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CES: Intel beefs up a TV set-top box (not near you)

January 9, 2010 |  8:00 am

Orange Box, France Telecom, Intel, 3-D, EPG If 3-D to the home really does happen in the near future, Orange -- the brand France Telecom uses for its IPTV services in Europe, Africa and the Middle East -- plans to be ready. At the Consumer Electronics Show on Friday, company executives announced a collaboration with Intel to develop a set-top box that can deliver high-definition 3-D video. The box will be available by the end of this year or early next year, said Georges Penalver, Orange's executive vice president for strategy and development.

Under the hood will be Intel's most muscular chip for set-top boxes, which explains the 3-D capability. More immediately, the horsepower enables Orange to do great things with the set-top's menus and program guide. Cable and satellite TV operators in the U.S., please take note of the way the Orange Box enables viewers to choose programs: The guide displays an array of thumbnail-sized videos from other channels and programming sources while the current channel is displayed, full-sized, in the background. These thumbnails can be shifted forward or back in time to see what's coming up or what's available for replay on demand. The selection can also be sorted by genre. It's compelling and very, very slick.

Cable set-tops in particular have been underpowered because operators have scrimped on chips and memory to keep their costs low. Intel can help on that front, but its products haven't been competitive in the set-top market. It's announced only a handful of customers around the world, and none in the U.S., where the market is dominated by Broadcom, STMicroelectronics and Freescale Semiconductor. Penalver wouldn't say how much Orange will have to spend on each Orange Box, whose cost will be passed on to customers through their monthly fees. Instead, he said only that the cost would be competitive.

(DirecTV customers, in case you're wondering about the 3-D channels that the service is launching in June, you won't need a new set-top for that. Instead, the company plans to download software into its customers' high-definition receivers that will provide 3-D capability.)

Orange is also integrating streaming content from the Web. The box will provide an open gateway to any website, although only certain ones will be integrated into the program guide. And to make it easier for users to choose from the many items displayed, it's planning a Bluetooth-enabled, motion-sensitive remote that lets viewers point at the screen and click to make a selection -- a marked improvement over the typical remote's up-down, left-right keys. Cable and satellite operators, take note of that too.

As for 3-D, the box will support 3-D games as well as movies and TV broadcasts (with the caveat that customers have a specially equipped TV and glasses). What content might there be available in 3-D when the boxes arrive in homes? "I don't know," Penalver said. Noting that content providers, set makers and service providers are all working simultaneously to create an ecosystem for 3-D video, he said, "We must be ready. We can't start when the whole field is stabilized."

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey