This blog entry was first published on Videonet.
Back in 2001, I went to the “Convergence NAB” in Las Vegas, the Internet and TV were supposed to be merging. The 2011 IBC wasn’t dubbed “convergence” because that word is out of fashion ten years on. However that’s what all the IBC 2011 demos were really about.
Converging the Web and the TV, converging open and closed models, converging live and on-demand content, converging lean-back media with social media… Multiscreen, OTT and Adaptive Bit Rate were all the rage at this year’s IBC.
3D momentum was so strong last year that some things were still happening 12 months on, out of sheer inertia. If the decline in 3D interest year-on-year is anything to go by, next year will be in negative territory for 3D. The only prominent 3D news was the award James Cameron picked up, but awards are always about past achievement, not current trends. As Panasonic pointed out to me, the hype cycle is now in the trough so something real might come out of the next 3D decade.
In many booths, Connected TV was used for demos to illustrate points, but the devices were not promoted in their own right, except of course on the set-maker stands. Hey! maybe this is reminding us that a device is a device is a device. I saw lots of industrial strength demos, none with a real Wow effect. I’m however told by reliable sources (John Moulding in particular) that the NDS ‘Surfaces’ demo was the one to see to be “blown away”. See his write-up here.
I spoke on the trade floor to Harmonic, which will be covered in this first report along with the 3D discussion with Panasonic. In the remaining two parts of this series I will cover the discussions I had with Verimatrix, the in-depth demo of Irdeto’s multiscreen offering and briefer conversations I had with Jinni, SecureMedia, Cognik and Awox as well as the demos I saw form from the aisle of PeerTV, EchoStar and Telia Sonera.
Harmonic’s Thierry Fautier met me on their huge, spanking new booth loaded with demos. As with Jinni, all vendors complain that the sexiest demos are confidential because operators don’t want to share what they’re working on. But there were two novelties of real significance for IBC 2011 on Harmonic’s stand.
The Electra 9000 is a multi-screen-output encoder capable of delivering 2-4 channels depending on the number of required profiles (i.e. different screens targeted, and number of bitrates per screen for Adaptive Bit Rate encoding). The 9000 is based on the previous Electra 8000, the main novelty being new software. This product illustrates the industry trend towards converged headends that should make multiscreen deployment both easier and more cost-effective for operators. Fautier went on to comment that it’s impressive that connected TV has already become a reality despite MPEG DASH not being quite ready yet. In 2012 when this and some other industry initiatives come through, there should be a further acceleration.
The other key novelty this year is that Harmonic has now fully joined the software encoding bandwagon. The complete product suite is now available as software modules. For the moment, Harmonic servers are still needed for some elements, but commoditized servers will soon be able to run the whole suite. There will soon be OTT headends within commoditized blade servers. This will bring down the Total Cost of Ownership especially for operators who already have server farms.
The Harmonic monitoring features (described in my IBC 2010 report) are now available within hosted services. This illustrates the same trend as Nagra and Ericsson and is a step towards a fully integrated customer care centre. I asked Thierry Fautier about the Mezzanine-in-the-network concept that rival Envivio is pushing. Thierry answered that an IP backbone with Mezzanine format and decentralized functionality is still a bit Science-Fiction-like. It looks like I’ll have to visit Envivio to find out. Fautier asked a savvy question concerning this topic; what do I do with my Akamai relationship with an unprotected mezzanine format in the network?
I wrapped up my short Harmonic visit with a demo of live HLS on a Samsung Connected TV. The demo was as unimpressive (basically watching TV on TV) as it was significant. Industry wisdom has it that OTT services will be enabled by devices like Connected TVs and that the distribution of live TV feeds over unmanaged networks will be enabled by Adaptive Bit Rate such as HLS. Barry Flynn posted a nice write up of his chat with Thierry about the future AVC Codec that will be available in 2014. It’s on the connectedtv web site here.
This year I was courted by Panasonic’s PR team (only by phone I promise), so I set up a meeting with Markus Naegele on their booth. The key 2011 message from Panasonic was “Dreams, Ideas, Reality”. Panasonic is saying that the stuff we’ve been dreaming about for the last few years actually works in affordable products now. I stuck with domains I understand so we talked just about 3D and new codecs like AVC-Ultra.
I have blogged on my scepticism for 3D in the living room before (see here for example) so we started out exploring Panasonic’s take on the issue. Nigel pointed out that until recently, a key difficulty has always been in getting all the different engineers you need to get 3D right from all parts of the production cycle. Panasonic believe the 3DA1, as the first all-in-one camcorder they brought out last year, helps solve this issue. This year at NAB, they announced the 3DP1, which can deliver five different 3D formats including AVC, 100MB per channels, etc. This camera debuted during the French Tennis Open at Rolland Garros in a joint project with the French Tennis association (FFT), EuroSport and the production company Alphacam. What a challenge to combine all the required tech systems together for a multiday event! Markus told me that in the end, the trophy ceremony was too crowded to get a whole rig on site; it could only be accessed by a singe cameraman hence the key advantage of the new Panasonic Integrated cameras.
If Rolland Garros was a 3D production challenge, the London Olympics in 2012 will be fun for the Panasonic teams! Some sporting events will be covered in 3D as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Panasonic is doing it all. I asked Markus if sports are really appropriate for 3D as they are so unpredictable (i.e. if you plan for full 3D effect during a goal and there are 10, people will get headaches, and if there are none they will be frustrated). Naegele astutely answered that it’s more about the added emotion one gets from the more immersive 3D experience.
For most sports one addresses mainly fans, so if a camera set inside a goal doesn’t get used, so be it – the frustration of the lack of goal will only be mirrored by the frustration generated by the absence of any 3D effect occurring there. Hey, that’s what sport is all about isn’t it? Markus did agree though that Avatar had set expectations so high that we’re not yet out of the hype phase and thus, some frustration is inevitable. The whole point of Panasonic’s current 3D drive is to show just how much the industry has already caught up with those expectations: Markus believes we are now in the realistic phase. Indeed, on the display front, 3D is now getting standardized.
Panasonic believes that although 3D without glasses will be part of the future, there’s still work to do. I was shown a very light dual lens 3D camera that was announced at IFA. Panasonic is now addressing, with the introduction of the HDC-Z10000, the high-end of the consumer up to the entry level of the pro market.
On the Codec front Panasonic were showing off their latest wares. AVC-Intra is the current Codec family name and class-50 and class-100 are currently in use (the number referring to bandwidth in Mbps). IBC saw the launch of class-200 and class-400. AVC-Ultra is Panasonic’s new Codec initiative that will cater amongst others for 1080/50p and 4k formats.
But the main novelty, answering the current multi-screen bonanza, is that the codec can scale down as well as up so there will also be class-50 and class-25 versions. Also to answer customer demand, a new long-GOP version is in the works. To illustrate the point of this new long-GOP format, consider a 50 Mbps MPEG-2 using 8 bits per sample; well the new AVC long-GOP version, in spite of improving the samples to 10 bits, will be available within half the bandwidth at just 25 Mbps.