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HbbTV is for real and is growing beyond its French and German birth ground

HDMI stick from Japanese startup TVF

A look at some of the demos from the December 2012 HbbTV Symposium

HbbTV has been a hot topic for a couple of years now and seems to be spreading well beyond it’s original Franco-German birth grounds, albeit still mainly within Europe for now: Spain and Scandinavia were most mentioned at this year HbbTV Symposium. Although I saw a lot of Brits at the symposium there wasn’t much mention of HbbTV activity from what seems, in this context, a remote Island territory. HD Forum’s Frédéric Tapissier invited me to the gathering that was held in Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris and of course all the speakers were preaching to the quire about how great HbbTV is. So in this blog I’ll just concentrate on the real HbbTV demos that were on show. And yes it does now seem that we’re well beyond slideware: there is at last some horsepower under the HbbTV bonnet, although some of the solutions I saw, however impressive, didn’t always fix a problem I knew existed. I got to see 4 of the 6 demos on display, here’s what I saw.

IMJ is a Japanese service development company with about 800 people. In October they launched a 5 people spinoff called TVF located San Jose. Nariaki Hatta was demonstrating an HDMI Wi-Fi stick that turns any old TV with HDMI into a smart-TV. So far not much of that is new, but what really dazzled me was a simply feature which I could see making this work even for your great aunt. With the stick plugged into an HDMI behind the TV, launching a Smartphone app automatically launched an app on the dongle. Assuming the TV is set to automatically tune into an HDMI that becomes active this is a potential for a zero setup kit. My Sony TV at home wakes up on some HDMI ports from some devices, so it’s possible, but this is a potential Achilles heel if HDMI hand shaking doesn’t work.

HDMI stick from Japanese startup TVF

I was a bit surprised to see this small Japanese offshoot come all the way from the West coast to rainy France. Nariaki Hatta told me they came via Intertrust, a major sponsor of this year’s event. Oh by the way, the Intertrust CEO gave an enlightening talk that wasn’t about the glory of HbbTV, but explained why Google and Apple born out of the tech start-up world were so bad at the standards game as oppose to TV operators, and so were less likely to be HbbTV supporters. But back to TVF, also surprising was that their whole Linux and Android environment isn’t yet HbbTV, they’re working on it, so their presence really was a mystery.

Anyway the Demo, that turns a smartphone into a remote control to control a VoD portal, was impressive with absolutely no latency when flicking on the smartphone with simultaneous response on the large screen. Live TV services are not supported yet, but Mr Hatta told me this could come in the future.

A commercial launch is pending in Japan with the mobile operator Softbank Mobile.

The next demo that caught me Eye was breathtakingly simple. French TdF

demoed its new “Salto” service, which has just been launched with French public broadcaster France Télévisions. Salto is a pretty cool name for the service, it means somersault in French.

Salto is a near-real-time start-over service available when programs are still airing. It is available from 2 minutes into the program and until the program is finished, when it is made available from within the TV station’s own catch’up service.

The intended Unique Selling Point (USP) is simplicity. Salto is currently available for HbbTV, although it can be ported to any other environment.

The only constraint is that a client app must be deployed on the viewing device.

A small blue button appears whenever you are watching a program for which Salto is available (i.e. when you tune to a live program that started at least 2 minutes ago). Pressing the blue button of your remote let’s you start-over the program, i.e. from the beginning. Pressing the blue button again brings you back to the real-time transmission. That’s it – I don’t see how it could get any simpler.

The app knows what channel is being watched so the TDF backend servers can then serve up a unicast stream on request. An internal TDF CDN is used to stream “open files”. This required some specific engineering as the traditional streaming techniques for VoD work with “closed” files.

The demo that Guy Huquet showed me included an HbbTV enabled TV set and a 2nd screen demo running on an iPad.

IRT is the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, the German research centre for broadcasters and a long-time supporter of HbbTV. Georg Huber for IRT was demoing a red-button demo from German public broadcaster ARD. The features available included:

  • Teletext converted to HbbTV in HD quality,
  • Mediatek, which is a catch’up tv service,
  • An EPG representing the time line of TV channel with present, past & future linking to catch’up and PVR,
  • Special event live streaming during the Olympic games (no longer operational),
  • A selection of HD webcams with panoramas from Germany and Austria.

 

A menu bar on the bottom of the screen is easily sinkable to fit broadcasters graphics charter and logo in true HbbTV spirit.

A shopping demo looked promising until it transpired that it lamely requires a number obtained independently from the shopping website.

A fun TV App Gallery demo involved flashing a QR code to connect second screen to TV set, then scan in a new app with another QR Code (e.g. from my doctor’s waiting room). However much fun this seemed, I did get a feeling this part of the demo was one of those neat solutions desperately looking for a problem to solve.

Lastly, “DOTSCREEN” is a French start-up with 30 people in Boulogne near Paris.

Their CEO Pascal-Hippolyte Besson positioned the company for me explaining that compete with the likes of Accedo Broadband in that they develop apps but say their differentiators are that they also run services and target more screens including the car radio.

They have been an early adopter of HbbTV, also developing apps for France TV.

I saw demos on show of French daily paper “20 minutes” and Météonews available in 20 languages.

On the latter, a 30-minute playlist cleverly looks like barker channel. When you select a geographic area a pre-roll ad is played, which is the business model here. Weather forecasts are available from 10 days to 3 hours. The app is distributed on Philips’ TV as a reference app worldwide and by LG in France although it can be downloaded anywhere. With the advertising DOTSCREEN is clearly playing in the B2C arena. It is however early days and not yet clear what kind of rev-share deals will be available for TV set makers or other stakeholder.

Other developments of note include apps for France 24, TéléStar, Deezer, the PS3 platform and Aljazeera’s stream app for Google TV.

DOTSCREEN’s Olympic games demo, developed for France TV, was still running too.

This demo included moderated news & tweets. French broadcaster TF1 that was listening to the same demo as me noted that the performance of the app was stunning in real-time.

DOTSCREEN finished with an interesting demo for a “pseudo-channel” of home decorating videos pulled off a video store. It showed how to simply breath some fresh life into a collection of videos that could be gathering dust in video storage somewhere. In this case, the app drove the user to interact by making some boring old videos look super sophisticated just with some clever navigation e.g. a playlist of all videos relevant to redecorate a bathroom. Of course there’s a business model here too as the interactivity also lets you buy objects like lights or other fixtures.

The Demo for the daily free paper “20 Minutes” illustrated the fully automated extraction of videos and metadata from the newspaper’s website.

PS: I missed out on the demo of HTTV that was at the show. I'll be posting an update soon.