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HbbTV is here: SBS fuses broadcast and broadband for a hybrid TV experience

SBS is the first broadcaster out of the gates to offer an HbbTV experience in Australia, launching a beta app that seamlessly combines live TV and on-demand viewing.

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SBS's HbbTV app overlays content options onto broadcast TV. SBS

If you've been wondering when Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV -- better known as HbbTV -- was coming to Australia the answer is that it's already here, at least in beta form.

(If you're actually wondering what HbbTV actually is, try our primer over here.)

SBS has launched the HbbTV version of its SBS On Demand app into an open beta as of today. Provided you have an HbbTV-ready TV that's internet connected, the features will be automatically available to you when you're watching one of the three SBS channels currently available.

Features

So, what sort of features can you expect? SBS's manager of technology strategy and innovation Trevor Long showed CNET the new offering running on a closed network.

The basic HbbTV functions from SBS essentially replicate the standard SBS On Demand catch up app, but without the need to open a separate application. Instead, you use the four coloured buttons and directional pad on your smart TV remote to navigate the available content.

Press the red button while watching any SBS channel and the On Demand overlay appears at the bottom of your screen while the free-to-air broadcast continues to run. From there you can choose from the movies and TV shows available, either from the featured selection on the overlay or by going through to a full content listing.

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From the overlay, you can head to a content home similar to the current SBS On Demand app. SBS

When you've chosen one, the show will open and run straight away -- well, after a short ad, as per the standard SBS On Demand experience. When the on-demand content ends or you stop it, you go directly back to broadcast TV.

By Long's own admission, it's "the least we could be offering". He says that the overlay could be tweaked to show any information -- news ticker, weather, election results -- but for the moment the broadcaster is willing to see how the beta runs and to "see what happens in the market".

Long points to French HbbTV as an example of what could be offered down the road in Australia. In France, a 'restart' feature is available on some channels -- if you've missed the start of a broadcast show, you can simply press a button on your remote to immediately open the catch-up version of the show and start watching from the beginning.

Binge watching is another application. If a broadcaster has on-demand or catch-up rights for a show and is re-broadcasting an episode via free-to-air, users could simply hit a button on the remote to begin watching subsequent episodes on IPTV via the HbbTV offering.

Not FreeviewPlus

Long says that SBS's HbbTV app is separate to Freeview Plus, but built on the same architecture, HbbTV 1.5. Despite delays in the launch of FreeviewPlus in Australia, Long is very positive about the service. "You will be impressed by FreeviewPlus," he says, going as far as to term it "the best thing since sliced bread".

FreeviewPlus will form a sort of framework for HbbTV in Australia with the individual broadcasters able to offer their own experiences via their channels. For example, the promised 'backwards EPG' which will allow you to head back and watch the on-demand versions of shows you've missed on free-to-air will be available on all channels, but you'll need to be watching one of SBS's three channels to see its HbbTV content.

Can you watch it now?

While the beta is technically open, it's limited by the availability of the technology on specific hardware. SBS says that there are seven HbbTV compatible TVs on the market, all recent offerings from Panasonic. (They are the TH-32AS610A, TH-42AS700A,TH-50AS700A,TH-55AS700A,TH-60AS700A,TH-55AS740A,TH-60AS740A.) More from the likes of Sony, Samsung, LG and TCL are coming in the following "weeks and months".

Set-top boxes are, of course, another option, with Long saying that SBS has been working with Humax in particular.

According to Long, more recent TV may get given HbbTV compatibility via a firmware upgrade, but this will be at the discretion of the individual manufacturers.

In terms of bandwidth requirements, the data use will be on par with SBS On Demand app and, similarly, a certain level of speed is recommended for a good viewing experience -- long suggests around 2Mbps.

SBS's HbbTV app will remain in beta until FreeviewPlus launches at an as yet known date. Currently, SBS is the only broadcaster openly talking about HbbTV, let alone offering anything to the Australia viewers. Let's hope it doesn't stay that way for long.