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Patent Application Publication Feb. 10,2005 Sheet 4 of 4 US 2005/0034161 Al
INTERACTIVE SYSTEM FOR ENABLING TV SHOPPING
FIELD OF INVENTION
 This invention relates to an improved interactive system for TV shopping and similar purposes, and more particularly but not exclusively, for use as an improved TV shopping system in the home.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
 Many organisation today operate 'call centres' for sales and other purposes. These are real or virtual sales centres to which customer telephone calls are routed. After accessing a manned or automated 'front office' function customers are connected to the next available advisor appropriate to their problem. A powerful addition to this trading concept is a call centre which has the additional capacity to present images ('video') to the customer via a television or computer display screen. As the skilled man in the art is aware, the 'visual display unit' or 'video display unit', VDU for short, is applied to both television and computer display screens.
 A call centre with a video capability is dubbed a 'video call centre' or just 'video centre'. A video centre must be connected to the customer via a network, which may include both cable and radio-wave signals and has an enhanced capability relative to the telephone network; this might be dubbed a 'video-enabled network'.
 The customer's VDU typically comprises a television set linked to a 'set-top box' which converts data from a cable or radio-wave signal into a television video format, or may comprise a computer with a 'modem' which converts data from a cable or radio-wave signal into a computer format. Note however that many VDUs incorporate integrally a 'set-top box' function and that many computers incorporate integrally a modem function. A remote control keypad unit linked to the set-top box or a computer keyboard allows the customer to communicate commands to the network. A customer typically activates the connection with the video-enabled network by pressing a button on the VDU remote control or operating a mouse or cursor control on an on-screen menu, this action sending a 'video link request' command to the video centre.
 UK Patent Application No. 9817829.6 (Nisaba Group Ltd.), see FIG. 1 for example, describes a video call centre system with co-operating video-enabled and telephone networks which allow a plurality of sales advisors each to communicate with their customer via that customer's telephone and that customer's VDU. In such systems, 2-way audio communication and a one-way video link (a 'video session') is established between customer and an advisor at the video centre who can send video and audio data to the customer, including a live video image of their advisor.
 Known systems in the relevant field are, however, subject to various drawbacks.
 First, in known systems there are sometimes problems in relating a customer's telephone call to that customer's video session. The switching of the advisor onto the customer's video line can be uncertain and transfer of calls between agents can also present difficulties. The identifica
tion of the customer's set-top box is not always possible and in some networks it is difficult to reconcile customer's phone numbers and STB numbers.
 Second, while known systems make mention of the fact that communications can be initiated by the customer sending a request, for example via the on-screen menu, such systems do not describe different detailed methods for initiating a video session.
 Third, in known video centre systems, the advisor is essentially conducting a live multimedia presentation to the customer, which is a difficult process using standard presentation software on a personal computer (PC).
 Known systems also do not make sophisticated provision for correct handling of uncontrolled shut-down of a session, due for example to a customer closing the link unexpectedly.
 Further, known systems do not provide for phoneback services, where the customer types his/her phone number into the remote control, computer keyboard or telephone keypad and then the merchant calls back on that telephone number.
 The present invention aims to overcome or substantially reduce at least some of the above discussed drawbacks.
OBJECTS AND SUMMARY OF THE
 It is the principal object of the invention to provide an interactive system for home shopping and similar purposes which is versatile and considerably improved in terms of practical capability over the system of UK Patent Application No. 9817829.6 (Nisaba Group Ltd.) and over other known systems.
 In broad terms, the present invention resides in the concept of providing an improved interactive system having a complex interactive network of co-operating elements, including video network exchanges, advisors computers and presentation computers at the video centre, extensions to the web-server of the video-enabled network, and gateway processors/computers. The system of the present invention provides significant performance improvements over known systems when used for home shopping, for example, by making the sales advisor's job in giving a presentation easy, in offering different connection methods, in allowing for multiple merchants to be connected to a customer, in allowing multiple networks to be connected to each merchant and in dealing with unexpected closing of calls.
 According to the present invention there is provided an interactive system for enabling TV shopping from a central provider to remote customers, said system comprising:
 two network distribution means enabling video and audio communications to be established between the remote customers and the central provider:
 (a) one enabling customer telephone communications with the central provider to be routed to particular advisor workstations of the central provider, there being a plurality of such workstations, and
 (b) one enabling outgoing audio and video communications from the plurality of advisor workstations to be routed to the respective customers from whom the incoming telephone communications are received;
 means enabling advisors working at said workstations to communicate interactively with the customers and provide images including images of said advisors to the customers to be viewed on the customers' VDUs;
 means enabling the advisors and the customers to effect transactions; and
 means enabling any one of said customers to initiate a video connection further comprising transmitting means for sending a video-link request signal via interactive input system means allowing the VDU's video session data of a particular customer telephone caller to be communicated to the central provider.
 The system of the invention conveniently allows a home shopping function to be implemented on an interactive cable TV (CATV) network designed for video on demand (VOD) and other interactive TV services, increasing the network loading and increasing its commercial viability.
 Further, in accordance with an exemplary embodiment of the invention, the interactive input system means of the interactive system may be embodied as an on-screen menu system, computer keyboard and/or remote control keypad.
 Advantageously, the interactive system may employ a video-enabled network to transmit both audio and video from advisor to customer. The video-enabled network may utilise any of the established standard protocols (IP, ATM, DVB, MPEG, ADSL, etc.) so as to transfer data.
 Conveniently, the sales advisor in a video centre is equipped with a personal computer (PC) (advisor PC or APC) which is connected by a network to another PC (presentation PC or PPC) which produces a multimedia presentation to the customer, the video centre being connected to a gateway processor/computer which communicates with a web-server which serves the set-top boxes of a video-enabled network. In this connection, the gateway processor/computer component serves to communicate data between the advisors/merchants and the customers including for example the kind of data indicative of which on-screen menu icon/input key is to be operated by the customer, and which set-up box number (STB#) from customer to particular merchant/advisor video call centre is to be communicated with. Therefore, by virtue of such means for communicating with the STB to obtain STB# and merchant/advisor identity, it is possible to correctly route call through to head end and to the particular merchant/advisor video call centre.
 In one embodiment, the correct connection of the advisor to the customer's telephone and the advisor to the correct presentation PC is achieved by means of the customer reading aloud or otherwise relaying an on-screen video or audible identifier generated by the PPC to the advisor or a front office advisor or a front office IVR system.
 In another embodiment, the correct telephone connection of the advisor to the customer's telephone and the advisor to the correct presentation PC is set up automati
cally, the PPC sending an image including a telephone number and identifier which the customer can dial on his or her telephone, the telephone number connecting the customer to the video centre and the identifier forwarding the customer's call to an advisor who can be connected to the correct PPC.
 Conveniently, the correct telephone connection of the advisor to the customer's telephone is achieved by the customer dialling a telephone number with extra digits which operates a direct dial in (DDI) function in the video centre branch telephone exchange (PABX). Note also that images sent to customers may advantageously include live video images of advisors.
 Preferably, the audio and video communications from the plurality of advisor workstations are enabled to be routed to the customers' VDUs by means of set-top boxes or equivalent which are addressable. Also, the audio and video communications from the plurality of advisor workstations may be conveniently enabled to be routed to the customers' VDUs by means of set-top boxes or equivalent which are adapted only to unencrypt transmissions which are encrypted and intended for viewing only on those particular set-top boxes.
 Note, however that while it is preferred to use separate APCs and PPCs in the system of the invention it is possible to instead use just a single APC for each advisor, each APC having a built-in PPC function.
 According to another embodiment, the advisor is able to control the presentation to the customer with his own APC, with the presentation actually being outputted in final form by the PPC, this expediting the potentially difficult process of offering a live multimedia presentation (including a live advisor image) to the customer because additional control and cursor features may appear on the advisor's display screen which do not appear as distractions on the customer's screen.
 In another embodiment a number of APCs and PPCs are advantageously connected together via two parallel local networks, one for advisor live video/audio and one for control data, at the video centre in the system of the invention (as shown for example in FIG. 2 hereinafter), allowing arbitrary connection of advisors to customers, and allowing simple transfer of video calls between advisors.
 In another embodiment, there is control software on the APC and software on the PPC which together allow the manipulation of data by advisors and the processing of data for transmission to the customer, and more particularly, allows the advisor to 'drag and drop' images including live images and audio and present graphical and alphanumeric data to the customer's VDU ergonomically.
 In another embodiment of the invention the webserver of the CATV network communicates with a gateway processor/computer which controls a routing of video communications from the video centres to the head end of the CATV network via the ATM switch, and sends session data like the STB number to the correct merchant's video centre.
 In another embodiment, a video centre network exchange is attached to each network gateway computer allowing the connection of multiple networks to multiple merchants, networks with different transmission standards
(IP, AIM, MPEG, ADSL etc.) being capable of being connected to a particular video centre.
 In another embodiment, data coming from the video centre network exchange as described hereinafter is handled by a video centre exchange and passed on to the local network of APCs and PPCs, this video centre exchange also optionally communicating with a PABX in the video centre.
 In another embodiment, a 'heartbeat' of regular communications is advantageously maintained between gateway processing means (computer) and the customers VDU set-top box, allowing the rapid automatic detection of any unexpected session closure, such as a network failure or sudden customer log-off.
 In another embodiment, the customer's set-top box or equivalent communicates with a web-server on the CATV network which can give initial information, such as a merchant's web-page, before connection of the customer to a merchant's video centre, this immediate communication reassuring the customer of correct connection, and allowing initial information to be communicated to the customer.
 In another embodiment, after the live video session with a sales advisor has ended, a video advertisement may be offered, or alternatively a questionnaire session may be provided to the customer.
 Advantageously, the system of the invention may include a phone-back facility in which the customer may leave a telephone number, using his telephone keypad to transmit the data, and enabling an advisor or other person at the video centre to call him back on. Also, the system of the invention may conveniently include equipment providing automation of some or all elements of the front office function using the customer's telephone keypad and audio feed back of instructions to the customer, such equipment being a version of interactive voice response (IVR) equipment.
 In another embodiment, routing of phone calls for people with a video connection is arranged down a different trunk to those ringing the standard call centre telephone number (e.g. a national contact number); this conveniently avoids leaving customers with a video connection not being able to secure an audio link to the advisor due to traffic congestion on the telephone network.
 Further it is to be appreciated that multiple set-top boxes (or equivalent) may be enabled to receive the video from the advisor's PPC, and multiple advisors' APCs may be patched into 1 PPC and a 'conference call' mode may be initiated with the telephone system, allowing situations like video auctions and video education to be accommodated.
 The system of the invention therefore provides a considerably improved interactive process for TV shopping by way of interactive communication between remote customers and advisor workstations (staffed by advisors) of the central provider. The system can be implemented at reasonable cost and finds utility for various applications where the management of customer-advisor/merchant relationships is involved.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DIAGRAMS
 FIG. 1 is a schematic block diagram illustrating the known system of British Patent Application No. 9817829.6 (Nisaba Group Ltd.);
 FIG. 2 is a schematic block diagram of the interactive system embodying the present invention illustrating the components of the interactive system in detail;
 FIG. 3 is another schematic block diagram of the interactive system of the invention illustrating how the on-screen menu web-server connects into the CATV network; and
 FIG. 4 is another schematic block diagram of the interactive system embodying the present invention illustrating how the system is adapted to function using ADSL and similar networks.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF EMBODIMENTS
OF THE INVENTION
1. Known Systems
 FIG. 1 is a schematic block diagram of an embodiment of a known interactive system 1 for TV shopping as disclosed in British Patent Application No. 9817829.6 (Nisaba Group Ltd). As shown a customer subsystem 2 is connected via telephone network 12 and CATV network 5 to video call centre 4 which is connected to telephone subsystem 3 and control/switching system 6.
 In operation of the system 1, a customer 10 using VDU 8 (which has a set-top box (STB) 9) and telephone 7 communicates with sales advisor 29 with telephone instrument 14, the telephone call having been routed by PABX/ automatic call distribution systems (ACD) 16. Live video images of the advisor are provided by image-capturing means 18 and are combined using video mixing 19 and 21 with graphics from the video graphics generator 23 and video format converter 22, video libraries 20 and 24, and sent to the CATV network head end, where there is a further video library 25 and switching unit 26. At the CATV head end the interactive TV shopping video feed from 26 is scrambled so that only an STB with the correct descrambling algorithm may unscramble it. The broadcast feed 27 is then added to the scrambled interactive TV shopping video feed and sent to each 'serving area' within the CATV network 28. Each STB 9 is in one serving area, which typically may contain up to several thousand STBs. STB 9 is adapted to unscramble only interactive TV home shopping video intended for that STB.
2. Interactive System of the Invention
 FIG. 2 shows schematically the various components of the interactive system of the invention. Remote customers 31, 32, 33 and 34, as shown, communicate via telephone instruments 35, 36, 37 and 38 and via VDUs 39, 40, 41 and 42 with sales advisors 43, 44 and 45. The sales advisors use telephone instruments 46,47 and 48 to talk, and send images of themselves using cameras 49, 50 and 51 to the customers. Advisors personal computers (APCs) 52, 53 and 54 are linked via switching networks to presentation personal computers (PPCs) 55, 56 and 57, which provide feed via the ATM switch 58 to the video-enabled network 59 which in turn feeds the respective VDUs. The telephone network 30 connects the customers' telephones 35 to 38 with the video centre PABX 73.
 The video-enabled network 59 has a web-server 62 which is designed to provide interactive data exchange
between the on-screen menu systems or equivalent of the VDUs and the merchant web-pages 63. The web-server is also designed to communicate with a gateway computer 64 which routes data such as set-top box number and service request data via a video centre network exchange 65 to the video centres 66, 67 or 68. A video centre advantageously includes more than one merchant, so that video centre 67 (as shown) includes both Merchant II and Merchant III services.
 Any of the video-enabled networks 59, 60 or 61 is adapted and arranged to be connected via their gateway and video centre network exchange subsystems 69, 70 and 71 to any of the video centres 66, 67 or 68.
 Each video centre includes one or more front office persons 72 who are equipped with telephone instruments, a PABX 73 and a video centre exchange 74. The PABX is designed to interface with the video centre exchange via a computerised telephone interface (CTI) 75.
 Broadband, Broadcast and Video-Enabled Networks
 The telephone network is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, and would be a convenient network for the present invention because it is basically designed to provide one-to-one communication. However, the telephone network is conventionally incapable of providing sufficient data bandwidth to allow the use of quality video images at a speed sufficient for sales transactions and similar activities to take place, as required for the invention. However, the system of the invention is workable using the ADSL concept, described hereinafter, which although it uses telephone wires in the last local link to the customer is capable of a much higher bandwidth.
 The interactive system of the invention is designed to work with any broadband network which carries carry data at a sufficient rate for adequate image transmission quality and speed, what might be called a 'video-enabled' network. But the most ubiquitous video-enabled networks are basically designed to provide one-to-many ('broadcast') functionality. However, many of these networks have some, albeit limited, one-to-one communication capability. It is this limited capability that the system of this invention exploits.
 Use of Broadcast Networks for One-to-One Communications
 Referring to FIG. 3, in a video-enabled network system such as a CATV system (similar considerations apply to non-cable broadcast networks like DVB-T) video feed is provided to all customers in a zone or 'serving area' via nodes 81 to 84. It is possible to send video to a particular one of the customers' VDUs 85, 86, 87 by a one or a combination of switching video onto channels in the customer's serving area, remotely enabling access to the video feed for that customer's VDU by means of a control/address function, and scrambling the transmission so that only that customer's VDU may unscramble the data. The 'set-top box' (STB) is the name given to the elements 88, 89, 90 of the network which is normally located at the customer's site. The STB has some control/address switching functions and some unscrambling functions. The STB also includes functions allowing customer input, which is typically via a remote control keypad unit 91 which transmits instructions to the STB.
 With these capabilities available, it is possible to apply the system of the invention to advantage. More particularly, as shown, merchants 92 operate in a video centre 66 in which there are multiple sales advisors in video communication with customers. Each sales advisor is equipped with computer workstations and may help a customer to buy products and services by means of audio received from the customer and video and audio, including live images of the advisor, transmitted via the CATV head end 94 along with other video content 97, and via the video switching system 96 and nodes 81 to 84, to the customer end of the CATV network. The network typically employs a quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) radio frequency (RF) signal format at the customer end. The head end also includes a web-server 62 which communicates via an Internet Protocol (IP) switch 95 with the nodes 81 to 84 and thence with the customers 32 using IP format video and audio and control data.
 APCs & PPCs
 Referring to the system of the invention illustrated in FIG. 2, presentation PCs (PPCs) are connected via the ATM switch to the head-end of the video-enabled network and thence to the customers.
 It is possible for one APC to be connected to one PPC. However, the system of the invention has enhanced capabilities if the APCs and PPCs are connected via an interchange switch system.
 In the preferred embodiment of the invention, the advisor PCs (APCs) are connected to the PPCs via a local area network for control data, and via a switch network (video 'matrix' switch) for live video and audio from the agent. The particular advantages of the use of separate PCs for advisor use and for presentation generation are firstly that an advisor may connect his APC to any PPC via the local network and matrix switch, once informed about which PPC a customer is connected to; and secondly that an advisor's PC may display not only the presentation as relayed to the customer, but also various control and cursor features which expedite the otherwise difficult process of producing a multimedia presentation to the customer 'on the fly'. These additional control and cursor features do not appear as distractions on the customer's screen display produced by the PPC.
 The local network of PPCs and APCs is connected to the network gateway via a video centre exchange. Data items coming from the video centre network exchange like requests for service and set-top box number are handled by a video centre exchange and passed on to the local network of APCs and PPCs, this video centre exchange also optionally communicating with a PABX in the video centre.
 The APCs control a 'farm' of PPCs and there may be more or fewer APCs than there are PPCs. It is also possible to devise a working system using only APCs, provided the APCs are equipped with suitable additional software and hardware to perform the PPC duties. The preferred alternative is to separate the functions, putting them on separate APCs and PPCs.
 APC/PPC Software
 The software running on the APC and PPC advantageously includes software known as a 'rendering engine'.