This year’s NAB event focused on looking forward to 3D, second screens, and Smart TV - whatever the heck that is, Dan Daley muses. New technologies offered a refreshing focus after a year spent on seemingly endless legal and legislative issues.
The NAB Show in Las Vegas (16th-19th April 2012) showed decent stats: exhibitor numbers rose slightly to just over 1,600 and they splayed out over more space (815,000 square feet versus 745,000 in 2011). Attendance was flat, though, at 91,932 from 151 countries, according to NAB’s preliminary figures, and substantially below the 108,000-plus who attended in 2007, just before the recession hit.
However, the number of issues facing broadcasters and content providers these days seems like a growth industry. These include monitoring the Federal Communications Commission’s implementation of the spectrum legislation signed into law in February that will probably result in some broadcasters relinquishing their spectrum to wireless operators, as well as a continued push to get wireless operators to include radio chips in cell phones so they can receive FM radio; media ownership; and the battle around retransmission consent rules, which require pay TV operators to negotiate fees to use broadcaster programming. But there was more of a focus this year on new technologies.
3D remains a significant issue in broadcast technology – the show began just as the 3D reissue of Titanic hit US cinemas and stores, and the principals of the Cameron | Pace group (unveiled at last year’s show) were on hand to discuss ‘The Secrets Of Making 3D Profitable’. 3D’s economic prospects have been hit and miss thus far, but projections remain optimistic.
For instance, according to forecasts from Informa Telecoms & Media, over 20 million TV homes globally will be watching 3D TV within five years. Backed by key industry players including set manufacturers, content owners, broadcasters, platforms and satellite operators, the analysis says that 3D TV is expected to be in 1.6% of all homes by 2015. North America will lead the way in terms of number of 3D TV homes with 9.2 million, Western Europe will be the second largest region with 6.8 million, and Asia Pacific third with 4.6 million.
Another market analysis, from DisplaySearch, put shipments of 3D liquid crystal display (LCD) TV panels at 7.8 million in Q4 2011, up 26% quarter to quarter. The firm estimates total 3D TV panel shipments in 2011 at 21.2 million, accounting for 10% of all LCD panels shipped. NPD forecast strong growth in the category of 138% for 2012, which would lead to 3D LCD TV panel shipments of 50 million units, for a penetration rate of 21.6% of all LCD TV panel shipments.
However, despite these optimistic predictions, observers agree that the absence of a glasses-free system of watching 3D TV will constrain growth, though Dolby’s demonstration of its new glasses-free 3D system was well-received (covered later in this article). Other limiting factors cited include lack of content, high production costs, scarcity of channels, bandwidth constraints and the relatively high cost of 3D sets.
Dr Barry Sandrew, founder, CEO and CTO of Legends3D, the largest US based 2D-to-3D conversion studio, and which served as the primary conversion partner on Academy Award-winning films including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Hugo, as well as the pending 3D rerelease of the classic Top Gun, addressed several of the issues facing 3D broadcasting and cinema.
Sandrew believes 3D is in a growth period now and expects the format to become “ubiquitous” within three years, including in the broadcast realm, despite what he acknowledged to be a low level of acceptance among consumers to date. Besides market research analysis, Sandrew cited a combination of industry data and empirical observation, such as the doubling of on-demand 3D titles from his own cable provider in the last 12 months. He stated there are “no real [technical] challenges” to converting theatrical titles to 3D for cinema or broadcast applications – in fact, he said, converting 2D content to 3D is easier and less costly than shooting in 3D in the first place, citing the larger number of cameras and crew involved and the complexity of precisely aligning those cameras, particularly for action pictures, which are the largest genre for 3D. Sandrew further stated that Transformers, putatively shot in 3D, actually had 78 minutes of the movie upconverted by Legends3D.
Nonetheless, costs even for upconverted content are still substantial – between $10,000 and $15,000 per minute, he estimated, for high-quality conversions, though that’s less than even a year or so ago when they reached $20,000 per minute. Lower-quality work can be had for as little as $3,000 per minute, though Sandrew disparaged such shops as detrimental to the uptake of 3D amongst consumers.
Those costs, however, mean that 3D will have a longer slog of it in broadcast, despite the optimistic reports of 3D market penetration projections, because of the nature of TV’s core 30-minute content, which makes conversion less cost-effective. On the other hand, Sandrew pointed out, the relatively low video picture and action complexity of the typical television sit-com or drama, compared to action or sci-fi genres that have been the staple of 3D, makes for a lower-stress conversion environment that could eventually scale up to make financial sense for television production schedules and budgets. Legends3D is in the midst of negotiations for exactly that but Sandrew could not disclose the networks or shows involved due to NDAs.
Even streaming, which many foresee as the primary distribution method for television within the next decade, does not present a problem for 3D broadcast, Sandrew concluded. “The only place where it really strains bandwidth is when you have to broadcast the [3D and 2D] versions on the same pipe,” he said. Even streaming to handheld devices should not present a problem, as long as those devices use lenticular viewing solutions, which will reduce the demand on bandwidth. Sandrew’s own optimism is firm. “It took 25 years to transition from black and white to colour,” he said. “3D won’t take nearly as long.”
NEW LANDSCAPE, SAME CHALLENGES
There was a lot of over-the-horizon sentiment at NAB this year, as though the seemingly endless disagreements about carriage fees and licensing that’s taken up so much legal bandwidth in the US in the past year has compelled many to look for a more promising, hopefully simpler future. That was underscored by the contrast between last year’s keynote address by CBS head honcho Les Moonves versus this year’s crop of disrupters, including Netflix, Machinima, Electus and Revision3. But many using the NAB Show to start putting that future together are seeing plenty of familiar issues.
When I asked Mark Adams, Vice President of Accedo, which creates smart-TV and IPTV apps for partners like CNBC and MTV, what the time period we were in that would be analogous to previous cusps-of-new-eras, he thought for a moment and replied that it reminded him of the early 1980s, when multichannel cable systems were trying to get traction in the US. IPTV and smart-TV have a business model and an infrastructure, in the form of faster broadband implementation, but they’re still trying to figure out exactly what they are and convince consumers why they will need them. (Interestingly, John Leverence, the Senior Vice President of awards for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, cited a similar comparison in an interview with TheWrap.com, stating, “It is in 2012 what premium cable was in 1984.”)
“There’s nothing wrong with TV as it is, for most people,” Adams conceded, noting that licensing issues currently prevent consumers from having what they want when they want it on the platform of their choosing. “You can watch Mad Men on Vudu but not on a Roku [box],” he said. “But once these issues get straightened out, the potential is enormous. Until then, even though they’re reaching 38% of households, these kinds of services are supplementary and complementary, but they can’t replace the existing viewing experience fully. But sooner or later, they will see wider adoption. Meanwhile, the networks and content providers are looking for strategies, and that’s what we’re developing. And those strategies will be led by apps.”
While much of the main show floors were taken up with conventional terrestrial broadcasting technology, the upper level of the Las Vegas Convention Centre’s South Hall represented the future of broadcasting, and the further back one went on that level, the more ambitious but ambiguous that future looked, and longstanding challenges continue even as the landscape shifts from PC to laptop to mobile device. Mathew Gilliat-Smith, CEO of content protection systems developer Fortium Technologies, remarked that content providers are still looking to find the balance between strengthening content protection to reduce illicit copying and viewing on the one hand, but assiduously trying to avoid making accessing legitimate content so difficult that it compels consumers to seek out easier-to-access illicit copies.
“Approaches to [copy protection] solutions that have been around for years are still being talked about,” but not fully implemented, Gilliat-Smith said, because none have managed to strike that balance well enough. In addition, the legacy content industry has moved in fits and starts towards evaluating and adopting solutions, with some players being particularly adventurous – Gilliat-Smith pointed to Warners as an example – and others much less so. Meanwhile, these same copy protection issues have migrated to the mobile playing field without being fully resolved in previous formats. “It’s more urgent now,” he added.
At Civolution’s booth here, about halfway between Avid’s sprawling stand in the front of the hall and the smaller, aspirational start-ups towards the rear, CEO Alex Terpstra outlined some of the company’s accomplishments and new technologies, including its automatic content recognition system SyncNow, which uses combinations of audio and metadata to link and synchronize broadcast content with second-screen content, including advertising. Its Teletrax media intelligence and NexGuard forensic media protection systems are being positioned to be monetized more widely.
The notion of content unbound to traditional networks, available anywhere anytime, on any device, is inevitable, and sooner than later, Terpstra commented. The advantages to consumers are obvious, and younger media consumers consider it almost a right, while advertisers are already jockeying to find ways to turn second screens into revenue streams. The challenges, however, are considerable, he said, led by the concern that such ancillary advertising could cannibalize conventional advertising revenue.
Terpstra, whose company is descended from media conglomerate Philips after a 2008 spin-off (and still resides in Philips’ Eindhoven fortress), is not unsympathetic to such concerns, but he’s convinced that data will convert the cautious. “We need more ways to derive metrics from content usage,” he stressed. “The metrics will prove how valuable the new ways of distributing it can be.”
Dolby and Philips announced a joint project focused on enabling the kind of 3D experience on entertainment devices that will be critical for 3D becoming a success in the marketplace. Branded Dolby 3D, this suite of technologies aimed at devices with glasses-free (auto-stereoscopic) 3D displays combines many key benefits missing from the consumer 3D experience. These include integration with any 3D-enabled TV, tablet, laptop, or smartphone; automatic optimization of 3D content for the specific device and screen size; upgrading of half-resolution 3D to full resolution (for both glasses-free and traditional glasses-based 3D); and elimination of the ‘sweet spot’ by rendering multiple views for each display.
Transcoder developer Telestream and video library management and workflow software maker Levels Beyond announced an integration partnership of Vantage transcoding products and Reach Engine workflow software. The integration adds the library management and scalability of the Reach Engine platform to the video transcoding, media workflow and analysis tools of Vantage and extends them across multiple networks.
Combined, Vantage and Reach Engine allow users to ingest and conform content directly into their Reach Engine managed media libraries. Media and metadata sourced from Vantage is published directly to the Reach Engine asset database. Users can select any asset or group of assets from the Reach Engine web based interface and deliver those assets to any Vantage workflow. The Reach Engine web interface allows users to secure Vantage workflows based on roles and permissions. Live progress and status reporting is available directly in the Reach Engine web interface, allowing remote workers to monitor and manage Vantage workflows from any device at any time.
Rimage announced the launch of Rimage Signal Online Publishing, a platform to push secure mobile content to nearly any mobile device or computer. Companies can now publish content directly to their subscribers while applying security and usage policies to effectively manage and control their content, even when it is resident on subscribers’ devices and disconnected from the internet.
Signal allows companies to choose which devices can receive content, how long the content is available and the desired sequence of content playback. Companies can change, grant or revoke usage policies and optionally delete content from subscribed devices. Companies can upload media of all formats, such as videos, images, audio and documents for viewing on iPads and nearly any Windows, Mac, iOS or Android device. Transcoding and securing of files is streamlined into one step, regardless of the number of target devices.
Livestream introduced the Livestream Broadcaster device, a hardware encoder that simplifies broadcasting of live events in HD to the web, mobile and connected TVs. The Livestream Broadcaster is fully integrated with the New Livestream Platform, which offers unlimited, ad-free, HD streaming. The Livestream Broadcaster supports most 3G and 4G modems from US carriers, including Verizon 4G LTE, as well as many international carriers that enable wireless streaming in the field. Cameras connect to the Livestream Broadcaster via the HDMI video input (including 1080i, 720p and 480i). The Livestream Broadcaster encodes real-time in high quality H.264 video and AAC audio at up to 2.3Mbps. HDMI audio or line in (3.5-mm jack) audio input are provided.
The 2012 NAB Show underscored the continued existence of lines of demarcation between old and new guard when it comes to technology and business models. And existing challenges continue to confound content owners even as they realize that those challenges apply annoyingly well to new mobile and personal-device markets. It’s an industry still in transition.