etc but my wife would rather use linear TV.

  • Comment number 14.

    Re: DougieLawson This is from 2001 - [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] A more recent (and less academic) view from ICANN is available here - In 7 years we don;t seem to have gone very far as far as ipv6 is concerned. The reason is very simple - ISPs run on tiny margins. If they were to upgrade their gear to offer widespread ipv6 support they risk losing money. After all, how are they to recoup the expense? If they charge more for ipv6 connectivity then at best, customers stick with ip4, at worst they move to another ISP. Then there are the mass of customers that are happy to stick with what they've got until there is a reason to upgrade. To bring this back to home entertainment networks, no ipv6 = a nightmare for most people trying to set their gear up. Which means little take up. Which means no ipv6. Argh!

  • Comment number 15.

    Surprised no-one's yet mentioned the Apple TV - I could never understand why Steve Jobs described it as a hobby cos it's probably the best bit of kit I've ever bought. Sure it ties me into the iTunes infrastructure, but that's not a problem as with Elgato's EyeTV and Turbo 264 encoder on the upstairs desktop, TV and (ahem) 'other sources of content' are easily available ...

    The Apple TV user interface is a dream, it does optical sound out and hdmi, so tie it in with Arcam AV receiver, HDTV and Linn surround speakers .... and all I need now is a replacement sofa.

    I have V+ for iPlayer ... and internet browsing via an old laptop ...

  • Comment number 16.

    The problem is the content, once that is in a universal format that everything can play the rest will follow.

    Broadband does need improving, but if you download stuff first - and don't stream then even a slowish connection will be fairly reasonable.

    Is there any REAL reason I can download film X on a PS3 or film Y on a 360, but I can't do the opposite? Its all legalities and companies buying the rights to distribute. Imagine a world where a Samsung DVD player can play BBC programmes, but a Sony one could play ITV and Channel 4.

    Unfortunately for the media companies - the end user has decided that this isn't good enough. They want the content they want, now, on the devices they already have. They want to pay for it, quite often they can't because it hasn't been released here. So people go to the pirates.

    The end user is moving at lightspeed compared with the media companies. In the world of technology they are very far behind, moving at a glacial pace.

  • Comment number 17.

    iPlayer is already available on your home television... Virgin Media have provided this service for ages now! Take a look for yourselves :o)

  • Comment number 18.

    re: archplanman

    Also many modern LCD TVs (even cheap ones) come with PC Input sockets. All you need to do is connect the monitor cable and you're ready to go.

    I use it for iPlayer (and other OnDemand services) on my cheap £280 quid netbook. I simply plug the cable in, press Fn+F3 to switch the display from the netbook's LCD to the TV and press play on iPlayer (or WMP, or WinDVD or whatever).

    Simple, no fuss. No need for extra software to be installed. Just use the basic Windows display properties control panel. I'm sure its just as easy on Macs and Linux Boxes.

  • Comment number 19.

    I agree with archplanman. I get my telephone service from Virgin, which is normally priced, and for this I also get free cable tv, which includes the iPlayer and other tv highlights, such as archived series like Spooks, Life on Mars, Sopranos and loads of others.

  • Comment number 20.

    I watch iPlayer content at home on my projector. I have an unusual setup, as in I connect my laptop to the projector and use an Airport Express to wirelessly stream the audio to my hi-fi system. This avoids me having to run wires around my room (either permanently or temporarily while watching).

    The BBC doesn't support this, because they insist on using DRM. As people keep saying, people want their content on any device, and although my setup is relatively unusual, it'd suit a lot of people who hate wires!

    As it is, I have to download the iPhone versions and watch them, or download the content illegally.

    So, there's more to it than just providing a box that streams the content, a 'black box' like Canvas won't do what i need...

  • Comment number 21.

    Sorry, I think I did miss the point of the article a bit in my response.

    The biggest problem is definitely not ways of viewing as the choices are many, but it is the greedy copyright holders who are trying to squeeze the most out of the previous generations (DVD and Blu-Ray) before moving onto downloads (which in all probability will be the last one for a good long time).

    Canvas is definitely not a serious long term solution, but if it gets people to start thinking about changing their viewing habits, then it could be a step in the right direction.

    On the subject of bandwidth, why don't the media delivery companies consider compression like what is often used by pirates?

  • Comment number 22.

    I had an interesting exchange of emails with Bill T about this. I thought he had got a way of streaming the screen of his desktop computer to the projector, but he has not--it was the Mac Mini we saw with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

    I'd love to be able to control my desktop over the network from a big screen--at the moment there has to be a computer of some type (laptop, Apple TV, PC) physically connected by a video cable of some type to the screen which acts as the intermediary. I assume this will come!

    And as someone else says, all this fancy internet streaming of material is just pie in the sky for those of us out in the country with less than 1mbs connections about whom BT and the ISPs don't care!

  • Comment number 23.

    I had an interesting exchange of emails with Bill T about this. I thought he had got a way of streaming the screen of his desktop computer to the projector, but he has not: it was the Mac Mini we saw with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

    I'd love to be able to control my desktop over the network from a big screen: at the moment there has to be a computer of some type (laptop, Apple TV, PC) physically connected by a video cable of some type to the screen which acts as the intermediary. I assume this will come!

    And as someone else says, all this fancy internet streaming of material is just pie in the sky for those of us out in the country with less than 1mbs connections about whom BT and the ISPs don't care!

  • Comment number 24.

    @ nstrudwick

    My home pc is connected to an Flat Screen TV, Monitor and a Projector through normal cables you will find in any store!!

    Also just a 3Mbps line allows me to download video and audio content and program updates as well as play WoW while my brother is play his 360 online and my sister is on MSN and you can't tell the different between this and just one app on the internet.

    So why are people complaining so much that they need a faster line speed! most family home wouldn't even need to do that!

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm happy enough with Freeview and our tv/media is already as networked as far I want for now.

    I use the free mythtv on Linux. The main server (masterbackend in myth) is connected to the tv in the lounge. There are 3 dvb-t tv cards in this box. Additionally, both my desktop PC and my parents PC have tv cards installed so if needed, we could record 5 stations simultaniously. Addtionally, these PCs can do live tv, without affecting any scheduled recordings on the master backend.

    We can schedule and watch recording from any of these locations. Also, I can download CD's, DVD's, mp3s, jpegs, etc. onto the system and share the content between the 3 of us.

    It's difficult for me at the moment to imagine I'll want more.

  • Comment number 26.

    Why do we need a complicated system like Canvas anyway? In my previous accomodation we had Virgin Cable with the channel 4 on demand service - In practice all we ever watched was things on that service.

    In my new flat we only have terrestrial and freeview but I have a portable DVD player that can also play divx from discs and from usb sticks. Thus I can watch tv shows that I own on dvd with ease as well as having the ability (by ripping them to divx) to carry large amounts easily around the country.

    Whats more, downloaded content can be easily watched via the same method.

    There seems to be a culture towards wireless-ness for wireless' sake and streaming, there are few advantages to wireless systems outside of the obvious lack of wires and streaming data sources routinely overwhelm the communications network in this country - anyone who has tried to check their email at 6pm on a friday night can vouch for that!


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