BBC representatives met with members of the Digital TV Group industry association for a kick-off meeting on project Canvas, the proposed joint venture with BT to develop and promote a broadband enabled television platform. The presentations provided little further detail on the proposed project, which has yet to receive approval from the governing body of the BBC.

David Docherty, the chairman of the DTG, a member organisation that represents the interests of the digital television industry in the United Kingdom, said that concerns had been raised about the level of openness of the proposed project, but promised that “the doors are opening up”.

The DTG has been placed in a difficult position, tasked with developing a complex technical specification in a short timescale while many of the requirements remain unclear. Richard Lindsay-Davies, the director general of the DTG, was diplomatic in the face of concerns expressed by some members.

Richard Halton, programme director for Canvas at the BBC, presented the proposition to an enormously experienced audience representing television and set-top box manufacturers and other interested parties. He promised the beginning of a dialogue with industry. “We see this as the next stage evolution of TV,” he said. He argued that a single brand was necessary to protect the future of free-to-air television and that “a single common user experience is critically important”. Further information was far from forthcoming, even in response to specific questions. For a project that has been underway for over a year, the details on Canvas still seem remarkably sketchy.

Jeff Hunter, who as a representative of BBC Research & Development has done much to develop digital television based on open standards, is now head of architecture of Canvas. He spoke of the ecosystem, with federated content, a broadband supplier agnostic approach and a horizontal retail market for devices, with the proposed joint venture providing core management services. He said that while it should be dependent on industry standards, “no single initiative has a complete solution for the particular challenge that we are trying to address”. He suggested that while proposed standards such as HbbTV focus on current requirements, Canvas is looking ahead to the future.

There was some scepticism among the audience, who appeared deeply disappointed that no real information was shared beyond that previously published. The European Broadcasting Union representative summed up the sentiment when he said: “We would like to understand better what Canvas is all about”.

Sky asked pointedly who could become a member of the joint venture, adding that it would like to participate in the decision making process. Meanwhile, Sky is about to announce a distribution deal with IP Vision, which has already launched an independent hybrid broadband and broadcast service, branded as Fetch TV.

Andrea Willis, who apparently heads product management of Canvas for BT, promised to provide details of the commercial requirements, but again these were lacking in any detail. “Canvas will own the user interface. We will manage that,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of customer testing and it really looks slick.” However, no examples of any user interface were presented.

Notable were the number of references from BT to “customers” rather than viewers. The term was used over a hundred times in their 30-minute presentation. Notable too were the number of references to a “joint venture” between the BBC and BT, although the proposed joint venture has yet to receive approval from the BBC Trust, which may not be forthcoming. Notably absent was ITV, supposedly a partner in the proposed joint venture, or channel Five, which recently announced it would be joining.

While the proponents were vague on many things, they were quite clear that the choice of digital rights management system was out of scope. The BT representative said they have conducted some desk research and evaluation on a shortlist of candidate technologies and the decision will be communicated sometime in the next couple of months. This was apparently news to some prominent suppliers of such systems that were present.

It was also suggested that Canvas products need not necessarily be high-definition compatible, which appears perverse for a future-focussed platform, given that it is already available on satellite and cable, and will shortly be rolled out terrestrially. Equally perplexing was the suggestion that devices should have a minimum of 32GB of local storage, which is nothing in terms of current hard disks, but could be cost prohibitive for solid state storage.

While the BBC Trust has effectively mandated its managers to work with all stakeholders to develop suitable specifications, there was palpable irritation from industry experts at the naive presentation and the lack of information shared by the representatives of the Canvas project. Given that the success of a retail product platform will be dependent upon the support of consumer electronics manufacturers, many of which see the United Kingdom as an important, but relatively small market, that could be critical to the Canvas project.

The Digital TV Group is inviting its industry representatives to take part in a number of working groups to consider various issues, with a view to publishing a new version of their ‘D Book’ interoperability profiles in March 2010. This activity will take place irrespective of the outcome of any decision of the BBC Trust on the prospects for Canvas as a joint venture. As far as Canvas is concerned, it seems it is all about to kick off.