The US patent office must have gotten their hard drives unpaused, because hot on the heels of winning a patent related to closed captions on a DVR, TiVo has been awarded another patent at the heart of the DVR experience. With the application having been filed in October of 1999, it took the USPTO over ten years to review and approve their request, but on February 16th, TiVo was given the legal exclusive on season pass technology.
For those of you unfamiliar with how a DVR works, part of their magic is the ability to let you record shows in the future without having to worry about when it’s on. Back in the ole VCR days, you’d typically have to manually tell your gadget what time and channel you wanted it to record, but with TiVo (and other DVRs) they keep track of this information automagically and records your programs whenever it’s scheduled to be on. Because the TV studios tend to schedule all of their good programming at the same time (I’m looking at you Thursday night), there are sometimes conflicts between what you’d like to record and the number of TV tuners available to do it.
To resolve these issues, TiVo created a season pass manager that allows you to prioritize which shows get recorded and which ones don’t. This helps to make sure that I always get to watch Survivor and CSI, even if it means that I sometimes have to skip Community.
From patent 7,665,111,
“The invention correlates an input schedule that tracks the free and occupied time slots for each input source with a space schedule that tracks all currently recorded programs and the programs that have been scheduled to be recorded in the future, to schedule new programs to record and resolve recording conflicts. A program is recorded if at all times between when the recording would be initiated and when it expires, sufficient space is available to hold it. Programs scheduled for recording based on inferred preferences automatically lose all conflict decisions. All scheduling conflicts are resolved as early as possible. Schedule conflicts resulting from the recording of aggregate objects are resolved using the preference weighting of the programs involved. A background scheduler attempts to schedule each preferred program in turn until the list of preferred programs is exhausted or no further opportunity to record is available. A preferred program is scheduled if and only if there are no conflicts with other scheduled programs “
Without the ability to do this, the DVR would be as hard to program as the blinking clock on the front of your VCR. Recognizing how crucial this feature was to the DVR experience, TiVo moved aggressively to patent the feature, before they even rolled out their technology to the public.
In the ten years since then, TiVo’s season pass technology hasn’t really changed all that much. Most of their DVRs now come with two tuners instead of one, but the basic experience has remained the same.
Two improvements, that I’d like to see them make to their season pass manager would be faster processing times for when you want to rearrange your priorities or delete season passes and some kind of a menu that can identify future conflicts even after you’ve already scheduled your program list.
If TiVo introduces a DVR with faster microchips at their March 2nd press event, the long delay after reorganizing your season pass should take care of itself, but making their conflict resolution program a bit more robust would need some kind of a software upgrade.
While TiVo is good at pointing out conflict issues when you first schedule a program, they rely solely on your prioritization list when considering future conflicts. This may ensure that the programs you care about most get recorded, but it can make it difficult to know when you’ve missed an episode because of a scheduling change. In the past this hasn’t been much of an issue because the consumer’s only option would be to wait for a rerun, but with sites like Hulu and Netflix now streaming the repeats, it would be nice to be able to view some kind of a report of what you missed that week, so that you could watch any missed programs online.
While pretty much every single DVR currently uses this embodiment of the season pass manager, TiVo’s latest patent isn’t without a workaround. Because it was invented during a time when cloud computing was an expensive pipe dream, TiVo only patented the client side application of this technology. In other words, as long as the conflict resolution is done remotely on a server, competitors like Microsoft and cable companies could avoid infringement. Of course, this could potentially be a lot more expensive than licensing the patent from TiVo to begin with, but given the current trend towards remote DVR services, the USPTO’s long application process may have made TiVo’s invention obsolete, before they’ll have much of a chance to enforce it.