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Operators should take charge of systems integration for control and agility

Systems integration has become a major challenge for pay TV operators as they embrace IP infrastructures and online delivery, with a requirement to become as agile as Internet companies while containing costs and dealing with legacy. For many the choice of integrator has become more critical even than that of the infrastructure’s core components, because getting it wrong can derail the whole enterprise and risk losing valuable ground at a time when new entrants are arriving and competitors are innovating faster than ever before in TV’s history. Against this background I have just co-written with Ben Schwarz an eBook focusing on SI in  pay TV and drilling down into the core issues through interviews with leading operators, analysts and of course integrators themselves. What emerged was a clear picture of best practice and priorities both in selecting an SI and then managing the subsequent relationship.
Continue reading Operators should take charge of systems integration for control and agility

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Catching Up with Live OTT TV in a Changing Landscape

  • OTT live streaming, especially premium sports, will be the fastest growing sector in pay TV over the next two years
  • Quality of experience with ease of use must be delivered cost-effectively and securely for success in live OTT
  • A flexible ecosystem allowing best of breed components to be deployed provides the best hope of meeting criteria for success in live OTT in an environment that is still rapidly changing
  • Viewer loyalty and monetization can be enhanced by eliminating barriers between live and VoD with time to view as short as possible

Streaming Ecosystem EBook USP-MediaExcel

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The same video streamed with better sound is better video. Home theatre in your pocket.

This eBook co-sponsored by Unified Steaming and DTS takes a look a the futurs of premium audio streaming.

  • Booming streaming video markets are awash with competition and innovation.
  • New audio technologies can bring a home-cinema user experience to the pocket of anyone with a pair of stereo headphones.
  • When exclusive content isn’t available, other unique features are needed to compete.
  • Commercial deployments are happening across the globe targeting both the dedicated living room and mobile devices.
  • Better multi-channel “theatrical” sound will differentiate any video experience.
  • Streaming technology has stabilized with the rise of the vendor-independent DASH standard.

Continue reading The same video streamed with better sound is better video. Home theatre in your pocket.

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Taking TV innovation from operator speed to web speed

New approaches to development can bring TV innovation from operator speed to web speed with the right systems integration

An eBook by Ben Schwarz with additional writing from Philip Hunter

Agility and “web speed” have become rallying calls for pay TV operators in the multiscreen era where the rate at which services must evolve and new features appear has increased by an order of magnitude. Bringing on new customer-facing features within weeks was confined in the past to greenfield deployments but is now becoming essential even for operators encumbered by legacy. Innovations in software development, systems integration, operations and testing cycles are changing this, along with a new approach to systems integration.

Streaming better Audio eBook

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UHD will change living room TV forever, if we fix customer-facing interop issues first (Update: Atmos working)

HDR and some NGA are here (well almost). Demos will blow your mind and ears, but beware - it can take a geek a couple of hours to get it working at home.

Here is my personal account, as a simple user, of my road to UHD nirvana in my living room. I wrote this in early September 2016, and just updated it at the end of the month as I finally got Dolby Atmos working and it was worth the wait).

My setup

When I moved to my new flat in central Paris 8 months ago, I immediately got access to an Orange Fibre connexion with speeds of up to 800 Mbps. With all the work I’ve been doing on UHD as a member of the Ultra HD Forum, I saw this as an opportunity to test some streaming services in the real world of my sitting room.

I’ve had my Samsung SUHD TV (UE55SJ8500) for 6 months now. First demos were with still images from the UHD Zoo app, as it took me a while to get a 4K video that I could effectively stream to my TV. Of course, Netflix was available, and although some 4K series have some stunning shots that show up all the new pixels, many don’t, even though they’re in the 4K section.

After having completed a white paper on Object based sound and getting excited about DTS:X (see here), I went for a mid to high-range Onkyo A/V receiver (TX-RZ 810 B ) that was already Dolby Atmos-capable and will be software upgradable to DTS:X.

Having spent 1,200 € on the receiver, I was no longer ready to splash out on the high-end Atmos speaker system I’d been eying. Amazon had a 400€ set of speakers available for next day delivery so I went for an Onkyo SKS-HT588(B) system, knowing that once my system is stable, I’ll have to invest in real speakers.

Sound first

A first hurdle for many viewers will be that the TV set-top-box is usually set by default to stereo sound. So before getting anything like 5.1 output from that source one must find the appropriate sub-menu and set HDMI audio output to what in my case Orange calls Home cinema.

Im1

The other option (yes, it’s well known that two options make things simpler!) is to use an optical output from the STB, which is always in pass-through mode, and then configure the AV receiver to associate that with the video, from the Orange STB in my case.

The Orange TV service has had a single Dolby Atmos sports transmission but I couldn’t find any next-gen audio in the VoD library so to get some fancy sound demos, back to the Internet where I found Dolby demo files with difficulty on http://www.demo-world.eu/2d-demo-trailers-hd/.

It turned out none of my devices or software was able to send the Dolby Atmos sound track to my AV receiver. I found on an obscure geek chat that the Kodi video player could decode Atmos. So I installed that onto my Mac and Eureka!, the Dolby Demos played on my TV (connected with HDMI to my Mac). It sounded beautiful, but the Onkyo receiver never had the word ‘Atmos’ appear so I’m guessing it just considered it was Dolby 7.1, but hey, it sounded really immersive with the rain falling literally overhead, so who cares? [see update at end of blog, I did finally get the Atmos to work from the Orange VoD store].

Now for some HDR video

Amazon and Netflix have some UHD content but on their own interfaces, it is so far impossible to tell whether there’s any HDR, and I understand Netflix chooses the HDR mode dynamically, so for the next demo, it seems like physical media is the only way.

Which UHD Blu-ray player?

After waiting for UHD capable Blu-Ray players for a year, I decided to go and get one of the two available in France (The Samsung at 500€ or the Hitachi at 800€). But when I got to the retail store, the sales guy suggested I get an Xbox One S for 400€. That would also hopefully get my sixteen-year-old interested, so I went for that option.

Back home with the Xbox unpacked, my next objective was to get UHD Blu-Ray disks to play and at-long-last see some real HDR.

Im2

Inside the Xbox parameters, to select HDR, there is no mention (yet) of HDR itself. You need the knowledge that we are looking for 10-bit colour and so must select the 30 (!?) bits per pixel option (I later used the top 36 (12) bits options, which the TV accepted fine, and the video looked a bit better, strangely I had a better sense of very high resolution rather than amazing colours. There was no HDR wow effect with the Man-of-Steel blue ray I got for free with my Xbox, it just looked very nice.

Im3

I then got into the Xbox One S’ advanced video parameters and all of a sudden the HDR word appears. And so now, going into the 4K TV submenu (note the confusion it should be a UHD sub-menu as we’re talking HDR and a bit of HFR too), I was all excited to see all the new possibilities:

Im4

But let’s not run away with ourselves, there was a last hurdle to cross. The Xbox’s Blu-ray player said I had the wrong kind of TV for UHD. It turned out that the AV Receiver through which my HDMI signal was passing, was not HDCP 2.2 enabled.

Im5

In the Inputs sub-menu of the Onkyo AV receiver, I discovered that only HDMI 1 through 3 were HDCP 2.2-capable. That required pulling the TV away from the wall yet again and reassigning the X-Box One S to one of the 3 first ports (and of course reassigning whatever was already there that didn’t need HDCP 2.2 somewhere else). I’ll spare you the screen shot of doing that in the AV receiver’s menus.

Im6

Finally, on my Samsung TV I had to hunt down to the 14th menu item of the main Picture menu, called HDMI UHD Color, which everyone else calls HDR.

Im7

Then within the Samsung TV submenu I turned on the HDMI ports that are connected to HDR sources. For each value you change here, the TV needs to reboot (no kidding it really does).

Im8

A couple of hours after had I started, my Samsung TV finally tells me I’ve succeeded: full UHD with HDR AKA UHD Color. I am of course too hot and bothered at this stage to want to watch anything, but when I have since shown off my new 4K/HDR/NGA setup, I’ve persistently got the most wows for the immersive audio demos. Hmmm, maybe I should have just bought a new stereo… nah, just kidding 😉

Wrapping up

Putting my professional hat on, I’m  still a true believer in UHD and all its promises, but despite having often written about “This being the year for UHD”,  I do see that there is a potential blocking point with these customer-facing issues. I trust that at the Ultra HD Forum and the UHD Alliance folks will get to grips with these interoperability teething problems so that the true benefits of UHD aren’t confined to the tech-savvy. I see a great opportunity for operators and their call centres to fix wires problems today but also for the CPE suppliers to work on processing HDR and one day NGA locally. UHD has to be plug and play to truly take off.

[Update Sept 29 2016: I spent 10€ on a digital copie of Salt (Angelina Jolie) from the Orange VoD store that had about 9 other movies with Atmos at time of writing - so Yeah! I finally got my expensive A/V receiver to actually recognise an Atmos audio stream and generate the right output. The sense of immersion is clearly improved, you really can't tell what's coming out of what speaker any more and I heard sounds that seemed to come from "in front of a given speaker".

If on an imaginary quality scale 1 is bad mono (i.e. the phone), the a jump to good stereo would bring a real wow-effect probably scoring maybe 5, moving from stereo to 5.1 is another similar wow-effect say doubling the score to 10. Object based sound on top of 5.1 (or 5.1.2 in my case) brings another really noticeable improvement, but less of a wow-effect, so I'd subjectively  say my current system scores 12 on my imaginary scale.]

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Enterprise may drive Internet of Things boom

The Internet of Things (IoT) has reached a critical stage in its evolution where it seems to be caught between two tipping points, waiting for the final explosion after the arrival of joined up applications connecting different domains. The first tipping point came around 2014 with proven single domain applications and the arrival of big players in retail such as Staples, energy utility like British Gas and ADT in premises security. That was also the year Google acquired smart thermostat leader Nest. The big data centre systems companies also piled in but more on the enterprise side, such as IBM with a $3 billion investment early in 2015 in its Watson IoT centre based in Munich.

Since then though the sheen has come off IoT a little with mixed signals from the leading players. Google in particular has struggled rather as it did initially with Android TV, with Nest failing to bring out promised new products and recently calling time on its smart home hub for wireless control of end devices called Revolv, which was launched amid much fanfare in October 2014 but then withdrawn in May 2015. It now looks like Google is pursuing a more distributed approach promoting direct interoperability among its own Nest devices without any intermediate hub, but that is not yet completely clear.

Another big US technology company Intel has also found the IoT sector harder going than it expected with its IoT Group reporting reduced revenue growth and a 25% year on year slump in operating income down to $132 million for 2015. The common theme here is failure of the IoT to break out of its silos so that both companies were left connecting their own things.

British Gas has fared better largely because as an energy utility it started with the expectation that it would be confined to its own domain for a while before branching out into other smart home sectors such as security and environmental control. The company instead is focusing on developing the analytics tools it believes will enable wider success in a future joined up IoT and has been investing in real time processing of the large data sets generated by its Hive connected thermostat. Hive allows users to control their boilers and central heating systems remotely by phone, which generates 30,000 messages a second amounting to 40 TB of static data so far, distributed across 30 nodes. Like Google, British Gas has created a dedicated IoT subsidiary called Connected Home, which has built an open source software stack running on the Apache Cassandra distributed database to process data both in real time and offline.

British Gas then is preparing for IoT’s second tipping point, which will come with joined up services that exploit synergy between different domains. IBM shares this conviction from its enterprise-focused perspective, drawing heavily on its cognitive computing work at its Thomas J. Watson Research Centre in New York, with one line being analysis of data from multiple remote sensors for predictive diagnostics. IBM is already enabling Pratt & Whitney to monitor 4,000 commercial engines and obtain early warning of faults that cause costly service outages if left unfixed until later, even if they are not safety critical.

Telcos are of course also intent on capitalizing on the IoT from their position as broadband providers to homes. One early mover is Paris based SoftAtHome, in which three major Telcos are investors, Orange of France, Swisscom and Etisalat based in the United Arab Emirates. The software developer has extended its home operating platform with CloudAtHome to enable centralized control of devices with potential for integration between domains. All such initiatives must support all the key wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee that IoT devices such as thermostats use to communicate. SoftAtHome uses a hybrid model combining some form of home hub and data repository with cloud-based processes. Such a hybrid approach aims to deliver the required flexibility, security (and privacy), performance and functional breadth. Flexibility comes from being able to deploy processes in the cloud or at home as appropriate, while keeping sensitive data within the local repository will ensure security and privacy. Performance may require some processes to be performed locally to keep latency down while some features may need cloud components.

A close look at this cloud/home distribution shows that in some cases the cloud should be partitioned between remote processes that may be executed in a distant data centre (what is usually called the cloud) and intermediate ones that might be best run at the network edge. This is known as Fog Computing, where some storage and processing takes place more locally perhaps in a DSLAM or even a street cabinet. The argument is that as IoT takes off, a lot of the initial data collection and analytics will be best performed at a Fog level before in some cases being fed back to the cloud after aggregation.

Fog could also work well for enterprise IoT where it might serve as a campus level control and aggregation layer within a larger cloud based infrastructure. It could also play a role as enterprise IoT becomes customer facing rather than mainly concerned with internal or supply chain operations. This could be a third IoT tipping point bringing together enterprise and consumer IT if a recent survey from Gartner is to be believed. This found that while only 18 percent of today’s enterprise IoT deployments are focused on customer experience, this will jump to 34 per cent over the year to Q1 2017. This represents a threefold absolute jump given that Gartner is forecasting the number of enterprises with IoT deployed somewhere to soar from 29 percent now to 43 per cent in a year’s time. Gartner also expects IoT to expand into new service related industry segments such as insurance beyond the heavier industries like manufacturing, utilities and logistics where it is concentrated now.

Such enterprise IoT forecasts have a history of becoming more accurate than some of the over hyped consumer analyst predictions. This means that if consumer IoT does continue to stall it may be dragged forward by enterprises seeking competitive advantage as well as new revenues, as we are seeing to an extent with the likes of British Gas.