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My 10 does-the-emperor-have-any-clothes-on questions for IBC17

To get the most out of my annual pilgrimage to Amsterdam, I’ve sat down and had think about the big questions I don’t believe we have answers on in late 2017.

I came up with 10, which only represent what I’ve been working on not necessarily the complete picture. Clearly we need to take ourselves less seriously sometimes. I for one would never trust an expert who has straightforward answers to all these questions, because the honest truth is that we don’t know.

From new to old topics:

1.   What will mainstream HDR look like in 2018?

Continue reading My 10 does-the-emperor-have-any-clothes-on questions for IBC17

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@nebul2’s 14 reasons why 2015 will be yet another #UHD #IBCShow

Ultra HD or 4K has been a key topic of my pre and post IBC blogs for over 5 years. I’ve recently joined the Ultra HD Forum, serving on the communications working group. That’s a big commitment and investment, as I don’t have any large company paying my bills. I’m making it because I believe the next 18 months will see the transition from UHD as the subject of trials for big operators and precursor launches to something no operator can be without. Time to get off the fence. I once wrote that the 3D emperor didn’t have any clothes on; well, the UHD emperor is fully clothed.

Of course much still needs to be achieved before we see mass adoption. I don’t know if HDR and 4K resolution will reach market acceptance one at a time or both together, and yes, I don’t know which HDR specification will succeed. But I know it’s all coming.

Below is a list of 14 key topics ordered by my subjective (this is a blog remember) sense of comfort on each. I start with areas where the roadmap to industrial strength UHD delivery is clear to me and end with those where I’m the most confused.

Note on vocabulary: 4K refers to a screen resolution for next gen TV whereas UHD includes that spatial resolution (one even sees UHD phase 2 documents refer to an 8K resolution) but also frame rate, HDR and next generation Audio.

So as I wander round IBC this year, or imagine I’m doing that, as probably won’t have time, I’ll look into the following 14 topics with growing interest.

1. Broadcast networks (DVB)

I doubt I’ll stop by the big satellite booths for example, except of course for free drinks and maybe to glimpse the latest live demos. The Eutelsat, Intelsat or Astras of this world have a pretty clear UHD story to tell. Just like the cableCos, they are the pipe and they are ready, as long as you have what it takes to pay.

2. Studio equipment (cameras etc.)

As a geek, I loved the Canon demos at NAB, both of affordable 4K cameras and their new ultra sensitive low-light capabilities. But I won’t be visiting any of the studio equipment vendors, simply because I don’t believe they are on the critical path for UHD success. The only exception to this is the HDR issues described below.

 3. IP network; CDN and Bandwidth

Bandwidth constricts UHD delivery; it would be stupid to claim otherwise. All I’m saying is that by putting this issue so high on the list everything is clear in the mid-term. We know how fast High-Speed Broadband (over 30MPS) is arriving in most markets. In the meantime, early adopters without access can buy themselves a UHD Blu-ray by Christmas this year and use progressive download services. The Ultra HD Alliance has already identified 25 online services, several of which support PDL. Once UHD streams get to the doorstep or the living room, there is still the issue of distributing them around the home. But several vendors like AirTies are addressing that specific issue, so again, even if it isn’t fixed, I can see how it will be.

 4. Codecs (HEVC)

The angst around NAB this year when V-nova came out with a bang has subsided. It seems now that even if such a disruptive technology does come through in the near-term, it will complement not replace HEVC for UHD delivery.

The codec space dropped from a safe 2 in my list down to 4 with the very recent scares on royalties from the HEVC Advance group that wants 0.5% of content owner & distributor’s gross revenue. Industry old-timers have reassured me that this kind of posturing is normal and that the market will settle down naturally at acceptable rates.

 5. Head-ends (Encoders, Origins, etc.)

I always enjoy demos and discussion on the booths of the likes of Media Excel, Envivio, Harmonic, Elemental or startup BBright and although I’ll try to stop by, I won’t make a priority of them because here again, the mid-term roadmaps seem relatively clear.

I’ve been hearing contradictory feedback on the whole cloud-encoding story that has been sold to us for a couple of years already. My theory – to be checked at IBC – is that encoding in the cloud really does make sense for constantly changing needs and where there is budget. But for T2 operators running on a shoestring – and there are a lot of them – the vendors are still mainly shifting appliances. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you’d expect the whole cloud concept of mutualizing resources to work better for the smaller guys. I must have something missing here, do ping me with info so I can update this section.

 6. 4K/UHD resolutions

While there is no longer any concern on what the screen resolutions will be, I am a little unclear as to the order in which they will arrive. With heavyweights like Ericsson openly pushing for HDR before 4K, I’m a little concerned that lack of industry agreement on this could confuse the market.

 7. Security for UHD

Content owners and security vendors like Verimatrix have all agreed that better security is required for UHD content. I see no technical issues here – just that if the user experience is adversely affected in any way (remember the early MP3 years), we could see incentive for illegal file transfer grow, just when legal streaming seems to be taking of at last.

 8. TV sets & STBs

Well into second half of my list, we’re getting into less clear waters.

When it’s the TV set that is doing the UHD decoding, we’re back at the product cycle issue that has plagued smart TVs. It’s all moving too fast for a TV set that people still would like to keep in the living room for over 5 years.

On the STB side, we’ve seen further consolidation since last year’s IBC. Pace for example is no longer; Cisco is exiting STBs etc. It seems that only players with huge scale will survive. Operators like Swisscom or Orange can make Hardware vendors’ lives harder by commoditizing their hardware using software-only vendors such as SoftAtHome to deliver advanced features.

 9. Frame rates

This is a really simple one but for which consensus is needed. At a 4K screen resolution the eye/brain is more sensitive to artifacts. Will refresh rates standardize at 50Hz or 60Hz? Will we really ever need 120Hz?

It’s clear that doubling a frame rate does not double the required bandwidth as clever compression techniques come to play. But but I haven’t seen a consensus on what the bandwidth implication of greater frame rate will actually be.

10. Next Gen Audio

There are only a few contenders out there, and all have compelling solutions. I’m pretty keyed up on DTS’s HeadphoneX streamed with Unified Streaming packagers because I’m helping them write an eBook on the subject. Dolby is, of course, a key player here but for me it’s not yet clear how multiple solutions will cohabit. It isn’t yet clear how if and when we’ll move from simple channel-based to scene based or object based audio. Will open source projects like Ambiophonics play a role and what about binaural audio.

11. HDR

High Dynamic Range is about better contrast. Also, the brain perceives more detail when contrast is improved, so it’s almost like getting more pixels for free. But the difficulty with HDR and why it’s near the bottom of my list is that there are competing specifications. And even once a given specification is adopted, its implementation on a TV set can vary from one CE manufacturer to another. I final reservation I have is the extra power consumption it will entail that goes against current CE trends.

12. Wide Color Gamut

As HDR brings more contrast to pixels WCG brings richer and truer colors. Unlike with HDR, the issue isn’t about which spec to follow, as it is already catered for in HEVC for example. No, it’s more about when to implement it and how the color mapping will be unified across display technologies and vendors.

 13. Work flows

Workflow from production through to display is a sensitive issue because it is heavily dependant on skills and people. So it’s not just a mater of choosing the right technology. To produce live UHD content including HDR, there is still no industry standard way of setting up a workflow.

 14. UHD-only content

The pressure to recoup investments in HD infrastructure makes the idea of UHD content that is unsuitable for HD downscaling taboo. From a business perspective, most operators consider UHD as an extension or add-on rather than something completely new. There is room for a visionary to coma and change that.

Compelling UHD content, where the whole screen is in focus (video rather than cinema lenses) gives filmmakers a new artistic dimension to work on. There is enough real estate on screen to offer multiple user experiences.

In the world of sports a UHD screen could offer a fixed view on a whole football pitch for example. But if that video were seen on an HD screen, the ball probably wouldn’t be visible. Ads that we have to watch dozens of times could be made more fun in UHD as their could be different storied going on in different parts of the screen, it would almost be an interactive experience …

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Disruptors are everywhere – do you see them?

Senior consultant Hugh Massam escaped from the energy sector after serving a 15-year sentence. Here he offers some thoughts post-IBC.

‘There is nought so powerful as a good idea whose time has come’. The question is, do you see the great ideas and disruptors that your competitors see?

When we’re busy developing products, jumping into new markets and maybe sitting in meetings about dense tech or legal issues, it can be all too easy to miss a competitor that’s about to eat your lunch. It was clear to me from three days at IBC that some spaces – such as middleware – are ponds filled with hungry competitors. The ones that spot a seismic shift first – or even make it happen – will be the survivors.

Netflix has been creating such a shift giving sleepless nights to many TV executives. Reliable live streaming over the Internet will probably be even more of a disruptor, and the content delivery suppliers at IBC are promising it for very soon, certainly less than five years, maybe as little as two.

At Wolfpack we are often asked to benchmark clients’ brands, and even this simple exercise can provide startling insights and opportunities pointing out gaps in the market or areas where completion is already fierce. From there we partner with them as marketeers and industry insiders, to help position products and promote them, avoiding the many sand-traps that can befall al product along the way. But what we also do is maintain an outside perspective and look for the real seismic shifts or threats.

Asleep at the wheel? …a story from the energy sector

Looking wider than IBC, the supply of electricity is a former state function and in terms of NPD, was asleep for decades. In some markets both are still true. Even applying basic marketing to it is fairly new and the marketing sophistication of some former state-owned behemoths in this space is still decades behind a sector like broadcast. And let’s face it, not many marketers are hogtied by the need to keep supplying product to a customers with an astronomical cost-to-serve (a wire to a farmhouse in the Outer Hebrides, for example) or to people who patently can’t pay (in practice most energy companies rarely cut people off).  Both happen with electricity.

But in the wider energy sector there is innovation, and it bleeds right into people’s home networks. Besides the obvious shift to local and renewable generation, there’s seismic action in storing power, and in supplying it to your laptop. For example, innovators like Moixa.

A conversation in the energy-supply space is likely to take a bunch of things for granted: Houses need to run off the mains; home electricity networks use standard 110 or 220 volt sockets; solar panels are great but they are best used through an inverter (solar panels generate DC, an inverter converts this to AC) and supplying AC in real-time to the building they are on or to the grid; once the sun goes down solar power is not relevant to evenings – the peak time of use – because batteries are too expensive. These are all fundamental assumptions about the market which players like Moixa are challenging.

Small solar phone chargers are old news. So why can’t a home’s solar panels – already generating DC – directly power small DC devices like phones, laptops and lights through a local network? Why can’t you charge a battery from your solar panels in the day, or from the grid at 1am, and store that power to peak-shave by taking demand off the grid in the evening? The grid provider will pay you handsomely to reduce peak-load on demand – ‘demand management’ is a $1.8B market in the UK alone.

The Economist last year spotted that emerging standards which will soon boost a USB cable’s power-carrying capabilities up to 100V (from the current 10) will change the game too.

Players like Moixa saw the obvious – an explosion in low-power DC devices in the home, and a rise in the number of solar panels producing DC on roofs. They are working hard on dull details like DC voltages and plugs, which have never been standardised.

And at the big end – many people still assume electricity plants are large, should be available 24/7/365,  and need to be built permanently near their fuel supply, but players like Karadeniz Energy and Agrekko are making massive inroads (and profits) supplying floating power plants and rented power generators. And the largest market for the latter may surprise you – the Middle East, not Africa.

So even in a slow-moving market like electricity generation, disruptors are there. The real question is – how often are you checking on the top three potential disruptors in your market?

 

Hugh Massam is a Senior Consultant with Wolfpack and also the Principal Consultant at E Equals Limited, an energy communications agency based in Cambridge, UK. @eequalsuk. 

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First 4 trends spotted at IBC14

I didn’t write any prediction on what would be important this year, but while it’s still fresh here are my first impressions

Last year the Cloud was a key buzzword and Amazon was, this year, it’s replaced by Virtualization, basically the same technology, but with the possibility of running all those virtual machines in a service provider’s own data center. It is supposed to lower costs eventually and make things like redundancy management easier, but I’ve yet to be convinced if it’s really such a big deal. I’ll try and stop by some of the encoding booths like Envivio, Harmonic or Elemental to check out where it’s really just a generalization of the concept of software based encoding vs. hardware based encoding.  I’ll also try to get back to the Amazon Web Services stand in hall 3 where they’re explaining how Netflix uses AWS with special tools developed to optimize service availability.

4k has of course been around for several years yet still manages to buzz. I’ve been told to go see Samsung’s giant curved display in hall 1. The main difference from last year is that there’s hardly a booth without a 4K display or two, most now at 60fps and more and more UI’s, like that on display at SoftAtHome’s booth, are now native 4K.

OTT is still very present even if it too has lost its novelty as so many commercial deployments are out there. OTT ecosystem vendors are repositioning frantically as value is eroded. Some like Piksel seem to be keeping their end-to-end positioning, while others like Siemens with its Swipe service are also bringing out specific components to sell as services. Enhanced ABR is also appearing, to help reduce Opex costs, by finding tricks to use only as much bandwidth as is required. All in the CDN crowd like for example Limelight, Anevia, Broadpeak or Media Melon (who don’t have a booth) have things to show in this area.

IoT and the connected and/or smart homes have been around for years in other shows, but have now just made it to IBC. Managing the home network is becoming more challenging for many reasons. One that struck me more is that we are seeing a greater proportion of homes with 100M+ broadband connections, but in-home effective throughputs down to just a few megabits, often not enough to stream over Wi-Fi. There were quite a few solutions at IBC, like AirTies’ home Wi-Fi meshing.

Some trends though are clearly on the way out. I noted for example that it’s already out of fashion to talk about embedded apps now that HTML5 is a no-brainer and any mention of the smart SmarTV is positively 2013.

More soon, stay tuned…

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IBC 2013 part 2: Brightcove & Envivio

Brightcove

I met up with Albert Lai who is CTO of Media and Broadcast Solutions. He told me that Brightcove has “traditionally been a big end-to-end black box”. But that is changing as more and more requests come in for just a part of the workflow.

Brightcove has seen the Software As a Service (SaaS) model move to a Platform As a Service PaaS (platform) one, but where modularity and Flexibility have become the key criteria.

All this modularity has come about because of the very different use cases Brightcove now caters for, ranging from the Cloud transcoding services for HEVC to the Viacom native apps including the Nikelodeon one that just recently won an Emmy.

Brightcove was founded in 2004 and IPOed in February 2012. As of December 31, 2012, Brightcove had 335 employees. It is headquartered in Boston with offices in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo and Sydney.

The leitmotiv of my interviews this year was 4K and Albert told me that the Cable Show 2012 was when Brightcove first started getting requests about 4K.

Brightcove has conducted internal tests on 4K content management and has concluded that it’s a very promising approach. At present it is “less a technology issue than a general marketplace one, where availability is still an issue”.

I pointed out that Cinema content was already widely available in 4K but Albert responded, “Sure cinema content is there, but its just a small amount”.

Albert sees 4K representing a 100% to 400% increase in storage and transmission costs although he thought that HEVC will alleviate some of the pain by doubling the quality within the same bandwidth and providing for a better experience. The monetization question must however be addressed, so Brightcove is listening to the market and is ready for, but not pushing 4K right now.

The Zencoder purchase of last year is probably part of that readiness campaign. Zencoder is a pure-cloud software based encoding solution for live and on-demand content.

Envivio

This year I spoke to Jean-Pierre Henot the company’s CTO based in Rennes.

I went straight to the point in asking about HEVC so Jean-Pierre first explained the main demos at the front of the booth. Three screens were showing an HD demo of live content at 24 frames per second and all looked identical. One screen was showing MPEG2 at 8 Mbps, the centre screen displayed MPEG4 at 4 Mbps and the last one was showing HEVC decoded content, currently at 3 Mbps but expect to be reduced to 2 Mbps by EOY 2014. Note that the latter still has a CPU power requirement four times greater which really is an issue in the short term.

All the demos used software encoding.

Jean-Pierre noted that the hardware decoding part of HEVC is stable already for HD content, but that for 4K HEVC decoding is still only available in beta versions as the protocol is still a bit new. Fully compliant reference designs are expected for CES 2014.

This is inline with some minor issues still pending with the specifications for HEVC transport, which is otherwise ready for HD.

Like a decade ago with MPEG4, the situation regarding royalties is still being sorted out.

We discussed the cheaper 4K sets available today and Jean-Pierre scoffed at the 30HZ limit as Envivio sees 60fps as a requirement for sport. The hardware limitation of HDMI should be gone thanks to the new 2.0 specification. This should also be available at the beginning of 2014.

All in all, Henot confirmed the general industry view that royalties, devices, frame-rates and HDMI 2.0 have been the stumbling blocks so far for 4K.

As these are gradually removed, HEVC will take off but start initially below 4K.

HEVC has no noticeable impact on ABR, which is the key enabler for many OTT services.

There seems no doubt that HEVC will be next “best solution” available for video compression and with the shorter lifecycles all round, it will take less time than MPEG4 did to penetrate market.

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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.