IBC2013: Editor’s thoughts on the important trends

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    Although Ultra HD was the visible headline story from IBC2013, with demonstrations of the new format everywhere, the serious business, when you scratched beneath the surface, revolved around multiscreen TV yet again. The technologies to get multiscreen deployed and then make it a compelling user experience have dominated the last five shows, with only 3DTV offering any serious challenge for the crown before disappearing off our radar. This year the focus was on personalizing and monetizing multiscreen TV more effectively, while there is also a trend towards end-to-end multiscreen solutions (including multi-vendor pre-integrations) and managed services. A key driver for these last two trends is the need to help smaller operators into the multiscreen market.

    The best demonstration this year, in my view, was the UHD soccer on the Ericsson and Intelsat stands, where you could see a recent Manchester United game shot in UHD. Amidst all the brilliant detail and colour, what stood out was the extent to which UHD on an 82 inch television can make you feel like you are sitting in the stands at the football ground.

    In this case the camera position was in the upper tier in one of the corners of the stadium. As the game moved towards the faraway goal, you could see the fans below and around you, the whole pitch and all 22 players, albeit getting smaller in the distance, just as you do when watching in a stadium. It is as good as live TV sports gets, and Ericsson got it spot on by choosing both soccer and rugby to highlight the potential of UHD (we will cover the technical aspects of this demo separately but it is important to note that this was a UHD demo, not a demonstration of HEVC coding).

    If you enjoy your TV User Interfaces then you are unlikely to walk way from any IBC disappointed. A few design goals were evident this year: How to ensure the Pay TV UI can embrace more content and apps, including SmartHome apps, and continue to present this growing mass of entertainment and functionality in a simple way (e.g. ADB); How to harness the explosion in device processing power that will accompany HEVC-capable decoders to provide a UI fit for the Ultra HD age (e.g. NAGRA); and how to make the UI more personal, whether it is channel listings or on-demand recommendations (e.g. Rovi).

    Cisco gave an early indication of what the 2014 version of its Snowflake UI will look like. Key themes in its ‘Whisper Suite’ demonstration were: Companion control over the whole-home (e.g. drag-and-dropping programmes to different screens via a tablet control display; More viewer immersion in the content by controlling the connected home environment around us, like dimming lights to suit the television mood; More social connection to viewing, including invitations to a ‘TV party’ for friends. Meanwhile Neotion was showing how companion screens can be used to display HbbTV interactive services in synchronization with the main TV, keeping the interactive content on the tablet so it does not disturb shared viewing. This was shown previously at ANGA but was well worth another outing.

    Viaccess-Orca provided a great demonstration of how to cater for different TV discovery moods using the same companion screen. Holding a tablet in a horizontal view you can see your typical TV Everywhere service (with programme guide and channel change, ideal if you know what you want to watch or are in a hurry). But for a more relaxed and altogether more sumptuous discovery experience you can hold the tablet upright to browse what is effectively a digital, interactive TV magazine on your device, with glossy front cover, contents and increasingly in-depth features related to shows and actors, all backed by rich metadata and their prominence determined by your tastes, driven by a recommendation engine. This was all based on the company’s DEEP software (Data Enrichment and Engagement Platform).

    Two other great UI demos, because of their simplicity but great potential to impress viewers, were the ultra-fast channel changes on the Netgem and ADB stands. Both companies have taken advantage of the multiple tuners within their higher-end STBs to tune and decode blocks of three channels at a time – the channel you are watching and the channel above and below (in the programme list order). This means that if you zap channels using the channel up/down button, the next channel is already decoding, which means it displays much faster. The difference is very noticeable.

    There is a huge amount going on in Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) of course, dominated by the growth of hybrid inputs (OTT plus some form of broadcast) on the network-facing side and the need to redistribute content for multiroom TV and multiscreen devices on the consumer-facing side. All the major vendors were highlighting their gateway capabilities, whether this means installing new DVRs or just some additional software.

    The growing interest in the server/client gateway model means thin client IP set-top boxes are becoming more important. STBs are also appearing that are designed for Pay TV operators offering low-cost bouquets OTT, while the miniaturization of set-tops was apparent, including the arrival of the HDMI dongle.

    This was not an IBC for great technology debates and the industry is surprisingly settled on its path ahead, but there are some interesting points of divergence. One is how we get advanced Pay TV user interfaces onto every screen while optimizing effort and investment. There is plenty of support for HTML5 with DLNA Remote User Interface to achieve this when content is moved around a home network, and the RVU Alliance has its variation on RUI, while ActiveVideo champions a pure cloud-rendered UI approach where you deliver the UI to all devices as a video stream. This is becoming a very interesting area to follow.

    When it comes to PVR versus network PVR there are three camps: Those with CPE and no network expertise (pro-PVR), those with network solutions and no CPE (pro nPVR) and those with both (agnostic – ‘You need to choose the solution to fit the circumstances and there will be a hybrid of cloud and local storage’). The hybrid model, with some content stored and redistributed locally and some stored in the cloud, and a slow migration to more cloud storage, seems the obvious road ahead.

    The message from IBC2013 was that network PVR is definitely, finally coming, a decade after we started talking about it. The need to make personal recordings available on multiscreen devices is one of the factors giving nPVR a boost (they do not have hard drives), while content rights holders seem to be getting more relaxed about the idea in some markets.

    IBC2013 was a good year for cardless Conditional Access, reminding us of another old technology debate: card versus cardless. Verimatrix effectively declared 2012-2013 the tipping point in the long migration, as they see it, from smartcard CAS to cardless, and it seems that the arrival of secure trust zones in a growing volume of STB silicon has made an important difference to this argument. With Conax launching a cardless CAS and Irdeto heavily promoting its cardless Cloak CA it is clear that we are moving into a more hybrid era. Some operators will run smartcard and cardless systems on the same network using DVB Simulcrypt as part of any migration.

    Besides personalization, monetization, pre-integrated ecosystems and managed services, there is one umbrella theme that explains everything else that happened around multiscreen TV at IBC2013: Life in the mainstream. Multiscreen is no longer an experiment but part of every day life for the homes using it. So everything from transcoding capacity through audio quality to content protection needs to suit what will soon be a mass-market service that should be carrying the highest value content in the best rights windows.

    Even watermarking is now being applied to multiscreen video streams, as demonstrated by Civolution, who long ago mastered this craft for the set-top box. The challenge for multiscreen watermarking is coping with the number of streams that might need to be processed. RGB Networks was again leading the calls for better audio in the adaptive bit rate streaming environment, and especially support for 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital Plus. The company was demonstrating streamed video into a TV with a powerful sound bar to illustrate the viewer benefits. OTT quality assurance was an important theme for the second year running, again reflecting the expectation that multiscreen viewing is going mainstream.

    Rovi is still trying to gatecrash the adaptive bit rate streaming party with its DivX format and in Amsterdam it was highlighting DivX10 and its support for HEVC. The company has some compelling arguments about what makes DivX ABR better, including its Blu-ray type features such as multiple language and subtitle tracks and director’s commentary, more examples of how the user experience can be improved. This could provide an interesting test as to whether the industry really does want more consolidation or is actually happy to welcome new varieties of ABR if they are deemed to offer something new or better.

    Cloud transcoding is an interesting concept that is simmering gently. You need to work hard to find it on the show floor but it was there. Harmonic, which used to keep its cloud partnership with Tata Communications out of the public eye, is now talking about this openly. That points to a growing role for rapid scaling of encoding/transcode capacity by using processing power in cloud-based computers that run software provided by an encoding/transcoding specialist vendor.

    Elemental Technologies has been promoting this technology more than most and gave some examples of why content owners could need cloud-based encoding or transcoding for real-time linear TV rather than just for file-based transcoding. Typically the content owner/platform will be looking for a short-term capacity boost in either case and with file-based processing a likely use case is making a VOD catalogue available in a new codec. Real-time cloud transcoding might be needed to boost capacity for linear streaming during major sports events (e.g. the FIFA World Cup) or when a broadcaster has to scale from just two channels to a dozen when it switches on its regional news, which only happens a couple of times a day.

    In both these instances the ability to scale capacity upwards and back down again quickly, by harnessing cloud processing, means you no longer need to buy so many encoders/transcoders, as the classic facilities-based video processing only has to handle the average requirements rather than the exceptional peak demands.

    The encoding/transcoding vendors were talking about, or showing, HEVC encoding and decoding to various degrees. Although the new codec promises to deliver a 50% efficiency improvement over MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) eventually, the boost from first generation encoding/decoding will be nearer 30%, it appears. Envivio provided a simple demonstration of what the codec could mean for the mass market, with HDTV (1080p/24) on normal widescreens running at 8Mbps in MPEG-2, 4Mbps in AVC and 3Mbps in HEVC. The point of the comparison was to show that the same content looked just as good in each codec (and it did), despite the steadily declining bandwidth requirements.

    Our feedback from vendors was that this was a good show with a very positive vibe, which is usually a sign that we can expect a good year ahead. After another IBC in which multiscreen was still the most important topic, it is now obvious that getting content onto all screens is as big a transition as going from analogue to digital, one that will take several more years to play out.

    UHD is definitely being lined up as the next big thing but if there is one lesson from the demos in Amsterdam it is that this should not just be about better pictures and colours on a standard 32 inch or 40” television. The extra resolution with UHD should be a means to an end – making it possible to project TV onto a bigger canvas, which in turn opens the door to a new art form, as seen with the Manchester United football coverage. That leaves us with a lot of questions about the addressable market (based on the screen sizes people can get into homes) but there is no doubt that this format is something to get excited about.

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