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@nebul2’s NAB 2016 Journal (UHD, HDR, VR, All-IP)

Las Vegas was again focused on UHD in 2016, at least through my eayes. The four Keywords I came away with were 1: UHD (again), 2: HDR, but also 3: VR and 4: All-IP production. Of course other things like drones were important, but I'm not a real journalist, I don't know how to write about things I don't know.

NAB Parking Day1

We got in from Europe on the Saturday evening and this year I was on a budget so we stayed in an Airbnb apartment with my colleague Marta. It turned out to be just behind the main LVCC parking lot. On Sunday morning, you can see on thE right what the parking looked like when you arrive before the show is really underway.

Size and growth of the industry

On the Sunday I sat for a moment through the "Media Technology Business Summit" run by Devoncroft and learned abit about the industry trends:

  • Starting with radio shows this year’s NAB is the 94th annual Show, so I suppose in 6 years we’ll have a big bonanza, I wonder if we’ll have something like Augmented Reality in 8K by then.
  • Devoncroft sees the global media being market worth 49bn in 2015 with the US Media industry having pushed revenue per user to the limit. 3000 vendors make up their industry panel and 2009-2015 CAGR was 1,9% with 2014-2015 OpEx spend at -4.2% and CapEx spend at -4.4%.
  • Despite the OTT craze and losing traditional subs, ESPN still gets 7$/Month from linear subscriptions, but only 0,42$/Month from OTT viewers, so hold your hats, linear pay-TV ain’t dead quite yet. Beyond sports, Devoncroft argues that even though there is growth, digital revenues are insufficient to replace linear ones. The big issue is how the ad market can transition.
  • 4K and UHD make up the third most import topic for respondents of Devoncroft's 2016 Big Broadcast Survey the results of which will soon be released. But Demand for UHD is less for “more pixels” than one for “better pixels”. So according to Devoncroft, like Ericsson, the HDR Vs. 4K debate is all but over.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

I then popped into an Augmented Reality (AR) conference where Gary Acock and Juan Salvo were discussing how to add live content to the UnReal video gaming engine. AR is seen as bringing the real world into Virtual Reality (VR). Stitching 360° video is still apparently a “pretty unpleasant experience” and French startup VideoStitch was mentioned as one of the key players working on fixing this. Currently 360° production design is limited by how effectively you can stitch video. But with AR there are also Inherent UX limitations like parallax issues with head movement or camera movement when there’s no head movement. With AR one needs to always know where the head is and how it's positioned as head movements affect the content that is being created.

The amount of data to process for VR can be well over 1TB / hour so the coming (?) VR/AR revolution needs powerful GPU and CPU.

AR, VR and any immersive experience are still moving targets in 2016. But neither AR nor VR are isolated from the broadcast experience anymore. Indeed VR is less of an isolating and lonely experience, but a new way of engaging, a bit like coming to a conference and interacting with social media on a smartphone at the same time. Content is still king and creating compelling content remains the goal where AR & VR are just other tools. As we still don't have toolsets like an « Adobe for AR/VR » we need to jerry-rig existing tools.

A VR demo that was not at NAB intrigued me. Frauhoffer’s Stephan Steglich told me about FAME. It’s the simple idea of navigating the 360 video with a remote control. 2 key advantages are removing the isolation aspect of having to wear something over the eyes and moving all the processing to the cloud, allowing for future-proof deployments. It sounded convincing but I’ll wait for a compelling demo before making an opinion.

Showstoppers

Sennheiser Mic

I had been told great things about the CES Showstoppers being a big event, at my first experience at NAB, it was a very focused affair where great food and wine seemed to be as attractive for the media as the companies to visit.

German manufacturer Sennheiser was showing off their latest MKE440 DSLR microphone, which they say is the first mini-shotgun for HQ stereo sound image in one take. I was more taken by the beautiful design of the prototype VR microphone that goes under VR camera.

I met up with V-Nova’s Fabio Murra who was showing their two OTT deployments based on their Perseus codec. FastFilmz launched on March 26 in India offering SVoD to a mobile-only Tamil customer base with a potential of 120m subs. There were 350 titles at launch and according to V-Nova, Perseus made the business case possible in southern India where only 2G is available in some areas, offering a 64-128 kbps bandwidth. The demo I saw was watchable at 120kbps using 14 fps (I had to point that out though). The Perseus codec is described as “hybrid on top of H264” with a metadata stream on top of H264. I’ll be looking to dig into this a bit more as I no longer understand exactly what this means after a heated discussion several analysts. Content is protected with DRM I couldn’t find out by who.

I only glimpsed the other demo of a 4K STB using OTT delivery. It was showing Tears of Steel at 4mbps and looked fine but without any wow effect at least for what was on screen then, or maybe it was just that I was too far away for the small screen.

V-Nova had already announced a contribution deal with Eutelsat and promised another one for the next day (which turned out to be Sky Italia).

brother

The Japanese company Brother that I wrongly thought of as a printer maker (does any Japanese company do only one thing?) was displaying « Airscouter », a surprising head-mounted monitor designed for cameramen in difficult positions. You see a 720p resolution image in the corner of one eye. It was a bit disconcerting and I guess limited to some very specific use cases. I felt a bit nauseous with it on my head but it does really work and felt maybe like what Iron Man might feel.

Ultra HD Forum

Monday was taken up with Ultra HD Forum activities for me. We had our own press conference in the morning and in the after noon I made a tiny presentation during the Pilot press conference in the Futures Park. I discussed, the forum’s reason for being, it’s history, our Plugfest #1, the Guidelines 2016 and the general « Work in Progress » aspect of live UHD.

« Pilot » is new name for « NAB Labs » that was started in 2012. We were among 30 exhibitors in Futures Park, which aims to promote « Edge of the art » concepts that are not yet commercialized. ATSC 3.0 was the star with 15 companies focusing on that alone. Other stuff is very diverse ranging from commercial R&D, government to academic research. NHK 8k Super High Vision was prominent as usual and the Nippon public broadcaster is still scheduled to launch commercially in 2018 « so people can enjoy in 2020 Japanese Olympics » in glorious 8K HDR with HFR.

Security and analytics

Monday night was over-booked and I chose the Verimatrix media dinner. I had some animated discussions on UHD and the extent to which HDR might be the only big game-changer (I still believe in 4K but am feeling more and more lonely on that front). Tom Munro the CEO gave me a great update on the company strategy and how the move towards analytics, which I now understand can be a logical progression for a security vendor. If the financial transactions are precious enough to secure, then private usage data is worthy of the same efforts. More on that in a dedicated blog soon.

Satellite industry on edge of a cliff and might UHD save it?

On Tuesday I got myself to the Satellite industry day. I have this vision on the industry (at least the broadcast and the Telecoms parts of it) sitting on the edge of a cliff wondering when fiber, 5G and delinearization will push the off the edge.

Despite a great lineup with Caleb Henry of Via Sat Mag, Steve Corda VP Bizdev SES, Markus Fritz Eutelsat, Dan Miner AT&T and Peter Ostapiuk of Intelsat, the opening panel didn’t really give me any new ideas to tackle that problem.

AT&T in particular sees similarities between the move from SD to HD and that from HD to UHD, but IntelSat sobered the audience asking how the content industry will make money from upgrade to UHD. SES’s Steve Corda made it scarier still reminding the audience that during the upgrade from SD to HD we didn't have competition from OTT as we do now with most early UHD coming from OTT suppliers.

The satellite industry panel agreed that demand for UHD channels is growing especially from their cable operator clients and that the bottleneck is still available content. AT&T's Dan Miner noted that a key change in OTT delivery in the coming 18 months is that US data plans will enable the TV Everywhere on cellular networks.

The consensus is that to have a monetizable UHD offering you need a bouquet of at least 2 channels, ideally at least to 5 including sports.

When the panel went round enumerating their live 4K services, I counted about a dozen UHD linear channels and as many demo channels as well as a few events based channels.

One of Viasat’s founders Mark Dankberg gave an inspirational talk reassuring the audience that the satellite industry’s future is safe, at least if they copy Viasat. The merger of AT&T and DirecTV is an indicator to him that Satellite without broadband is no longer viable in the long term. Viasat started 1986 in defense, during the 90's they got into VSAT (Data Networking) just on the B2B side. Dankberg believes high –orbit geostationary is still the way to go (instead of mid of low-orbit (LEO)) because it’s the best way to optimize resources with thousands of beams. He points out that as 95% of demand is in 15% of geography; LEO that orbit the earth can't do that. I was enthused by his talk and hoping to get home and write a blog about it, but when I looked through my notes I realized that in the end there wasn’t any new information, just the charisma and communicative beliefs of an industry veteran.

TV Middleware on Android

Beeniuis, the middleware guys from Slovenia that I’ve written about a few time caught me in the south hall so I went to have a look.

In demonstrating their new version 4.2 core product, Beenius told me that the EPG is dead but still went ahead to show me theirs. Navigation is via genres with favorite channels on top of a carousel that mixes live and VoD. Recommendation currently uses their own algorithms but can be based on Think Analytics with « Trending » content on second line.

beenius

The company is very Google-centric, although they still have a Linux offering with a Hybrid DVB solution. They clarified to me how GooglePlay apps can be controlled by the TV operator with three different approaches:

  1. 1. Preinstalled apps and an open GooglePlay
  2. 2. « Walled Garden » where the user chooses apps from the operator’s list typically among a dozen including YouTube, Netflix, etc.
  3. 3. Apps already embedding into the UI, which is also a closed model.

VoD also benefits from integrated recommendation but is open to extra info from the Web such IMDB content.

Beenius haven’t had much interaction with 4K yet, although they say they are ready. As with any competitive TV middleware you can fling content from screen to screen.

The operator-controlled UI can be updated from a central server so that a new version of the App gets automatically pushed to STB via GooglePlay as soon as it's closed and reopened. Playing in the google arena has enabled a full-featured app for Android powered smart TVs, Beanies just needs Google to finally get it right in the living room.

Automatically generated HDRB-COM

Ludovic Noblet of French institute of research B<>Com showed me a tool to up-convert SDR content to HDR. He sees it as a gap-filler for legacy setups which is already available for offline, with a real-time version planed for IBC 2016. The current version introduced a latency of just 3 images and was convincing even if it didn’t carry that amazing wow-effect of some native HDR content. He was very secretive about the first customers but seemed very confident.

The pull of social media

On the last day I had a quick stop at Texas Instrument’s tiny booth, simply because they engaged with me on twitter ;o)

The LMH1219 is a 12G SDI card shown above enables SDI cables to be up to 110m without any signal attenuation, instead of the usual 20-30m. Its UltraScale processing equalizes and Improves the signal. The TI chip is agnostic to metadata so should work fine with HDR for example.

Another hardware innovation they showed me was a single chip for receive (Cable EQ) or drive mode (TX) that makes BNC connectors more versatile as they needn't be just IN or OUT but can be either. The device isn’t available yet nor does it have a product name. Launch is expected in Q1 2017.

Note that I didn’t interact with any of the All-IP production vendors, but just noted it as a buzzing theme in conferences and on booth signage.

NAB Day 3

Oh and the Convention Centre car park looked like this from our apartment window by 9:30 am Monday through Wednesday:

That’s all for now folks.

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IBC 2013, impressions of a 4K OTT show

Although OTT has been an IBC topic for a few years, we actually saw a plethora of end-to-end platforms that actually worked, often purely in the cloud. The range of supplier was impressive from Israeli start-ups like Vidmind to multinationals like Siemens or the pioneer Kit digital, now reprendre Piksel. There was also much more talk of real world deployments. Underlying technologies are of course needed to enable OTT and adaptive bit rate (ABR) was omnipresent with most - but not all - stakeholders betting on the convergent MPEG-DASH flavour. OTT ecosystems can still be daunting and as we predicted in last year's white paper written for VO, Broadpeak and Harmonic, multi-vendor pre-integration was a trending theme. This year's IBC was, as expected, all about the forthcoming Ultra HD/4K resolution, which will now be enabled by the new HDMI 2.0 announced at IFA and HEVC. HEVC was shown in a few real world setups as oppose to last year's lab demos, although there wasn’t yet any consumer-grade decoding solutions. Many demos painfully showed that frame-rate is an issue as Thierry Fautier pointed out to me here. The jerky 25 FPS demos clearly made the point that it's going to be at least 50 FPS or higher resolutions just won't take off.  The 8K, Super Hi-Vision demo by NHK in the IBC's future zone blew my mind. With such an immersive experience, I doubt we’ll be wasting any more time with 3D in the living room. Although less prominent, but nevertheless significant, like the tip of an iceberg, the Smart Home continued its slow forward march with for example a demo of Cisco's Snowflake that dimmed the lights during a movie's night scenes. Several vendors like ADB or Nagra were talking about media hubs in the home. Big data was in a lot of discussions and I was pretty amazed by the power of solutions like Genius Digital's analysis of viewing statistics and how they can being immediate gain. Of course I too loved Wyplay's huge blue frog in hall 5, representing their new open source initiative, which needs to be analysed in the light of the US centric RDK project pushed by Comcast. As every year, I spent some time with a company slightly out of my usual focus, this year Livewire Digital showed me how professional newsgathering can meet BYOD. Some things I had expected (described here), but didn't see much of, included HTML5 that wasn't promoted as the mother of all UI technologies as I thought it would be. Also, despite Google’s recent successful Chromecast launch, dongles were not really visible at IBC (I’m told Qualcomm had one on their booth). Finally, it occurs to me tidying up my notes, that the true implication of the BYOD phenomenon hasn’t really been addressed head-on. Of course the show and conference were full of things to say about tablets and smartphones, but nobody seems to be looking at the deep business model transformation underway. When I learnt to do a TV launch business model, barely over a decade ago, the STB represented 70% of the project CAPEX if you hit a million subs. So in the future will a TV rollout cost 30% of what it used to, with the subscriber subsidising the operator for the other 70%? This is about my tenth IBC. In the jury for best booth, to which I was invited again this year (thanks Robin Lince), we realised that as IBC matures in the age of Internet and social media, the show is less about learning what the latest trend or product is or even what people think about them, we usually know all that before even coming. Face to face networking and building relations are the deeper motivation. In follow-up posts I’ll report on the 17 companies I spoke to this year at IBC: Brightcove, Envivio, Axinom, Visiware, Vidmind, Wyplay, Genius Digital, Astec, Axentra, Gravity, Akamai, Rovi, Cisco, Livewire Digital, Tara Systems, Verimatrix and SofAtHome.

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IBC 2012 Takeaways

I didn’t actually see much Web-TV as I had expected to (see previous blog), but several IBC 2012 write-ups I have read so far, including those from people I respect like Giles Cottle or John Moulding have said say that there was no new “big thing” this year. I disagree or otherwise, there never is anything radically new – it depends on your point of view. Below is what I picked up as genuine game changers:

  • The Telia Soneria STB shrunk into a Samsung TV app is a true paradigm shifter.
  • VO’s second screen “Deep” app is also a breakthrough innovation; with the “doh-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” magazine approach to content browsing.
  • Sony's 4K consumer TV hit me in the stomach just as hard as when I first saw an HD display about ten years ago.
  • Huge progress in the way data can be extracted from devices with extensions to the TR-069 protocol shown at the ADB, the SoftAtHome or the Mariner Partner’s stands to name just a few (bit expect more detailed reports after BBWF next month).
  • All this data will need to be crunched, paving the way to a major 2013 theme, which will be Big Data.
  • NDS showed their Solar project that is all about bringing this Big Data approach to TV. Project Fresco (ex project Surfaces) was also being demoed behind closed doors, and even if it's hard to see this impacting the market for many years, it is a mind blowing demo using a massive 6k display.

In my forthcoming write-up also expect an update on Verimatrix’ never ending successes, a sexy start-up called Klia with a CRM product delivering part of the Big Data promise before anyone else, HEVC news or lack thereof, Kit digitals strong attempt to reassure and updates on Zappware, Harmonic, Capablue, Visual Unity, Broadpeak, never.no, Corpus Media labs.

If one of these subjects is of more relevance to you than others, let me know, I’ll be sure to cover it more thoroughly … detailed write-up coming soon.

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UAE incumbent goes OTT – IP&TV World Forum MENA report – Part 1/2 – Etisalat

This year’s IP&TV World Forum in Dubai was another show that could easily have been called the OTT forum – which begs the question of whether it’s worth going to the show with that title: as all the TV related gigs have gone over the top. In Dubai this year, most of the presentations during the conference and almost all the booths were full of it.

To learn what was talked about at the conference, check the #IPTVWFMEA hash tag on twitter or follow me @nebul2. My highlight was Thierry Fautier’s enthusiastic presentation of MPEG-DASH and my “”OMG what’s that?” moment arrived just before the close when we had an evangelical presentation from JOY LUXE IPTV in a gospel style on the 10 stupidest things not to do with apps. I was so amazed I stayed till the end, but don’t remember a single thing that was said.

However, overall the conference was of a good quality with variety and much local issues addressed. As last year, the MEA version of the show brings in a small, but a very focussed and powerful crowd with quite a lot of decision makers up to CEO level. Together with the genuine 5-star location, that lends a feeling of importance to the event. Decisions seem to take a long time in the Middle East and I heard it quipped that that was why the big guns had to come several times.

The exhibition floor

This year, I only stopped by in booths I haven’t visited before, leaving out for another time the likes of Motorola, Bridge or NDS that I have written about before. This first installment only covers Etisalat. Selevision, Mariner Partners Anevia and some others will be covered in part two.

The Etisalat booth took-up about a quarter the complete show floor space and it also housed small demo pods for a dozen key suppliers making up both its IPTV and its OTT ecosystem. These include suppliers large and small like Harmonic (encoding), SoftAtHome (middleware), Phxx (OTT solution developer), Airties (device manufacturer), Consona (OSS/BSS), Alfalak (Integrator), Pace (STB), etc.

I asked Jamal Bnari, one of the key project stakeholders to give me the guided tour of the Etisalat OTT demos.

Jamal first joked with me about how little IPTV there was at the show despite its name. The vast Etisalat booth echoed his feeling just like the rest of the show floor, with OTT occupying most of the space and pure-play IPTV relegated to only a few small booths.

Jamal explained to me that Etisalat’s new OTT services were initially planned as new commercial services to run alongside the existing IPTV service. The OnDemand service available on the web is actually the IPTV VOD library made available outside of the traditional IPTV suite (Live TV, Catch-up TV, etc.). The intent is to allow non-IPTV Etisalat subscribers to consume high-quality VOD content. Since this is still a managed network service (the service comes from the ISP), these customers are provisioned for IPTV but not allowed access to the other services in the IPTV except for VOD of course. This approach overcomes the usual QOS issue with OTT.

For Jamal, the business benefit is this – “OTT either adds real value (ARPU) to existing TV subs or perceived value (stickiness)”. It also enables Etisalat to upsell heavy broadband users towards the complete TV story including the core IPTV solution. There’s a parallel here with big DTH platforms that use VoD primarily as a recruitment tool with extra ARPU providing a nice secondary benefit.

The OTT eLife service called OnWeb is already commercially deployed in the UAE and available to subscribers of all ISPs. Of course, there’s no guaranteed QOS here.

We then whizzed through all the eLife OTT demos (eLife is the brand used for all new services delivered over fibre). Jamal was adamant that Etisalat is going to be selling services NOT devices with this new approach.

The goal is to have the same user Interface on all devices (simplified but not changed on smaller screens). We discussed whether a same navigation paradigm can actually work for devices as different as a smartphone and a 47” HD screen with a remote control. My feeling was that it’s more about capturing a similar user experience than providing an identical interface.

For all OTT services, customers must setup an account with a few required parameters. The same credentials and payment options are used for all devices. The account is then hosted in the cloud. For now one user equates to one account and multiple devices, which works fine for individual devices. But for family TVs some enhancements will be needed.

The demo of eLife OnWeb was being shown on several STBs, importantly, none with the Etisalat brand. Third parties, who choose to include eLife OnWeb with their STB services, provide the devices. On display at the show there was a Humax branded box, an Abu Dhabi media device (Broadcom, Linux), a Kaon branded Android box, a pure IP box from Humax, an AirTies box and an LG SmartBox/Upgrader to make dumb TVs smart (exclusive to Etisalat and not available in the retail markets in the UAE). If nothing else, that impressive line-up shows that integrating Etisalt’s OTT services can’t be all that difficult.

When you fire-up the service, you are presented with a Video Dashboard promoting: Featured, Most-popular, Most-recent and My-favourites.
The TVOD menu is sub-categorized with: Featured, Latest, Popular, Browse (alphabetical), Arabic, Genres (leading to a sub-menu of a whopping 13 genres) and a menu item labelled “Content-Provider”, which I’m guessing will confuse many a user. The Movies menu has the same basic layout as the TVoD one.

The final elements available through the user interface are an unclear concept of “Channels”, an “other videos” category and a confusing second “Movie” section separate from the main movies menu, begging the question of where I should look for movies. The final menu structure contains “Premium” packages and Pay-Per-View, which made me completely lose track of what to look for where.

So after getting off to a good start the demo’s menu structure left me a bit confused. On the upside, the Phxx people on the booth (Phxx are the software developers) said that the menu structure is easy to simplify. Also they told me that menus are created dynamically so if, say a film category contains no assets, the associated menu item will not be displayed. Maybe in the future the EPG/UI could become even more intelligent and merge genres - like Action & Adventure when the total in both genres was of user-friendly size.

The breadth of content and service ambition of Etisalat is huge. Restraining the scope will provide one easy key to simplification of user experience. As services start to rollout with real content for real users, I trust things will get simpler on their own, focussing on where real demand meets Etisalat’s ability to satisfy it with content.

After looking at all the OTT STBs, Jamal took me over to their range of tablet devices. Samsung Galaxy tabs were on display in 10” & 8” sizes with an almost pocketable 6” device from Huawei. All these tabs were of course running Android. The live demos used 3G for video streaming because the exhibition area was over-saturated with Wi-Fi traffic from most of the booths. The streaming worked impressively over 3G using both progressive download (PDL) and adaptive bitrate (ABR). But the 6” Huawei screen illustrated the limits of the one-size fits all approach to user interfaces. I didn’t have a magnifying glass with me so I couldn’t read any of the smaller text.

The iPad suffered the feared “demo-effect” crashing a few times before we could get under way. Because of iTunes licencing issues, the interface under iOS is different with a system of “buckets”. This content-provider-centric approach to the UI is extremely simple with a list of 12 content provides per page and three pages at launch. Categorization is also available with genres within each “bucket”.

The Connected TV demo showed a UI similar to the iOS one and used a 2-level menu structure. Jamal assured me that an upgrade is in the works to make this identical to the tablet and STB versions. Etisalat provide an LG Smartbox to upgrade non-connected TVs so they too can be smart.

The Web portal provides the same user experience as the Connected TV. This approach only makes sense for geeks that hook their PC up to their TV. Normal human beings lean forward while using a PC or Mac, and lean back in front of the TV, which requires a different paradigm. Jamal reassured me that the web portal will be replaced with a 'busier' version similar to today’s typical video aggregation site.

The smartphone demo was given on an LG Android device. The UI I saw was simplified to the extent that it contradicted the single UI mantra that Etisalat is trying to implement. But the Phxx guys told this part was still very much “work in progress”, so perhaps I’ll have to come back in a few months and look again.

Jamal told me that some devices are in the shops already and that the whole line-up of everything I saw should be commercially available by the end of the first quarter 2012. By then more devices like Xbox, Roku or Boxee will be announced.

Etisalat’s OTT initiative can only inspire awe and admiration for its breadth and depth of ambition. If they succeed, they will reinforce their service provider nature as the network gets commoditized. The confusion I saw in the UI demonstrates the need to make the strategy completely clear to implement something something a la Apple. The ecosystem they put together is made up of some of the most reputable and innovative suppliers in the market. As there are about nine of them, I can not help thinking of the saying that nine midwifes cannot deliver your baby in one month, However, I look forward to meeting this child as soon as mother and baby are ready.

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Early release windows; are we ready, or is it already too late?

This blog first appeared on Videonet.

Last week I spoke to Petr Peterka, CTO of Verimatrix, about the Hollywood studio’s latest attempt to avoid following in the music industry’s footsteps and the new Verimatrix’ watermarking product.

The general context we addressed appears bleak. The musical CD is no longer relevant for mass consumption and the DVD looks as if it is following in that direction. The MP3 format has become ubiquitous for music files. Will formats like MP4 or h.264 files doing the same for video? Just as P2P seems at last to be slowing, is streaming now taking up the slack?

Book publishers are also alarmed at what their future might hold for them. Tim Bradshaw, the FT’s digital media correspondent noted on May 17th that according to a recent survey, one in eight female tablet or e-reader owners over the age of 35 admits to downloading “unauthorised” copies of e-books. It’s not so much the 1 in 8 figure as the image of women over 35, which catches the imagination. Illicit content consumption is not just from acne-ridden boys. So if we’re all potential pirates, could digital watermarking be the deterrent that might finally work where previous threats have failed to stem the tide of piracy?

With session-based, forensic digital watermarking small changes are made to the video file. These cannot be viewed or heard by the viewer, but can be extracted out again from the file with the tools provided by the watermarking solution vendor. If someone redistributes his or her copy of a film, a unique “fingerprint” remains embedded in the video file. So after investigation, a finger can be pointed at the person who first redistributed their copy.

So that’s the stick, but the movie industry is trying to put together a carrot by creating new early release windows for movies. As users are prepared to pay for convenience, it seems only natural to expect them to pay a premium to get access to a movie more conveniently. Organising a movie party at home to show friends a film that might still be in movie theatres would be worth spending a bit more than on a normal $5 VoD (current US VoD rights start 90 days after theatre debut, the new “Home Premiere” would be available 30-60 days after debut instead).

The difficult question is exactly how much more is that worth? Studios have been talking of up to US$ 25 more for a rental period. TDG recently analysed the potential demand and was not convinced that this kind of proposition can fly. According to the TDG analysis, users would only be prepared to spend an extra $5, and only if the movie were available within a week of theatre release. Further, the TDG study notes that there is still some leeway in playing with both the price and time frame so there may be room for a new offering even if studios might have to lower their expectations a bit.

However, more people are betting on ad-funded models with free or cheaper content made available. Many small transactions are more in fashion than fewer big ones. As digital watermarking requires session-based processing, it will be too expensive for micro-transactions. Time will tell if offering something better for a higher price will be going against the current in the entertainment industry or not. Sometimes bone-headed stubbornness has paid, albeit rarely.

Verimatrix is involved in enabling this early release VoD window but Petr rightly used the term “experiment” when describing this initiative from the studios.

He told me that they had been waiting for three specific requirements to be fulfilled before embarking on this project:

  • Firstly secure encryption was required. This has been achieved and consolidated in the last decade
  • Disabling analogue output was the second requirement so as to make it harder to record. This was only achieved recently in the US when, last year, the Selectable Output Control issue was finally resolved last year.
  • Finally, studios required session based forensic watermarking which is what the new Verimatrix product is all about.

Verimatrix released a product called VideoMark 5 years ago, which was able to insert a digital watermark payload into the video outputs of a set-top box in real time. This addressed a range of re-broadcast and re-distribution threats, but required device-by-device software integration. The novelty of the newly released StreamMark product is that the watermarking can now happen in Head End or in the Content Distribution Network (CDN). Indeed the watermark can be inserted into a compressed and encrypted stream. By removing the requirement of decoding and decrypting, this new solution requires only a very small processing overhead. But as this solution is technically a stateful one, scalability will still imply some cost, even if it's a small one. StreamMark is designed to insert a unique watermark for each user and is therefore primarily useful for unicast not multicast, i.e. on-demand applications.

No information is required on the end device so this kind of architecture is well adapted to multiscreen deployments that at the moment are on everyone’s mind.

The basic challenges of any watermarking technology are that the watermark must be:

  • invisible
  • easy to extract
  • difficult for pirates to see and remove.

As these challenges can be somewhat contradictory, a finely tuned combination of different algorithms is necessary, and achieving this is probably one way we will see competing solutions differentiate.

Verimatrix' solution requires three separate steps:

  • Firstly, the video assets must be pre-processed, usually when the operator ingests new content. This stage identifies and stores the location of potential marks. For each of these locations, the information that would be inserted is also prepared and stored for future use.
  • The second stage is to embed the watermarks at distribution a point where a unique session is set up. This can be in a central server or regional VOD server or in an edge CDN server. The original file has extra info added to it that embeds a unique transaction ID.
  • The final stage will only happen when pirated content is discovered. For now extracting the watermark is only done in Verimatrix’ labs.

Copyright Verimatrix

The technology was reviewed by the major studios during the soft-launch period and a third party audit was carried out by Jian Zhao, a distinguished researcher in watermarking theory and practice.

The Verimatrix pricing structure is based on unique payloads i.e the number of transactions and is volume dependent. On June 7th, StreamMark, which has been in soft launch for a year, was be released commercially.

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My plans for IP&TV World Forum 2011

Like many attendees, this year I’ll be wearing several different hats again during the show. I’ll start as a blogger and a bit of a twit (@nebul2), then put on the independent expert & analyst attire. I shall finish off the conference wearing my active IP&TV / VoD consultant’s hat.

On the exhibition floor, I’ll be milling around and peeking at everything. Last year was notable for the fancy UI demos based on Intel chipsets. This year I expect the other chipset vendors to respond. So I’m looking forward to Sigma Design’s G.hn demos and whatever is new from ST and co. I trust Pace, ADB and the other STB makers will oblige.

I’m proud to have got my 3D prediction right: last year was too early for the 3D bonanza, and it looks like this year is already late enough to avoid it again, so I don't expect to waste much more time looking at puny 3D demos.

Last year’s OTT and connected TV demos were still mostly just concepts despite several of them having already been around in 2009, but I expect to see more live services demoed this year. I’ll be especially attentive to any booths that are showing OTT services that, beyond looking desirable to the end-user, make business sense. I suppose a holy grail while going from OTT demo to OTT demo will be anything that looks like it could become a connected TV Esperanto, but that’s probably just wishful thinking; I must save some expectations for 2012’s show.

Now for the conference.
Day one: I’ll head off to the OTT breakfast hosted by an interesting ecosystem of companies, three of which I often write about. For OTT to make a difference, cooperation is central that’s why I find this initiative interesting.
Awox’s Olivier Carmona is technical marketing director of a small company with a big vision that dared to nail its colours to the DLNA mast way before it was hip.
I’m looking forward to a scheduled interview with Steve Christian of Verimatrix.
Unlike most competitors in the security business who still only really care about today’s CAS cows, Steve also gets fired up about what’s coming. He often leaves me with a “why didn’t I think of that” feeling.
Next comes Thierry Fautier who is Harmonic’s IP convergence guy. His forceful views on the way the industry is heading always take me by surprise.
Then I’m looking forward to getting the views of Minerva, Real & Heavy Reading whom I know less well but will be there too.

Thus I’ll miss the opening keynote plenary. The main conference room is usually packed with journalists so if anything interesting comes out of those presentations I’ll pick it up on twitter (@julianclover usually tweets if its really breaking news so I recommend following him as well as the #iptvwf hash tag). The only operator in the opening session is Virgin Media. IP&TV WF still has this bizarre UK focus on keynotes in spite of the fact that this is supposed to be a WORLD forum and that the UK is a long way from the centre of the IP&TV universe. As an expat Brit, I can’t help wondering if it’s an unconscious remnant of the British empire: when my Austrian grandparents got married in the 20s, they went to the centre of the world for their honeymoon, it was Nelson’s column. But that was almost a century ago.

Anyway, back to IPTV, I’ll then spend the rest of day one between the 4 conference streams and the exhibition floor.
As I’ve always been fascinated how marketing genius creates brands like Häagen-Dazs or Red Bull out of absolutely nothing, I’ll try and get to the Red Bull presentation at 3:10 in the Content stream.

Wednesday morning’s plenary seems more promising with speakers from both YouView and HbbTV, so I’ll be looking forward to some sparks flying there and a debate beyond the confines of the UK market.
If I still have fee time in the morning, I’ll be going to the Network optimisation stream, which is about adaptive rate streaming, one of my hobby horses from 2008. Huw Price-Stephens, the stream chair is probably the best chairman I’ve seen at IP&TV WF. He’s witty and provocative, so even when the speakers disappoint, he raises the standard. I’ll certainly be staying in his stream later in the afternoon, as a panellist at 15:10 on video delivery for the last mile.

I don’t know if that’s a demotion or a promotion, but for the first time, I’m not invited to the awards ceremony, which is held this year at the end of day 2. I never like Madame Tussaud’s and in any case I’ll be going to an exclusive Warner & Grey Juice screening that evening instead.

Day three will kick off for me at 8AM as I’m hosting an analyst breakfast on the commoditization of IPTV. So far we’ve had an exciting LinkedIn debate with 60 contributions so far. It came in response to a blog on the death of IPTV in France that I published on my site.
Then for much of the last day I’ll be wearing a consultant’s hat talking to clients.
I’m not too worried about missing the Google & Netflix talks during the plenary session. I’ve only ever been disappointed when listening to these big guns. Note that that may be because my expectations are set wrongly.
I’ll try and catch some of the CDN stream, which focuses on where operators are either in pain or see opportunity today as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow for the other streams.
IPTV WF have had to fight so hard to get credible speakers from the network operators (I remember being one of the first in 2004 or 2005), that now the pendulum has swung the other way: in the whole day on CDN’s almost all speakers are network operators. I’ll make a point of trying to attend the presentation from Astro, the Malaysian DTH platform at 3:30. It’s always better to start by understanding the market needs before the offers.

Then it’ll be a rush back to St Pancras station to catch a Eurostar, and hopefully write up some notes to publish here on the journey home.