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The importance of fish in interactive TV development

  • Andrew Bowden
  • 1 Jul 08, 2:54 PM

More than once I've been met with bemused looks when someone finds out that I have a TV on my desk at work. I've never been completely sure why this should surprise people given that I work in Interactive Television! Televisions are hugely important when you work in this field - you do need to check what you're building and supporting after all!

And as BBCi now has four different services - Sky, Freeview, Virgin Media Cable and Freesat - that naturally means that each desk has a myriad of set top boxes on it, connected up to TVs via a myriad of cable. If you've ever had trouble connecting your TV to your DVD player, then you might like to imagine how much fun it is for me to connect four or five different set top boxes to the elderly 14" portable TV that sits next to my monitor.

Credit: Tarotastic

Of course, in order for them to work, every box needs a signal, so behind our desks are a tangle of white aerial cables which provide just that.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, it's not necessary to have separate cables for each platform - with the aid of a wonderful device called a duplexer, it's possible to combine a normal terrestrial TV signal into the same physical cable as a satellite feed - which means we can get Sky, Freeview, cable and analogue TV all in cable that can be plugged into any set top box.

Live TV signals being pumped to your desk is only part of the story. We also have two special TV signals which are piped round our part of the office - our DEV and QA feeds.

These are basically full on TV systems that are designed to run as close as possible to a live TV signal - the difference is that instead of being sent to a satellite or transmitter, they're piped round our office building instead.

The DEV signal provides our development area - this enables our development teams to build the code and test it on a proper set top box, instantly enabling them to see their results on screen.

Similarly the QA version is a dedicated area where the test team can check through what has been built, and check it works.

Each of these - Live (which is, for some unfathomable reason, called DIG), DEV and QA has their own separate cable, and each desk is equipped with four different cables which can be any combination of the three. For example, a software engineer will usually have two DEV feeds, one QA and one Live, whilst the test team will have two QA feeds instead. As a product manager, I tend to use live TV more, hence I have 2 live cables.

Of course there's never got enough feeds for doing whatever you want at any one time so swapping feeds between boxes is a necessity. To move a box between Live and QA or DEV means retuning the box as the channel lineup isn't the same on each feed!

When you do have your own internal TV feeds, you do of course need some pictures to put on them - the interactive applications need to work with audio and video after all. They do occasionally get hooked up to live output, but often they're playing looped video footage of a variety of sources - picked seemingly at random.

For example, our Freeview and Freesat DEV and QA feeds have a looped video of a fish swimming endlessly around the screen - occasionally pausing to gawp at the viewer. The fish is a long lasting veteran of the department, having been played out internally for the last ten years or so.

It's not all fish. Right now, our Cable development signal varies between a clip of Atomic Kitten on Top of the Pops Saturday, left over from when the team built an interactive service for the programme. And over on our Sky QA feed, it's a Halloween episode of Rainbow - complete with the title sequence.

Although which is better - Zippy, George and Bungle, or a manic looking red fish, is a question left to the reader...


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