It's a Friday in late July, and the 15th floor of the Comcast Center teems with more than 150 engineers, technicians, and product developers, who drink lemonade and nibble cookies as they pitch inventions that may be the next big thing at Comcast.
One engineer talks about "Ralph," voice controls that turn business phones, computers, and security on or off.
Another explains a "push alert" for Xfinity Home that would warn Comcast subscribers when a neighbor's house has been burglarized.
An emoji team buzzes about inserting those digital images - the universal language of kids and millennials - into movie posters on the X1 screen, so Comcast subscribers would know intuitively, without an extra click of the TV remote, a movie's genre: horror, comedy, action, sports, etc. The team has a prototype, along with a poster of the emojis.
The point of this gathering: to unleash the power of Comcast employees to enrich the cable-TV experience.
"We kind of don't want to be Netflix. We don't want an $8 or $9 product," said Sree Kotay, Comcast's former chief software architect and now chief technology officer and executive vice president in the cable division.
"Not to knock them or anything, but we want to be a Tesla or a Mercedes and be a premium product," Kotay said. "The point of empowering our product and development teams is fundamentally not just about direction and ambition, it's also about tapping into their creativity, and that's how you make great products."
It's part of a big transformation taking place at Comcast: converting a suit-and-tie cable company into a risk-taking Silicon Valley-like tech company that can drive revenue growth outside the cable bundle.
This could be selling more and new services, or making Xfinity more fun, even developing sleek hardware. Not to mention cutting down on customer churn, or the number of subscribers dropping Xfinity for competing streamers such as Netflix.
And it all begins in the 54th-floor Comcast Center office of Tony G. Werner, president of technology and product for the company's cable division.
A restless guy, the 59-year-old Werner stands at his computer and wears a Fitbit Surge Superwatch that tracks heartbeats and steps and connects with smartphones.
Making this new trajectory possible, he said, is the X1 set-top box, which runs off a computer cloud consisting of 11 server farms in the United States and 50,000 computers, a technology platform for which Comcast has filed 1,565 patents and has been granted 950 to date.
No longer does Comcast have to send an army of technicians on millions of truck rolls to replace set-top boxes in living rooms and bedrooms across the nation to upgrade Xfinity cable-TV or internet products.
Software is as important as hardware - the old set-top box itself - so it's no wonder that Kotay, Comcast's former chief software architect, is Werner's right-hand man.
"We can do more in software in 24 hours than our satellite competitors can do in two years," Werner said, meaning that Comcast can upload new software to X1 and update boxes in millions of homes overnight.
Werner has a simple saying: "If you want to build good technology, you need good technologists." That means bringing them to Philadelphia, making the right hires, and keeping them happy.
Like a kid with a new toy, he unboxes one of Comcast's newest products, a sleek Xi5 set-top box due out this fall, to show it off. "It's smaller than Apple TV and more powerful than Apple TV, not that we're competing with Apple TV, but if we were . . ."
He looks out his window and watches the daily progress of the future new home of his engineers and developers, the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, slated to open in 2018.
"We're committed to Philadelphia, we're committed to technology, and we're committed to talent, and that's what I like about it," Werner said of the new tower.
One of his signature initiatives has been Lab Week at facilities in Philadelphia, Washington, Denver, and Silicon Valley. Engineers and product developers, as individuals or in teams, pitch ideas they dreamed up, then work on prototypes for several days at Comcast.
The week concludes with a beauty pageant of sorts - or as the company calls it, a science fair. Which was where the more than 150 engineers and product developers were pitching their products on the 15th floor of the Comcast Center in late July.
The big Lab Week prize is developing a project that can be commercialized into a new Xfinity feature or product. Most projects won't make the cut, but a few have.
One Lab Week team came up with the bare bones of the "Kids Zone" feature on X1 that filters for child-appropriate content.
Another team developed the "next episode" card in X1, which asks whether you want to watch the next episode of a program and provides a button to do so.
"When we get a product on the road map, it's [Comcast's idea and] not ours," said Mumin Ransom, a Comcast principal engineer who says he lives for Lab Week and doing what he wants.
Ransom and six other team members dreamed up the movie-genre emojis during a brainstorming session. Maria Kerner, a software engineer, had the kernel of the idea: She'd been watching TV the night before and would have liked to know more about a movie. Some text below the movie poster might help, she thought.
Emojis, Ransom suggested, realizing that software coders could translate the information in a movie's "metadata" into images that would pop up on a TV on X1.
The other team members - principal engineer Naresh Mudupu, senior software engineer Gordon McClennen, graphic designer Anthony Townson, and software engineer Vijayanathan Elangovan - bought into the idea.
On July 12, Ransom minute-pitched it to an open-invitation Lab Week meeting. Karl Martino, a Comcast engineer in a white coat, a theme for Lab Week, sat behind Ransom with a guitar. If Ransom went over his allotted 60 seconds, Martino would start strumming to signal time was up.
(During an interview, Ransom showed a video of the pitch on his phone. Martino raised his strumming hand, but Ransom wrapped up before the first chord played.)
In three or four days, the team put together a prototype that also included a rating system: Home viewers could say whether they liked a movie or didn't, and the vote would show up as an emoji along with the genre emoji.
After Lab Week, emails fly back and forth inside the Comcast Center, as supervisors and executives ponder whether the projects presented can help enhance current products or should be slated for new products.
A week after Philadelphia Lab Week's July science fair, the emoji team was invited to present the idea to a product group in Washington - a sign they'd grabbed some attention.
"We're definitely hopeful," Ransom said.