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The rise of free online alternatives to traditional cable television means the big cable operators will need to roll out user-experience innovations to keep those users in the fold. Cable giant Comcast is showing where it’s headed — demonstrating a next-generation Xfinity TV interface that incorporates and tries to improve upon approaches from the traditional online world.

One of them: Facebook integration, including a feature called “Friend Trends,” showing the content most popular among the user’s Facebook friends across Hulu, Netflix, the web and television. It’s part of a broader trend in the tech industry toward using Facebook “likes” to improve search results. (See also Microsoft Bing.)

“The guide becomes what your friends tell you to watch, not what the linear alphabet tells you what your options are,” says Comcast CEO Brian Roberts in the video above, from the National Cable & Telecommunications Show in Chicago yesterday.

Local note: A spokesman tells us that the new Xfinity system makes use of cloud-computing technology developed by thePlatform, the Seattle-based Comcast subsidiary.

Other notes from the Comcast CEO’s presentation:

  • Simpler remote uses RF (radio frequency) vs. the traditional infrared to transmit signals, which eliminates the need to be in the direct line of site of the signal receiver in the cable box.
  • Cloud-based model means the interface can be “innovated and changed on the fly, in the cloud, and then it changes all over the country, instantaneously.” Also means the system is always running on “today’s computer, not yesterday’s box.”
  • Introduction of apps including weather, traffic and Pandora, in addition to Facebook.
  • Search across live television and on-demand content. Search uses letters corresponding to numbers, as on a phone keypad. Searches not only program titles but program details — finding not only Cubs games, for example, but also a TV program in which the Cubs management was featured.
  • Best line from the chief of the Philadelphia-based cable giant, as he’s conducting a hypothetical search: “We’re sitting here in Chicago. Gee, I’m interested in the Cubs. By the way, not really.”

The system is currently in testing in Augusta, Ga. No word on when it will be rolled out nationally.

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