Category: The Front Line

Aereo And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

For readers who aren’t up to speed, Aereo is a new service that receives terrestrial digital TV broadcasts in major markets and re-transmits them over the Internet, using AVC coding with IP headers. The concept is to provide local reception for those who can’t pick up these signals for one reason or another on their regular TV.

Now, the devil in the details: Ever since Aereo launched a couple of years ago, it has been in court, fighting off challenges by the major broadcast networks who are crying “foul!” and saying that Aereo’s retransmission is a violation of copyright laws. They also claim that Aereo owes them retransmission fees.

Aereo’s rebuttal and defense centers around a flimsy (to me) technical argument: Each subscriber gains access to an individual antenna about the size of a dime, which then is connected to an individual receiver, decoder, DVR, and encoder. It’s as if the subscriber built his or her own TV antenna system, which is certainly within their rights.

I remain skeptical because the cost of actually setting up thousands of individual antennas, terrestrial receivers, video decoders, and video encoders would be prohibitively expensive and never be recovered by the $8 monthly subscriber fee (for 20 hours of recording time, $12 for 40 hours).

And anyone who has ever taken a modicum of courses in electrical physics and RF theory knows that (a) the tiny antennas Aereo assigns to each subscriber can’t possibly have enough gain to work for high band VHF reception, let along UHF reception, and (b) the close spacing of those antennas – as seen from earlier PR photos released by the service – means they interact with each other to form a larger array, based on the principles of inductive and capacitive coupling. That, in essence, is a master antenna TV system – delivering TV channels to many viewers, not one.

Thanks to a sub-par presentation by expert witnesses called by broadcasters at the first hearing, the 2nd Circuit Court (New York City) ruled 2-1 that Aereo didn’t infringe on copyrights and cited the earlier Cablevision “cloud” DVR decision as precedent. Aereo’s right to operate was subsequently upheld in the 1st Circuit (Boston). Service is active in both cities now.

However; two weeks ago, Aereo was rebuffed by a 10th Circuit judge in Salt Lake City, who unequivocally stated that “The plain language of the 1976 Copyright Act supports the plaintiffs’ position. Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” As a result, Aereo had to shut down its service in Salt Lake City and Denver for the time being.

While this case winds its way on to the Supreme Court, another twist in the story has surfaced. Apparently subscribers in New York City had massive problems with the Aereo stream of the Oscars telecast on WABC-TV a week ago Sunday. Consequently, the company’s Twitter feed was lit up with complaints about “buffering” and “locked-up pictures.”

Here are some of the dozens of tweets I found: “Awful service, bad image quality & not recording scheduled shows but it sad you treat ORIGINAL customers the way you do.” “It goes out now and then requiring me to select Oscars all over again. Common? I have it on auto quality.”  “Thanks for doing work on the site tonight. It’s not like I wanted to watch the Oscars. No big deal.” (Gotta LOVE that sarcasm!)

And more: “C’mon Aereo. Get your s–t together.” “Anyone else watching the Oscars using Aereo like me? S–t keeps buffering every 30 seconds. Frustrating the hell out of me.” “Hmm is Aereo down for anyone else? Is it just an East Village or Roku thing? #CordCutting fail during the Oscars” “@Aereo Support I keep getting the message “The Oscars has ended.” A total of 8 seconds recorded. Worst. Oscars. Ever.”

This one was my personal favorite: “@Aereo I don’t have time to run to Best Buy and buy some rabbit ears right now.” Well, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.

A couple of observations are in order. First, I don’t know how exactly Aereo has its front end configured, but if they’ve actually tried to keep every single subscriber’s hardware separate by various technical tricks to pass legal review, then they might have run out of server capacity and brought this service failure on themselves. (Apparently this also happened during the Golden Globes, according to a story on the Quartz Web site.)

There is a reason why cable and satellite companies use a single receiver for each broadcast and premium channel they carry, and multiplex (copy and repeat) those channels on their outgoing RF and IP channels: It’s WAY more cost-effective and less troublesome! So they have to pay a retransmission fee: Big deal! What will the cost be now to Aereo in dropped subscriptions, not to mention bad publicity from these service problems?

Second, I’ll bet that more than a few Aereo subscribers could actually pick up the HD broadcasts from New York City stations if they tried. Over the years, I’ve tested numerous indoor TV antennas and there have been some real winners out there like the Mohu Leaf Ultimate series and Winegard’s amplified FlatWave antenna.

Both are reasonably priced and perform adequately on VHF channels and very well on UHF channels, which in New York City means you can also use them to watch WNBC, WCBS, and WNYW among the major networks. (By the way, those are the three networks that carry NFL games in the New York City metro area.)

Third; if you can pick up local TV broadcasts with one of the aforementioned antennas, there are terrestrial DVR products that will let you record those channels, like Channel Master’s new DVR+. It has dual tuners, built-in capacity for about 2 hours of HD recording (expandable with any external hard drives or solid state drives through USB ports), plus Wi-Fi connectivity and support for Internet video services like Vudu.

Or you can pick up one of Hauppauge’s WinTV receivers that plug directly into a USB port on your computer and provide terrestrial digital TV reception, letting you use your hard drive as a DVR. I carry around a few of the Hauppauge Aero-M stick receivers and a Mohu Leaf for reception on the road, and they work great.

We’ll never know the actual reason for Aereo’s system failures during the Golden Globes and Oscars, but it’s entirely possible that the company was too clever for its own good by engineering and building a system that was designed to neatly parse and side-step copyright laws.

It’s funny how the law of unintended consequences works, isn’t it?

January’s TV is February’s Digital Sign

A lot of the display-related excitement at January’s CES 2014 related to 4K, multi-touch panels, and gesture-related system control. A month later, and those same technologies were being featured in digital signage at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE), also in Las Vegas. It’s impressive how quickly 4K migrated from television to signage.

LG’s 105-inch Ultra HD TV set was an Ultra HD Display at DSE, and the company also showed its 55-inch “Gallery” OLED-TV. This is the TV that is matted and framed like a picture, and it does look very good when showing fine art. It may not be a “sign,” but museums are major customers for digital signage.

Transparent LCD from LG-MRI in a commercial refrigerator door. (Photo:  Ken Werner)

Transparent LCD from LG-MRI in a commercial refrigerator door. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Although somebody has shown a transparent TV at CES in each of the last couple of years, it’s hard to see how the idea makes sense. The most interesting argument comes from Bobs Raikes (MEKO Ltd.), who notes that some people with a hypersensitivity to interior design issues are offended by the “black hole” on the wall when their TV set is turned off. If the set were transparent when turned off, the wall would show through and the whole lash-up would be more aesthetically pleasing. Give me a break, Bob!

But in the signage world, there are places where transparent displays make a great deal of sense: retail windows, retail display boxes, vending machines and kiosks, and commercial refrigerator doors for supermarkets. Several vendors were showing transparent displays at DSE, including LG-MRI (a marketing JV between LG and Atlanta-based MRI), VER, 4YouSee, and GDS. In general the transparent displays seemed more transparent where they were supposed to be transparent and significantly more saturated where they were supposed to be saturated.

There were also examples of custom-sized displays from LG-MRI, BSI, Tannas Electronic Displays, and others.

LG was showing its 100-inch HECTO “truly cinematic, ultra sort throw” laser display. It was a TV at CES but a sign at DSE. NEC showed a startling round display inside a round frame, which turned out to be a projected image.

In the consumer world, touch displays only make sense for small and medium-size displays. Nobody is going to walk across the room to use a touch interface on his large-screen TV set. But it makes a great deal of sense for many signs, where customers can be very close to large displays. Touch and multi-touch are already important in signage, but the vigorous movement toward increased interactivity also incorporates gesture, customer analytics (which Intel is pushing hard), virtual fitting rooms, and systems that respond (say by showing you an appropriate video) when you touch a product on a display shelf.

Horizontal table-top displays were being shown by several vendors, including Planar, D3, and Multi-Taction. Multi-Taction’s table presented a digital version of air hockey.

E Ink was pushing hard to demonstrate the benefits of both passive and active-matrix electrophoretic technology for small and large signs. E Ink has established an alliance with sign company GDS to move the technology for ward more rapidly.

The display panel is only a part of any signage solution. A new wrinkle in distributing content to the signs in your network is to get it from the cloud.

DSE has been names as one of the 50 fastest-growing trade shows in the country. This year, there were just over 4000 verified attendees, plus 1813 exhibitors personnel for a total attendance of over 5800. There were a few more than 200 exhibiting companies, which occupied just over 70,000 net square feet. That’s 13% more than 2013, said the organizers. For next year, the show has reserved 6,000 square feet more than that. The dismal weather in the mid-west and northeast kept some registrants away from the show. Next year DSE will be in early March instead of early February, which should help unless our seemingly endless winter becomes truly endless.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Thursday Evening at a Sony Store

After the close of Digital Signage Expo, my colleague Steve Sechrist and I had a dinner of expensive (but excellent) Las Vegas hamburgers and talked as we wandered around the Forum Shops. We wound up at the Sony Store, nearly deserted late on a Thursday evening in early February.

We had leisurely conversations with the two young staffers, both of whom were pleasant, intelligent, and knowledgeable. We talked about the fact that the extensive exhibits of Sony Vaio computers would soon be gone, since Sony had just announced the sale of its PC business. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a comfortable couch watching a beautiful Sony 84-inch, 4K TV that still carries an MSRP of $25,000. The staffer changed the programming for us as we discussed what we were watching. Then, the other staffer gave such a convincing sales pitch for a set of high-end, noise-cancelling headphones that I subsequently ordered a pair (from Costco at about 60% the price I would have paid at the Sony Store).

On Wednesday, February 26, Sony announced it would close 20 of its 31 remaining Sony Stores, including the one in the Forum Shops. It looks like our two young friends will be unemployed, along with 1000 of their Sony colleagues in the U.S. If this had happened a month earlier, I would still be using my 20-year-old Koss headphones.

Of more significance, did Sony make the right call in selling off its PC business? As financial analyst Richard Windsor (www.radiofreemobile.com) says at every reasonable opportunity, the future of consumer tech is in the media ecosystem, not in hardware that is commodizing rapidly, even at the high end. Richard’s question is, can you create a viable ecosystem around smart phones and TV sets without having support in the middle from tablets and PCs? Is this kind of segmentation possible, or is it necessary to provide a continuum of platforms to make an ecosystem viable?  We will soon see if Sony has chosen the right answer to Richard’s question.

Last year, Sony got a leg up on the competition in offering quantum-dot enhanced LCD-TV sets — which offer a significantly expanded color gamut and little additional cost — before the competition.  This year, Sony will have lots of company from competitors using the Color IQ element from QD Vision (as Sony does) and the quantum dot enhancement film (QDEF) made by 3M from quantum dots made by Nanosys.  It’s very hard to establish a hardware advantage in consumer electronics that lasts very long.

We’ll see if Sharp is an exception to that rule of modern consumer electronics.  Sharp is preparing a major promotion of their Q+ technology (until very recently known as Quattron+), which provides picture definition that is very close to 4K at about half the price.  The technology requires a pixel with at least four differently colored subpixels, and among consumer TV makers only Sharp offers that.  And, of course, Sharp has patent protection for its approach.  But there is more than one way to skin that particular multi-primary cat, and I’m told somebody has already done so.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

Digital In The Desert: The 2014 HPA Tech Retreat

I’m writing this while sitting in the third day of the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat, which is one of the top technology conferences anywhere and which attracted well over 500 attendees this year to the Hyatt Indian Wells Resort in the Palm Springs area.

I’ve been attending the Retreat since 2002, and it has grown by leaps and bounds since then. In addition to a rich, 3 ½ -day program of technical presentations, there is a mammoth demo room where manufacturers can show off the latest in video compression, camera, editing, post, color correction, storage, display, and interfacing products. Some products that are introduced at the NAB Show actually have their “sneak previews” here!

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

Presenters and attendees come from all walks of life and from around the world. We’ve had representatives of U.S. Canadian, and British TV networks, IT companies like Cisco and Google, Hollywood studios (Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony Pictures), and well-known hardware and software manufacturers including Sony, Canon, Dolby, Adobe, Miranda, Belden, and NVIDIA. NHK, IBC, the EBU, SMPTE, and a host of domestic and international technology and professional associations are all well represented here.

The informal, ad hoc approach of the Tech Retreat contrasts with more structured and traditional technology conferences, and there are numerous opportunities for sidebar conversations, meeting, and networking. If you have a question about technology, there’s a very good chance someone at the Retreat has the answer.

There were several hot topics this year. UHDTV (4K) was one of them; so was the next-generation of file distribution and storage systems (clouds) and the move to IP-based facility interconnects instead of traditional copper serial digital interfaces.  This is a hot-button issue right now for post facilities and on Thursday morning, we heard about different ways to do it from Axon (AV Bridging), Evertz, Belden, and Cisco, along with the BBC. (Belden’s Steve Lampen pointed out in a humorous talk that coaxial cable is still faster than most people think and rumors of its demise are premature.)

A Tuesday panel focused exclusively on “second screen” trends and generational differences in how media is accessed and consumed – and how broadcasters and studios need to adapt their business models to satisfy the demand that Gen Ys have for anywhere & anytime content delivery. The “I want it when I want it, where I want it” paradigm was supported and contradicted by metrics from SAP, Nielsen, and (believe it or not) a representative from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Of course, the issue of video compression came up. A presentation on YouTube streaming proved a bit controversial when the presenters hinted that Google’s “free” VP9 codec might actually work as well if not better than the emerging HEVC H.265 platform, an assertion that was immediately challenged by Matt Goldman of Ericsson, an industry veteran who is well-versed in codec science and who later called for an independent, non-biased comparison test of both codecs.

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to "drink from the fire hose."

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to “drink from the fire hose.”

I took the stage twice on Wednesday. First out of the gate was my annual review of the Consumer Electronics Show, which covers a lot of ground in 30 minutes including Ultra HD TVs, curved displays, curved phones, HDMI 2.0, DockPort, 4K streaming products, gesture control, wireless, body sensors, and near-to-eye displays. (Plus 4K washers and dryers, Bluetooth underwear, connected cars, and grumpy cats.)

I followed that with an in-depth look at the new generation of small, fast, and dense signal interfaces found on tablets, phones, cameras, and ultrabooks. Examples included Mini and Mobility DisplayPort, Mobile High-definition Link (MHL), Micro HDMI, SlimPort, and DockPort. I also discussed the HDBaseT standard for multiplexed signals over structured wire,  and showed a few interesting applications for these connections including smartphone game controllers and smartphones that dock into notebook computers and provide CPU and video card functions.

Another unique feature of the Tech Retreat is the breakfast roundtables. These are held on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings before the main program kicks off. Banquet roundtables are set up with a number that corresponds to a list of topics outside the room. Show up, grab some breakfast, and enjoy an ad hoc, moderated discussion about that topic – or change the topic.

The scope of topics will amaze you. Here are a few examples of the 34 breakfast roundtables that were conducted on Thursday:

On-Set Workflows: Faster, Better, Cheaper  

4K = Four Times the Measurement Opportunities

Next-Generation Display Interfaces: the Conversation Continues

Cloud-Enabled Workflows: What Works, What Doesn’t

Should ITU-R Add 119.88 (Hz) as a Frame Rate to BT.2020?

Performance and System Requirements for a Reference Display

Deep Color Encoding: 12-bit Equivalent with Just 8 Bits

Conference organizer and industry veteran Mark Schubin likens the Tech Retreat to “drinking from a fire hose.” That’s how much information is available to attendees. You can absorb as much or as little as you want, and see some cool demos along the way.

There’s still a day left of the conference, but I’m writing this during the “Better Pixels: Best Bang for the Buck?” session, featuring speakers from Dolby, ETC, NHK, and the American Society of Cinematographers, along with Schubin. The question is this – do we really need more pixels on the screen (i.e. 4K or Ultra HD), or is a combination of high dynamic range and wider color gamuts a better approach to improving high-resolution displays and ultimately televisions?

Dolby, which bought Brightside Technologies’ high-dynamic range IP some years ago, is aggressively pushing for high dynamic range and the higher color saturation that comes along with it. Their argument is that HDR is a better fit to human visual systems, and a discussion has repeatedly come up about the interest of consumers in HDR TVs. (They’re talking about thousands of nits of brightness.)

I’d posit that the real challenge to selling HDR is the plummeting cost of large TVs. You can readily buy 55-inch LCD TVs with quite a few bells and whistles for less than $600, so just how much of a premium are consumers willing to pay to add high dynamic range? (Needless to say, such TVs would also be equipped with next-generation illumination systems, like quantum dots.)

My guess is that consumers would only tolerate a slight price increase to get HDR, as the benefit would be lost on most of them. Numerous studies have shown that consumers (at least, in the U.S.) prefer big, cheap televisions. They don’t care about 3D, and are ambivalent about “smart” TV functions for the most part. Both of these features have either become standard or seen a dramatic drop in price in the past four years.

If the Tech Retreat sounds intriguing, you should pencil it in on your calendar. Next year’s Retreat will be held from February 9 to February 13, and registration closes out very quickly – within a couple of weeks. For more information, go to http://hollywoodpostalliance.org/?page_id=5978.

QD Vision Co-Founder Predicts Death of OLED-TV

On February 8, in his presentation entitled “Are Quantum Dots Closing the Window of Opportunity for OLED-TV?” at the SID Los Angeles Chapter’s One-Day Conference on Technologies for Advanced Television, held in Costa Mesa, CA, Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, made a well-argued case that OLED-TV would become irrelevant in five years. At that time, conventional LCD-TVs with white-LED backlights will still be going strong, and LCD-TVs with quantum-dot-enhanced backlights using blue LEDs will have become be a major force.

Coe-Sullivan based his argument on the ability of quantum-dot-enhanced LCDs to provide better color gamut than OLEDs and to reduce power consumption, all at a minimal increase in cost. He systematically countered all but one of the arguments made in OLED’s favor.

Argument 1: OLED has response spead 1000 times that of LCD.
Coe-Sullivan’s counter-argument: The combinatin of faster-switchng LC materials, new LC modes, and thinner cell gaps give LCDs speeds up o 240Hz. The factors limiting speed is jitter and other optical effects, not LC response. “OLEDs offer no benefit in response speed over LCDs.”

Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, created a stir by predicting the demise of OLED-TV.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision, created a stir by predicting the demise of OLED-TV. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Argument 2: OLED has twice the viewing angle of LCD.
Counter-argument: The combination of new LC modes, thinner LC cell gaps, and new optical control films gives LCD-TVs viewing angles that are “good enough.” OLEDs offer little practical viewing angle benefit over LCDs.

Argument 3: OLEDs will have a thickness 1/25 that of LCDs.
Counter-argument: The LED-BLU edge-lit designs that became established in 2008/2009 result in OLEDs offering only a minimal thinness benefit over LCD TVs.

Argument 4: OLEDs will offer a 10x power efficiency increase.
Counter-argument: The combination of LED BLUs, light-control films, and that fact that OLEDs have not delivered the promised power savings, has resulted in OLED-TVs consuming more power than LCDs when displaying a white screen, and the situation is worse for higher resolutions and larger screens. In short, it is LCDs that have a significant power efficiency advantage over OLEDs — not the other way around.

Argument 5: OLEDs will offer a bill of materials (BoM) cost one half that of LCDs.
Counter-argument: The combination of reductions in the cost of LED BLUs, incremental improvements in LCDs,
and the persistance of low volumes in OLED manufacturing have resulted in OLED’s BoM being no less or greater than that of LCDs. And that is before the significantly lower yield of OLEDs compared to LCDs is taken into account.

Argument 6: New OLED manufacturing processes will further reduce costs.
Counter-argument: Fine metal masks waste material and generate dust. The anticipated new low-cost processes — such as ink-jet printing, laser transfer, nozzle jet, and OVJP — are harder than we thought, and roll-to-roll isn’t amenable to high-resolution displays. In short, “OLED manufacturing is a yield and cost negative compared to mature LCD fabs.”

Argument 7: New OLED display modes will further increase the attractiveness and utility of displays.
Counter-argument: Since this argument was first put forth, LCD technology has demonstrated transparent and curved displays. If these new display modes ever get past the gimmick phase, they are equally possible with
LCDs.

Argument 8: OLED color gamut can be 50% greater than LCD.
Counter-argument: Quantum-dot enhancement of LED backlights can produce a better color gamut than OLED-TVs.

The only argument for OLED-TVs that Coe-Sullivan acknowledged is their much greater contrast (in a dark room).

One of OLED’s problems is cost, which has kept market penetration low. Although not widely recognized by the general public, quantum dots appeared in major products in 2013: three models of Sony television (in the U.S.), which use QD Vision’s Color IQ rail, and, one of Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HDX models, which uses 3M’s quantum dot enhancement film (QDEF). Coe-Sullivan, 3M’s Erik Jostes, and Touch Display Research’s Jennifer Colegrove all predicted a rapid growth in design wins for quantum dots in 2014, with increasingly rapid growth coming in 2015 and following years.

That doesn’t mean that any of the other speakers at the conference — including 3M’s Jostes — echoed Coe-Sullivan’s position that OLED was fated for early extinction. The consensus is for a slow but steady increase in OLED-TV penetration. Market Intelligence company IHS has predicted a 3.9% penetration in panels for OLED-TV in 2018.

Ken Werner is the founder and principal of Nutmeg Consultants, and was the program chair and moderator for the one-day conference.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.