Another role could soon be added to the many already performed by home gateway devices: identifying video pirates.
Home gateway manufacturer Thomson SA plans to incorporate video watermarking technology, which it also developed, into future set- top boxes and other video devices. The watermarks, unique to each device, will make it possible for investigators to identify the source of pirated videos.
By letting consumers know the watermarks are there, even if they can't see them, Thomson hopes to discourage piracy without putting up obstacles to activities widely considered fair use, such as copying video for use on another device in the home or while traveling to work.
"The idea is to slow down piracy without limiting the use of the consumer. They should not be upset about this unless they are widely redistributing content," said Pascal Marie, responsible for strategic marketing at the company's content security division.
Thomson developed the technology, NexGuard, to identify individual copies of the films distributed digitally to cinemas or on DVD as preview copies for reviewers and awards juries. In the past, pirated copies of films available over the Internet or in street markets have been traced back to such sources.
Now, the availability of high-definition video-on-demand services is multiplying the points at which high-quality video can be pirated.
Thomson's plan is to watermark video with a unique code before it leaves the home gateway or set-top box (STB). To do that, it is working with semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics to incorporate NexGuard into digital video chips. STMicro has already incorporated NexGuard into its 7100 series of chips for STBs. NexGuard can mark video encoded in MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) and VC-1 formats.
At Cebit in Hanover, Germany, this week, Thomson is demonstrating how the chips might be used, and at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas next month, it will show prototype STBs incorporating the technology.
Also next month, the company will unveil system capable of directly watermarking content produced with Windows Media Video 9 codecs, Marie said. "We are able to process directly this format without the need to decode it, watermark it and re-encode it."
Thomson sells its gateways and STBs to network operators -- one of its biggest customers is Orange, the Internet access subsidiary of France Telecom, which packages the devices as the LiveBox, an all-in-one terminal for telephony, television, Wi-Fi and Internet access.
Thomson will apply the watermarking at two levels, Marie said. One watermark will identify the network operator distributing the content, while a second, carrying 40 bits of information, will identify the individual device, he said.
The watermarks are robust, Marie said. Films projected digitally and captured by a camcorder can still be traced, although "we need a longer period of detection to identify it," he said. Clips recorded directly from an STB, re-encoded at a lower bit rate and then posted to an online video sharing service might be identifiable after just a few seconds, he said.