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VIERA CAST got a head start on the move toward IPTV in 2008 and created some major waves in the industry. The following two years saw the VIERA CAST functions and services evolve into an exciting new dimension - and this led to the creation of VIERA Connect. However, the development engineers found themselves in an area without precedents, and pushed forward largely by intuition and trial-and-error. As they worked to harness the untapped potential of TV, they proceeded step by step in an unfamiliar world, guided only by their own ideas and values.
It really began with a discussion of what kind of value could be added to TV, from our view as a manufacturer looking at the state of the TV industry in North America.
It was 2007, and most of the homes in North America were already using cable TV. Together, cable TV and satellite broadcasting accounted for about 80% of the industry. As a result, the value provided by the TV's basic function of "receiving and displaying broadcasts" was becoming relatively small.
An awareness that things were going to get tough if we didn't break through the conventional boundary of simply displaying TV broadcasts was really the starting point.
Well, we kind of went back and forth with our North American staff, as nothing really seemed to be an ideal fit, and we also had to keep our eyes on the technical background. In other words, it wasn't easy to arrive at a conclusion. Finally an idea with considerable impact hit us all. We realized that it would be fun to be able to watch YouTube™, which was very popular at the time, on a large-screen TV in the living room.
As we were throwing this idea around, the decision was made to announce its development in Panasonic's key note speech at the International CES in January 2008.
But that meant we had to get started, and that's when we really got going.
It sure was. That was about the time that Toshiyuki Tanaka joined the team, and we started using the time lag between our Japanese and US development centers to our advantage.
I was suddenly given the task of producing a trial design for the home screen (the screen with the main VIERA CAST/VIERA Connect menu), which had started in advance of the other development points. It all began when a team member said, "We want to put this into the TV. How can we do it?"
We'd come to work every day to find prototypes of a program developed on a PC by the American staff and sent the night before, and we'd immediately start putting it into a program that could be installed in a TV.
The normal procedure is to finalize the specs and then start programming. But we had to place the priority on speed. The prototypes that arrived each morning from the US served as our "specs." It was like playing a game of catchball, with the design and mounting work flying back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.
As you'd expect, the idea of being able to watch YouTube™ on a large-screen TV was a hit.
Yes, it was exactly what we were aiming for, but it also meant the beginning of the next struggle - which was a battle to meet the timing for the actual release.
However, unlike producing the TV itself, which is something tangible, we were creating IPTV functions. That difference helped us a bit time-wise.
That's right. Because we were dealing with a cloud service, which is basically software, it was different from an ordinary product where the level of perfection is essential when you hand it to the customer. One of the unique and wonderful things about IPTV development is that you can continue to make improvements over the network as time goes on.
Ordinarily, the timing for completing the software that goes into a product and moving on to the next stage is set by calculating backward from the product's release. But we had to finish just before the actual products would hit the store shelves. During that time, we were busy making improvements to the servers that provide the services, so that the customer would find the TV to be easy to use the instant that it was connected to the network.
Within the last two years, other brands have also released TVs that use IPTV functions as sales points, and we've been working to further expand our line-up of VIERA apps.
At the starting point, we only had about five apps, but as of August 2011, the number has grown to over 100 apps globally.
Concretely speaking, we have a number of game apps that have the same level of quality as dedicated game consoles, like the MLB and NBA - killer content for the North American market. We've also exceeded the conventional limitations of TVs with some highly unique apps. For example, one of our apps lets you manage your physical fitness right on the TV screen by using the wireless signal from a Body Monitoring Armband.
With all of these apps to choose from, it became clear that this function had far exceeded the one-way broadcasting image that the name "CAST" conveyed, so the VIERA Connect name evolved together with the content.
Well, the servers for the content providers, for both YouTube™ and Amazon Video on Demand (Amazon Instant Video™), have difficulty receiving data from a TV. It's important, though, that the customer watching the TV does not feel any delays or jerkiness caused by this kind of data issue. We worked very hard to make it a smooth process.
Other-brand IPTVs also face the same problem. In one example, the TV takes 30 seconds or so to check the communications bandwidth, then produces images that match the lowest communication speed in order to prevent screen delays. This means the user has to sit there and wait until the image finally appears on the screen. With VIERA Connect, the image appears very quickly. If you compared the two, I think you'd be surprised at the difference.
Speaking of comfortable use, we thoroughly researched ways to display the home screen so it would appear quickly. We built in some very detailed techniques to make sure that the user isn't kept waiting.
As functions continue to increase, it's important that the images do not become slow and heavy. That's a difficult thing. As an engineer, it's an interesting challenge.
I guess it would be the introduction of Skype™ in 2011. The difficulty of using a TV to achieve a telephone service was more than we had imagined. Some people might point out that this kind of service is pretty routine for a PC, but believe me, it's entirely different for a TV.
With a PC, you speak at a distance of about 30 to 40 cm from the screen, so the microphone has no trouble picking up the sound. The other person's voice coming through the speakers is also not that loud, so it's easy to cancel echoes.
With a TV, the distance from the user to the screen immediately jumps by a factor of 10 times. If you raise the mic performance, you pick up all kinds of unnecessary sounds that have to be cancelled. And you have to do all of this processing within an amount of time that won't make the user feel any unnatural delay.
We all had to totally relearn acoustic theory as we searched for answers.
Nonetheless, we made it over that hurdle and we even created a unique user interface design that preserved the natural Skype™ feeling. We were overjoyed when the Skype™ folks praised our system, including the user interface.
Unlike an ordinary product, VIERA Connect doesn't have a shape that you can actually touch. I guess you could say that the user interface serves that purpose. This was the result of Mr. Tanaka's considerable efforts.
Since this was an unprecedented service, the user interface was also unprecedented. Let me describe the concept that we inherited from the days of VIERA CAST while looking at an actual home screen.
Mr. Tanaka pretty much insisted that we use this screen layout.
Yes. The conventional notion of a TV is that its main function is to show TV programs. So veteran TV designers would point out that it's most natural to place the on-air TV program image where it's most noticeable - which is in the upper left corner.
But we accepted your first idea, right?
Yes, you did. Since VIERA Connect belongs to the new IPTV age, ordinary TV broadcasts represent only one of many types of content. This screen layout conveys the fact that TV programs and apps already share about the same level of importance. For this reason, I just couldn't be convinced to change it.
That's partly because we started by discussing things in a very small group. It might sound dramatic, but we felt like "the Few and the Proud." In other words, we were able to make the decisions all by ourselves, and we understood that we'd also have to take the responsibility for our decisions.
At any rate, the development of this function was something that was entirely new, and we had very little time. We couldn't waste time wondering, running around asking for instructions, or making adjustments. We simply had to trust our own feelings about what was good, and then go with it. When we really got confused, we would ask for opinions from the North American staff who were closest to our initially targeted market, but all of the decisions were basically made by our small team. Of course, as the technical staff, we were also ready to take responsibility for whatever happened.
It may sound simple, but I'd just like everyone to try it. I promise you that you'll discover something new. To tell the truth, I personally bought two new VIERAs myself. I put one in my house and one in my parents' house. One day, I saw my 4-year-old daughter use Skype™ all by herself to call and talk to her grandfather! It really surprised me! I was deeply moved by the idea that I wouldn't have been able to see this kind of thing if it weren't for VIERA Connect.
As IPTV becomes more widespread, the meaning of the remote control unit is greatly changing. From the days when it was only used to change channels, this clever tool has taken on more and more operating functions. Today, you can use it to chart a wide ocean of content. I hope you'll all be able to use it together with VIERA Connect to experience a new world of apps.
There are no borders in the world of the Internet. We'll continue in our efforts to keep pace with its evolution and bring you an exciting variety of apps. I hope you'll enjoy the shift from a TV that you simply watch, to a TV that you actually use.
* The group name, job title and product information on this page were accurate at the time of the interview.
• Some content may only be available for specific countries and may be presented in specific languages.
• Amazon Instant Video™, YouTube™, MLB, NBA, names and logos are trademarks of their respective companies. in the United States and other countries.
• The Skype name, associated trade marks and logos and the “S" symbol are trade marks of Skype Limited.
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