"Pause TV," a new product capable of pausing live TV broadcasts, may debut as early as next month at IFA, the Berlin CE trade show. According to a story in EE Times, various chip manufacturers are currently developing the technology, with at least one - Magnum Semiconductor - now showing a reference design to several customers.
In principle, Pause TV would allow a consumer to stop the viewing of a live TV program for a moderate length of time - about an hour. He could then pick up where he left off. Uses of the feature would appear to be limited to short interruptions, like bathroom and snack breaks. Magnum CEO Jack Guedj says, "Pause TV won’t record a full movie, but it enables ‘pause’ and ‘replay’-some of the most popular functions of today’s personal video recorders." Mark Singer, Magnum’s director of corporate marketing added, "Pause TV will add to the TV set the first new, everyday feature in a long time."
Fabless semiconductor company Mobilygen has yet to launch a Pause TV reference platform, although Chris Day, senior vice president sales and marketing, acknowledged that it plans to offer OEMs a platform with several memory options, including flash memory, DRAM or hard-disk drives. Day says that manufacturers have already contemplated this kind of feature, but for various reasons haven’t yet brought it to the market. Among those reasons have been memory cost and flash longevity. Now, with dropped prices and new compression technologies such as MPEG-4/AVC/H.264 compression, the technology has become viable.
Several issues remain to be resolved, however, from a design standpoint. For one, the lifetime of flash memories depends on the number of write cycles performed, with longer lifetimes requiring devices that are more expensive. Associated with this is the size of the memory needed. According to Singer, Magnum is setting a lifetime target for its Pause TV design of "10 years when a TV is on for 5.5 hours per day-2,000 hours per year." At DVD video rates, a 4-GB flash would allow about 60 minutes of video storage, but Singer says that would offer a life expectancy of only 5.1 years. Magnum is therefore considering either twice the storage (meaning fewer write cycles), or half the video rate, which would meet the 10-year target.
Transcoding to H.264 would give even more efficiency, but this requires additional silicon, so lowering memory size by this means may come at a price. While the Magnum reference design initially targets DVB TVs, their recent acquisition of LSI Logic’s consumer chip business gives them access to ATSC and H.264 silicon designs. The cost to add the Pause TV functions to a current DTV design is estimated at about $40, but Singer claims an integrated solution "can bring the cost down." Other designs are being considered too, including an external USB stick or a removable hard drive. Of course, those would bring in additional complexity, as well as the thorny content protection issue. Once the video exists outside the TV, it is now "in the clear," and is susceptible to permanent storage or distribution - a scenario you can bet the content owners are going to contest strongly. Adding encryption would complicate the design considerably.
It’s not clear just how much consumers would be willing to pay for such a limited feature, however. And with cable and satellite operators already offering full DVR functionality - albeit at a higher price - the market for Pause TV would seem to be limited to free TV. While this could be a decent market, not more than 15-20% of U.S. households get their TV exclusively in this way. When second sets are considered, this number is possibly 30%, or about 30 million total sets. Let’s see if the major TV manufacturers nibble on this one.