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IBC wrap-up: Report from the RAI

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44September saw the usual 50,000+ people pour into the RAI exhibition centre in Amsterdam for IBC. Ian McMurray was among them, notebook and pen in hand.

Last year, in my review of IBC for Connected, I looked at how the worlds of broadcast and AV are converging. This year, let me just say: they’re still converging. IP is what everyone’s talking about.

But this year, they were talking about it even more positively. Three or four years ago, there was a feeling of resignation – of “resistance is futile”: the Borg that is IP was going to assimilate everything in front of it. Last year, the majority were at least somewhat positive. This year, there was a strong mood of optimism: “IP brings so many opportunities to do what we’re doing today more efficiently and cost-effectively – and it brings opportunities to do exciting new stuff.” It’ll be interesting to see if that same mood change characterises ISE in February next year.

Certainly, the infrastructure is falling into place. One rather cool product that caught my eye was the Nomad, from Bridge Technologies (www.nomadportable.com). It’s designed for analysing IP packets as a way of monitoring and managing networks and according to the manufacturer, is specifically designed to help those who are not yet 100% proficient in understanding IP networks.

Falling into place

And speaking of infrastructure…  Another fascinating thing to emerge from IBC is that the industry has accepted, to a man/woman, that 4K is where we’re all headed. There are just two problems: a relative lack of content, and the fact that we’re not quite ready to move all those bits around. But apart from that…  It is, though, falling into place. In the UK, for example, Sky and BT –two of the major subscription TV services – are transmitting some 4K content, notably sports (which especially benefits from the higher resolution). The third, Virgin, seems somewhat behind the curve. And if you’re a Netflix subscriber, and you’re lucky enough to have a 25Mbps line – I can dream – then you’ve been able to watch House of Cards and Breaking Bad in all their 8-million pixel glory.

What wasn’t so much on the radar last year, but very much so this year, was HDR – high dynamic range. Interestingly, there’s quite a fierce discussion going on about whether 2K with HDR delivers a better image than 4K without. Of course, on bigger screen sizes, the extra pixels count – but, for the average domestic TV, my vote would go to 2K/HDR. And, by the way: if 4K is challenging the industry, 4K/HDR isn’t making life less complicated.

All this wonderful picture quality was, however, giving rise to a lot of discussion on another topic: content security – on the basis that higher quality content makes it even more attractive to acquire it – er – without paying. If I had a penny for every time I heard the words “Content monetisation” at IBC – well, I’d have a whole lot of pennies. Content monetisation is, of course, the process by which you turn programming into income and profit – and, understandably, it’s pretty much what makes the industry tick. (I nearly said “broadcast industry” there – but it really isn’t any more…)

Historically, everyone talked about CA – conditional access. If you were a cable TV subscriber, CA validated that you were entitled to receive the signal. In the digital world, that’s become DRM – digital rights management, which attaches itself to the content, if you like, rather than the signal. Of course, in the AV world, we’re well-used to dealing with security systems like HDCP.

A bigger threat

But there’s another, and apparently much bigger, threat that this world faces that ours doesn’t: piracy. Take the 2014 World Cup. According to content security company Irdeto, its anti-piracy team disrupted 3,743 streams, impacting a potential 10.6 million illegal views. The 10.6 million illegal views represented an estimated revenue value in excess of US$120 million.

The problem is that, in the digital era, it’s the easiest thing in the world to capture a broadcast on your PC, and then stream it out on your own channel. That’s right: the chances are that, if you’re paying $5/month (or less…) to watch the English Premier League, your provider isn’t 100% legitimate – even if it looks pretty pukka (as we used to say).

The industry’s response to this is watermarking. Watermarking doesn’t stop the redistribution of content – it just makes it a whole lot easier to track the source, and close it down. This was unquestionably one of the hot topics at IBC this year, with many vendors talking about taking a ‘holistic’ approach to the whole subject of protecting content in order to minimise revenue loss.

An even hotter topic, though, and perhaps the one that was at the heart of most of the conversations I had, was how the industry can make consuming its content a damn’ sight less painful. What do I mean?

The good old days

It’s perhaps best illustrated by an exhibitor who said to me: “Do you remember the good old days when if you wanted to watch something different, you just pressed P+ or P-?” That’s the nub of the problem. We’re now consuming entertainment (and occasionally information and knowledge) from so many different sources on so many different platforms that navigation has become a nightmare. Is the program I want to watch on broadcast TV? Is it a Netflix movie? Is it on my PVR? Do I need to use a catch-up service? Is it a YouTube clip? And don’t get me going on remembering which remote I need to use.

With unlimited choice comes unlimited confusion. As such, there were many vendors at IBC touting their solution to the problem – arranging the on-screen guide by content type for example, such that you only needed to know you wanted to watch sport, and it would show you all your options from whatever source. I have to say, I saw some near misses – but nothing that compelled me that anyone has got it right yet. Perhaps next year.

Which leads me on to something else I heard/saw that interested me. Everyone knows that an inherent flaw in flat panel TVs is their rubbish sound. That’s pretty much always (with some notable exceptions) going to be the case, given the lack of cabinet depth – and it has almost single-handedly given rise to the soundbar industry going mainstream (it’s said that sales in the US will top US$1 billion this year). One exhibitor believed that, with a TV equipped with a decent sound system, it could become a complete entertainment hub – not just for video, but audio too. And not just for Spotify and Pandora, but your own music collection as well. The company had designed a user interface that reflected that thinking. Colour me almost convinced…

But of all the fascinating technology on show at IBC, it was perhaps the lowest technology that most grabbed my attention. I was on the ruwido stand (their remotes redefine what the young people, I believe, call “way cool”). Apparently, a feature that Sky have built into their set top box in the UK allows you to press a button on it – and the remote that’s slipped down the back of the sofa, or is in the fridge (don’t ask…) will call to you so you can retrieve it. That might be the feature that finally compels me to pour money into the Murdoch coffers.

About Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray

Ian joined the tech industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest screen resolution – it was as much memory as a computer needed. In 1996, he was responsible for launching TI’s DLP technology into Europe, and has been closely involved in the AV industry ever since, becoming a freelance writer about it more than 10 years ago.

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