If you are looking for the next big thing in television, then it is out there…somewhere. The threads of the next revolution, the next big-bang, are now visible. UHD, artificial intelligence and machine learning, super-charged data analytics, Virtual Reality, 360-degree video, conversational user interfaces, a voice presence on digital home assistants, cloud-based microservices software, data-driven advertising, massively enriched metadata: the foundations are being built and when they mature and then converge, that is when we will have our next revolution.
Realistically, the ‘coming together’ must be at least five years away but when it happens it could be something like multiscreen TV a decade ago – a ground-shaker. Moreover, it will probably happen at the same time that the wider world is stepping into a new ‘industrial’ and social age, with robotics, the smart home and the wider Internet of Things, ultra-fast fixed line and wireless broadband, super-low latency wireless networks, hugely reliable in-home Wi-Fi networks – and at some point video displays that cease to be physically-defined by plastic casings, like wallpaper films or projections.
IBC only confirmed that the television industry, taken as a whole, is determined to exploit many of these developments but that few companies are joining the dots today. That is hardly surprising given the breadth and sophistication of the capabilities required. We did have Nokia outlining its vision of what could be possible by 2025, taking account of many of these developments. That was a worthy attempt to articulate the opportunity but, by their own admission, Nokia neither have the products to deliver that vision or even the product roadmap that will deliver that vision, as of now.
So what did we see and hear in Amsterdam that was real and deliverable in the short-term, and which will have a meaningful impact on our business? Here are a few highlights, all of which will be reported upon in more detail over the next month or so….
1/ The migration to a microservices-based software architecture for video processing and broadcast workflows (e.g. encoding, transcoding, subtitle insertion, graphics generation, metadata processes and other playout functions), which could prove to be an inflection point for this industry. Charlie Vogt, CEO at Imagine Communications, told a press conference very bluntly that vendors who do not make this transition successfully will be endangered, resulting in a vendor shake-out.
Microservices delivers greater agility and cost efficiencies than non-microservices cloud software architectures, and it does more to mitigate innovation and deployment risks. You can read more about microservices here.
Microservices is currently like bootleg whisky – don’t expect to see it sitting on the shelf in the front of the shop. If you want to know more about this, you have to ask. A good example was at the Accedo stand where the company announced its Accedo One UX software-as-as-service, with one of the outstanding innovations being how modular it is. The increased ‘pick-and-mix’ flexibility, where more functions can be split out and offered separately, is thanks to a microservices architecture, though there is no mention of that in the press release.
Open Zenium, the initiative by Imagine Communications to open up its microservices platform to external innovation by customers or third-party vendors, is one of the most interesting new industry initiatives. Sky Italia is an early adopter for Open Zenium. The company has machine learning capabilities that are used to predict workflow and video processing capacities needed for sports events. This is a technology Sky created on its own hardware and is now integrated with the Zenium One transcoding platform (from Imagine Communications), simplifying the workflow. Vogt sees that as an example of how incremental innovation becomes easier using the ‘lego-style’ building block flexibility of microservices.
2/ The stampede to make Android TV compatible set-top boxes available for every kind of television platform provider. Google’s Android TV Operator Tier has been a game-changer, allowing TV companies to own the television user interface and have their service as the default view for customers. Amino have an interesting proposition – not just pure Android TV set-tops (like its ‘Amigo’) but hybrids (i.e. the Amino ‘Kamai’) that will support both Linux and Android as the OS that you can then build your television and user experience upon. That means an operator can start with their choice of middleware running on Linux, and then switch to Android if they want, running the same middleware. They displayed this capability on their stand, with Nordija middleware running on both Linux and Android, providing the same view of the operator TV service.
If you want a real indication of how the market is warming to Android TV then that was on the ARRIS stand, where their Android set-top boxes were given prominence. There are few companies that are more deeply embedded into the ‘traditional’ operator world and Android TV is now viewed as a big part of the future, together with RDK. ARRIS was promoting its Android STBs and its professional service capabilities for helping operators migrate to Android.
Aside of the set-top boxes themselves, a number of user experience/user interface (UX/UI) providers announced their Android ‘launchers’, which sounds like a new kind of product but amounts to the UX layer that sits on top of an Android OS using the Operator Tier version. Android is becoming another OS for these TV experiences to sit upon.
3/ Monetising online broadcaster video with dynamic advertising insertion (DAI) and targeting. We are putting this third in the list, not because it was everywhere (although more vendors are flagging their ad insertion capabilities) but because it is so important. The company that can justifiably claim to be a world leader for live broadcast simulcast DAI, based on its deployments (e.g. Channel 4, BT, Sky Deutschland), Yospace, was demonstrating its capabilities on its IBC stand, illustrating exactly what happens in its integration with the programmatic and data-driven decisioning experts, Videology.
The demo showed how ad calls can be made in real-time or even slightly ahead of a scheduled ad break, with decisions then made about which ad someone will see in their live online stream, based on how a home has been classified for advertising purposes (e.g. by demographic or lifestyle attributes). The system takes into account campaign rules, calculations to maximise total yield from ad breaks, and compliance issues when deciding which ads should populate the break (replacing the ads shown in the concurrent broadcast signal).
The ads are then inserted, with frame accuracy, avoiding ad-blocking technology because the ads are inserted server-side and become part of the TV stream. The demo was designed to prove that the technology works, today. It enables monetisation of content that is often under-monetised or not monetised at all (including for live sports).
4/ Voice presence, and voice-based and conversational interaction. This comes in several forms, from vendors providing the means for an operator to provide their own version of the Amazon Echo and Alexa, to simple command-and-control UI functions (telling a remote control to change channel) to proper conversational discovery where you ask for the film where Dirty Harry says ‘Make my day’ – (an example that TiVo provided in their conversational UX demonstration). TiVo (which includes what used to be the Rovi business, of course), was correctly highlighting the importance of service providers having a ‘presence’, in the form of skills, within the digital assistant world (e.g. Echo/Alexa) so they can continue to be the search and discovery agent for entertainment when people are talking to their digital assistants rather than using a remote control – something that will rely on great metadata.
SoftAtHome demonstrated its version of what an operator-centric digital voice assistant can look like, complete with its own conversational software and an assistant personality (called Maestro) that will turn the lights down, turn the TV on, change channels and search for content. In an illustration of where a service provider can provide some value-add, the audio feed from the SoftAtHome powered STB was fed simultaneously to the television set (as always) and to the digital assistant so that the assistant hears what is being spoken on the TV perfectly, and can then filter that out from voices in the room to avoid any assistant-confusion about whether commands or words were from a television programme or from the users.
5/ The start of the – we assume inevitable – migration from classic multicast IPTV to telco TV that is an adaptive bitrate multiscreen service, where the set-top box is just another multiscreen endpoint. Cisco revealed its intent to help current Microsoft Mediaroom middleware customers (who are generally major telcos) to migrate onto its Infinite Video backoffice. Since Infinite Video is an ABR-centric solution, and effectively a multiscreen backoffice and UEX solution, this requires a switch from IPTV multicast to ABR delivery (which can be managed ABR, of course, and can include multicast ABR). The bottom line is that every telco that pursues this roadmap (and Cisco is confident of customers) is moving to an ABR delivery future for their living room STB delivery. Cisco, incidentally, pointed out that any Mediaroom-to-Infinite Video project is a ‘lights-off’ migration. There are no cap-and-grow models involved, taking new STBs over to the new platform and leaving legacy boxes on Mediaroom. You shut down Mediaroom and fire up Infinite for every STB in every home on day one.
And two mini-trends at IBC…
Putting aside VR, 360-degree video, 4K/UHD and HDR, which were easy to find, here are a couple of things that were less obvious…
1/ A focus on live-to-VOD (especially in relation to digital VOD) and more widely on getting broadcast content into the digital ecosystem faster. The faster you get content into catch-up windows, for example, the sooner you can monetize that content – especially if you want to count the views against broadcast (live plus X) ratings that audience bodies are accepting as part of their ‘currency’. Equally, the sooner you get titles transcoded into a VOD catalogue for a new distribution partner, the sooner you can start earning from them. AWS Elemental and Piksel were two of the companies highlighting solutions.
2/ Television CAS/DRM vendors moving into the world of IoT security. And why not? This industry has everything that will be needed: an ability to authenticate devices and secure them, and to secure the communications into and out of them, and to encrypt the data that travels over those communications ‘pipes’. The company talking most publicly about the IoT opportunity was Verimatrix, which believes the IoT market, despite its apparently random explosion of devices, is first and foremost a service-led market where they, as a security service provider, can have an ongoing relationship with the companies offering a service and their client devices (which is essential if you want to proactively manage security over time). Neotion, the conditional access module (CAM) specialist, is also targeting the IoT market, looking far beyond smart home applications and into completely different industrial verticals with its solution to create secure wireless IoT networks.
Photo courtesy of IBC