Posts Tagged ‘broadband video’

Goodbye Flo, We Hardly Knew Ye

Last Tuesday, Web outlet paidContent.com broke the story that Qualcomm was preparing to shut down its underperforming FLO TV business unit this coming December.

FLO TV, for those readers who’ve never heard of it (and that’s a large group, apparently), is a proprietary subscription mobile TV service that broadcasts nationwide on UHF channel 55. The service, also bundled as a ‘white label’ wholesale product to Verizon and AT&T subscribers, delivered several channels of TV programming specifically formatted for mobile and handheld devices.

Among the networks offered to FLO subscribers were Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, and CNN. The service first launched in 2006 as MediaFLO, and picked up Verizon (VCAST) and AT&T Mobile as re-sellers in 2007.

The FLO will be cut off in December…

Unfortunately for Qualcomm, FLO never caught on with Verizon and AT&T customers. Customers didn’t care to watch movies and long-form programming on cell phones, opting instead for ‘snacking’ on news and sports clips.

The result was a decision to market the service directly to consumers in the summer of 2009, with big box stores including Best Buy and Radio Shack offering a 3.5” LCD FLO TV receiver for $250, along with a $9 per month service contract with a three-year commitment.

The total out-of-pocket expense to watch 12 channels of programming – $570 – was not appealing to potential customers, particularly with the new ATSC MH mobile digital TV service getting off the ground. Why pay all that money when you could potentially access thousands of digital TV stations across the country for free?

Another strike against FLO TV: It didn’t offer any local news, weather, and sports broadcasts, which are the three biggest drivers for mobile media consumption. To make matters worse, smart phones were already providing Web access to video content providers like Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Web podcasts of sports, news, and weather programming; all on a flat rate data plan that also included email access. That’s not a battle Qualcomm could hope to win.

Ironically, FLO viewership numbers surged with ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup as the obituary was first being drafted back in June. But it was a case of too little, too late.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Qualcomm’s plans for what’s left of FLO TV and its nationwide network of over one hundred channel 55 TV transmitters (and in some markets, channel 56) aren’t clear yet. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hand-wringing coming from the San Diego corporate headquarters.

That’s because Qualcomm acquired the UHF spectrum relatively inexpensively earlier this decade, and now feels that the channels are worth at least $2 billion today, based on current spectrum auction results.  So they can sell off their real estate and still pocket a nice piece of change for their efforts, which among other things included relocating (at Qualcomm’s expense) a few UHF TV stations broadcasting on channel 55 prior to the analog TV shut-down in June of 2009.

Is there a market for subscription-based mobile digital TV? It would appear not. And there’s no guarantee that the free MH services just getting off the ground will be sustainable, either.

But in a day and age of customers feeling they are being ‘nickel-and-dimed to death’ for cable and satellite TV, Internet access, cellular phone service, and landline telephone service, FLO TV never stood a chance.

3D: Expect a Long Slog

3D: Expect a Long Slog

It took nearly seven years before HDTV really took off. So how can we expect 3D to launch in less time?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately in the trade and consumer press that 3D is at danger of falling back into a novelty entertainment category.

Several prominent movie directors (among them J. J. Abrams) have come out against the format. Christopher Nolan (Inception) said it was too dark. And sloppy 2D-to-3D conversions, such as Clash of the Titans, may scare some people away from the format.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that the initial fascination that movie audiences had with 3D is starting to wear off. The premium for a 3D ticket can be anywhere from $3 to $5, depending on the theater chain and location. And experiences like Titans will make consumers gun-shy about spending 25% to 40% more for a 3D presentation.

But that’s a movie theater issue. What CE manufacturers want is for 3D to take off like HDTV did, back in the late 1990s.

The only problem with that thinking is that HDTV did not take off in the late 1990s at all! As a matter of fact, it moved at a glacial pace for quite a few years.

I installed my first HDTV (Princeton Graphics AF3.0HD) in the fall of 1999, and connected it to a Panasonic TU-DST51W set-top box and antenna to watch a smattering of HD movies on Saturday nights (ABC) and a few sitcoms and hour-long dramas (CBS), along with Monday Night Football games (ABC again).

My TV market (Philadelphia) didn’t have a full slate of HD content available on the top four networks until 2003, five years after the first HDTV stations lit up. Remember NBC’s experimental HD coverage of the Winter Olympics in February of 2002? Remember the Fox network’s 480i ‘high-resolution digital TV?’ in 2000 and 2001?

The fact is; HDTV set sales didn’t hit their stride until the third and fourth quarters of 2005. That’s when the price wars began in earnest and the HD DVD – Blu-ray war was just starting up.  (Coincidentally or not, 2005 was also the high-water mark for DVD sales.)

Consider that HDTV turned the idea of TV viewing upside down. Gone was analog TV, replaced by digital bits and bytes. Gone too were big, bulky cathode-ray tubes, replaced by matrices of tiny pixels actuated by LCD and plasma technology.

Good-bye, VHS tapes – DVDs were well on their way to killing off this format by the start of 2005. And of course we were no longer limited to just 480 lines of picture resolution, but could enjoy programs with 1280×720 and 1920×1080 pixels of picture detail…win widescreen, no less!

Think about it. TV was literally re-invented from 1998 to 2005. And in 2009, we pulled the plug completely and analog TV broadcasts, completing the switch. But that was 11 years after the process started.

For most viewers, 3D is still an expensive novelty

So…manufacturers want people to buy into 3D. Currently, there are a limited number of 3DTV sets for sale, and they’re not as cheap as 2D sets. And there’s not much 3D content available on Blu-ray to watch right now. You can count the number of 3D TV networks on the fingers of one hand.

And the glasses! Depending on which model 3DTV you watch, you may see ghost images. Or, the picture may get darker as you tilt your head. (You may even get a headache after a few minutes.) And the glasses are expensive, and you need a separate pair for every viewer.

Did I mention that most 3D glasses will not work with other brands of 3D TVs? Hey, you could make anyone’s HDTV set-top box work with anyone’s DTV set. Ditto DVD players and Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes. But not 3D glasses.

It also doesn’t help that we’re in a nasty recession. People are reluctant to spend money now, especially with close to 10% unemployment.  So 3DTV winds up being an exotic luxury for now.

I return to my main point, and that is the long adoption curve I anticipate for 3D. The price premium is one drawback, and the other is the fact that millions of U.S. homes just bought one or more new HDTVs within the past three years.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, we are at or around 50% penetration for HDTV, meaning 50% of all homes have at least one HDTV set. I can guarantee that more than half of those sets were purchased after Q3 of 2005. So, where’s the impetus to buy a new 3DTV?

The good thing about a long adoption curve: Within two years, all models of HDTV sets 50 inches and larger will have the capability to play back 3D programming. (They’ll all have network connections too, but that’s another story.) So it won’t matter which set you buy – you’ll have the 3D playback built-in.

The same thing will happen with Blu-ray players and set-top boxes. They’ll be able to process 3D content as easily as 2D content. So you won’t have to buy an expensive special model just to watch 3D Blu-ray discs.

How long a curve are we looking at? I’d say about five years. By then, broadband speeds will have picked up considerably and we’ll be able to access 3D content through Internet TV channels, as well as from optical disc and video-on-demand.

Content drives demand, and there just isn’t enough of it in 3D right now. By 2015, the situation will have changed dramatically and we’ll have 3D movies, games, and TV programs coming out the wazoo.

Until then, expect 3D to penetrate the TV market slowly, in fits and starts…just like HDTV did.

FiOS is coming! (Yawn…)

They’re here!

The big orange spools of fiber optic jackets. The rows of white utility trucks. The polycarbonate junction boxes sitting every few feet along the curb. The spray-painted lines and alien glyphs all over my lawn, and my neighbor’s lawns.

Yes, FiOS has finally made it to our neighborhood. After nearly six years of waiting, Verizon has hired an army of subcontractors to run fiber optic cables under our lawns and breach the once-impenetrable Comcast wall.

This is FiOS! This is Big! (Well, the spools certainly are!)

Thing is, some of my neighbors are kinda blase about the whole thing. And I am, too.

Here’s why: Verizon first wired up nearby Doylestown Borough in 2003-2004, back when most people had separate telephone and cable TV hookups and broadband access was starting to pick up steam. Repeated calls to Verizon about the availability of FiOS in our township brought the same results – “We’re negotiating with your township over the franchise fees.” Seems that, unlike every other township around Doylestown, our supervisors insisted that Verizon pay the same franchise fees that Comcast had, back in the day.

This, even though Verizon had successfully negotiated discounted franchise deals with most other townships in central Bucks County.

Finally, after years of haggling, our supervisors reached an accommodation with Verizon, who had already announced they would not build out their national FiOS infrastructure any further, due to the high labor/materials costs and challenging ROI environment. Fortunately, we already had the required fiber optic ‘drops’ sitting in a Verizon service cabinet at the corner of our development from six years ago.

A few things have changed along the way since 2004. First off, Comcast’s broadband speeds have picked up considerably, and their service is quite reliable. Secondly, I, along with some of my neighbors, dropped Verizon landline telephone service and consolidated everything into the ‘triple play’ option (broadband, phone, and cable TV). And the quality of phone service is much, much better than what I had with Verizon. (Other neighbors opted to install DirecTV dishes and forego any kind of cable connection.)

I’ve also got a CableCARD-enabled TiVo HD that I use constantly to time-shift programs, and it works very well. Not only that, there are numerous ‘in the clear’ digital TV channels present on my system that can be accessed by conventional TV sets without extra set-top boxes.

I saved myself about $40 a month with the consolidation. And have gotten pretty used to the high level of service. So maybe it’s understandable that I’m not in any hurry to change over to a new provider, even if their Internet speeds are supposedly faster (something that was definitely true back in 2004, but maybe not now).

And it doesn’t help when a Verizon contractor shows up at my door, asking me if he can disconnect my cable TV wiring so he can trace the underground line back to the house. Hell, no! Not while I’m reviewing artwork for a client project!

The wires are definitely here…unless they’re somewhere else.

And that’s another thing to consider. When you call Comcast for a service problem (something I haven’t had to do in over a year), a Comcast-trained service person shows up in a Comcast truck.

When you call Verizon, you may get a Verizon tech. Or, you may get a subcontractor, particularly if you have wiring issues.  There are numerous ‘installation disaster’ stories of subcontractors puncturing gas lines and shorting out electrical lines while installing FiOS connections in the central Bucks County area. That alone gives me pause about the whole ‘switch to FiOS’ thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a particularly big fan of Comcast, who seems to raise their rates at the drop of a hat.  And I wonder what Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC Universal will mean for future monthly rates and access to content.

The fact that I could switch to FiOS at any time may be useful to me to get a better rate from Comcast, or hold the line on future rate increases.

But to be honest, the service I get right right now is very good. And it’s reliable. And I can troubleshoot most of it myself with my own test equipment. And I know a lot of the service and engineering folks at Big C. So I guess I’ll stick with Comcast for a while longer, while those Verizon contractors continue to tear up everyone’s lawns and finish pulling fiber to all the houses in the ‘hood. Then we’ll see how it’s working out for any of my neighbors who decide to make the switch.

Maybe it’s simply a case of dealing with the devil you know, versus the one you don’t know?

NAB 2010: A Show in Transition

Some of the big questions facing attendees as their flights landed in Las Vegas were these: Can NAB survive? Will it evolve into something different? Is it even that important to attend NAB anymore?

The answer to all three questions is “yes.” Even though attendance was still down from 2008 (NAB claimed 83,000 ‘officially;’ my guesstimate was more like 55,000 to 60,000), there were plenty of companies in attendance with lots of cool products to check out.

That said, the show is undergoing a rapid transformation away from a traditional ‘broadcasting’ show to a mix of InfoComm and CES – hot new products for professionals. Of course, 3D was all over the place. But so was networked video, which dominated the upper and lower South Hall exhibit areas.

Booths were smaller this year, and that’s not going to change any time soon…not when the typical booth is showing products that have price tags in the hundreds and low thousands. Contrast that with NAB shows 15 years ago, when most of the price tags had three and four zeros in them!

You know attendance was off when this was one of the largest booths in the Central Hall!

On the other hand, the alternative wasn’t too attractive…

The smaller booths and lower number of exhibitors resulted in wider aisles and less traffic – a plus. But it also resulted in NAB placing the main registration area smack in the middle of the Central Hall, something I’ve never seen before.  And there was plenty of wide-open space at the end of that hall, as well in the North and South Halls.

Can NAB be staged in three halls? Absolutely! And can you see everything you need to see in three days? Try two days. (Thursday has become ‘exhibitor bonding day,’ to quote a fellow editor.) I could have covered my beat in two days if necessary.

THE TRENDS

Not surprisingly, 3D was a big topic this year, although not to the same extent as it was at CES. The SMPTE/ETC/EBU Digital Cinema Summit focused entirely on 3D for both days, and I was fortunate enough to deliver one of the papers to a jammed room of 500+ attendees.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Canon, Grass Valley, AVID, Doremi, Harris, Evertz, and Ross Video were just some of the companies showing 3D products in Vegas. Those products ranged from 3D monitors and cameras to 3D workflow (acquisition, editing, post, effects, and playout) software and hardware.

Sony’s LM4251TD 42-inch LCD monitor uses micropolarizers for passive 3D viewing.

Other specialized 3D brands were in attendance, too. TD Vision, Miracube, Mistika, and HDlogix had nice exhibits in the South Hall, down the street from Grass Valley. Smaller companies like Cine-tal occupied the 3D Pavilion nearby, while Motorola and Ericsson showcased 3D transport and format recognition products upstairs.

Although the consumer TV market is seeing a big push towards active-shutter 3D TVs and monitors, the emphasis at NAB was on passive 3D viewing (cheaper glasses, more expensive displays). JVC, Hyundai, and LG all manufacture them, and there were plenty of folks standing around with RealD X-pol eyewear watching the demos.

The projector guys were on top of things, too. projectiondesign showed a stacked pair of 3-chip 1080p lightboxes in the Mistika booth, using linear polarized glasses. HDI showed a 100-inch, 1080p LCoS rear-projection TV in the HDlogix booth, also using X-pol glasses. Christie also had suitable 3D projection systems out for inspection.

There were also some demos that left me scratching my head, such as Canon’s dual-projection X-pol 3D demo, using a pair of REALiS WUXGA (1920×1200) LCoS projectors. While it worked well, it requires two separate projectors and outboard 3D filter holders – too klunky! (A Canon rep told me that was because of the 60 Hz frame rate limitation on the internal video processor.)

Well, it IS 3D, but I doubt Canon will sell very many of these rigs…

Broadband video and IPTV were also big this year. This market for MPEG-4 AVC over Ethernet, fiber, or private data networks is exploding, and encoder companies such as Adtec, Vbrick, Harmonic, Ericsson, Harris, Motorola, and Digital Rapids were showing a full range of compatible products.

Sezmi also occupied a booth at the show. This company has a unique selling proposition – a set-top box that receives both terrestrial (read: free) digital TV and selected cable channels carried on secondary terrestrial channels. It also accesses a video-on-demand server through broadband connections (SDTV only) and has a customizable program guide for each user.

While not technically broadband, the nascent MH broadcast format was in abundance at NAB. MH uses MPEG-4 AVC coding in multiple streams with IP headers to send low-resolution video to handheld receivers, such as mobile phones and combo PDA/receiver products. MH is catching on in popularity with broadcasters, who see it as a more sensible alternative to simple multicasting of secondary channels that very few people may be watching.

ATSC MH on an iPhone? Brilliant! (There’s an app for everything!)

MY PICKS

After three days of walking around, I came up with a list of “finds” that I’ll share here. These are all products that represented clever thinking, breakthrough technology, and/or new price points. Some were easy to spot; others required quite a bit of digging. But they all made the trip to Lost Wages worth it (and that’s saying a lot, considering how airlines jam you in like sardines these days!).

TV Logic: This manufacturer of LCD broadcast monitor showed the world’s first active-matrix OLED broadcast monitor (unless you think Sony’s press announcement hit first, which it didn’t.) The LM-150 ($6,200) uses a LG Display 15-inch OLED panel with 1366×768 pixel resolution and come equipped with all the expected niceties including markers, crop marks, caption displays, over/underscan, and HD/SDI, HDMI, and analog video jacks. There’s also a 3D version in the works (TDM-150) that will sell for about $7,700.

This was the coolest product at the show. But will it REALLY last 30,000 hours?

Ericsson: In addition to a host of MPEG-4 and IPTV encoders, the ‘big E’ also showcased an innovative, iPad-like LCD touchscreen remote control/video viewer. Dubbed the IPTV remote, this product can dial up video from broadband, cable, satellite, and even your home network. Not only that, it can monitor weather sensors and your home security system. (Sound much like a Crestron product?) The IPTV remote will not be offered for sale at retail. Rather, it’s intended to be a content provider offering.

Christie: Have you seen their MicroTiles yet on the Colbert Report? These innovative ‘mini’ DLP projection cubes use LED light engines to power 800×600 DMDs (the actual working resolution is 720×540) and measure about 12” x 16.” They can be configured in just about any format you wish, including floor and ceiling projection, and up to 1024 can be driven at one time. The LED light source is specified to last over 60,000 hours. Think of LED-powered LEGOÔ blocks, and you’ve got the concept.

And YOU thought iPads were all the rage…

SmallHD: It wasn’t easy finding these guys behind the Sony booth, but they’d come up with a focus assist monitor for video and still cameras that they claim is the world’s smallest HD video monitor. The actual size is about 5.6 inches and the glass is WXGA (1280×800) LCD. It comes in two flavors – one for digital SLRs ($899) and one with SDI input ($1199). The monitors are an inch thick, weigh 10 ounces, and mount to hot shoes.

Z3 Technology: I found this booth on my last pass through the South Hall, and it was worth the stop. They showed the Z3-MVE-01 MPEG encoder, a compact box that codes HD up to 1920×1080 resolution using H.64 High Profile (up to 30Hz), with Ethernet and ASI outputs. Input compatibility includes composite, component, HDMI, DVI, and HD-SDI video…all for $5,000.

JVC’s 46-inch X-pol monitor always drew a crowd.

Adtec: I didn’t expect to see an HDMI-to-QAM modulator at the show, but that’s exactly what Adtec pulled out for me. The HDMI2QAM is a dual-channel design that encodes anything from the HDMI inputs (yes, they are HDCP-compliant) to a pair of quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels, using MPEG-2 encoding. The modulation format is selectable between 64-QAM (SD), 128-QAM (not widely use), and 256-QAM (HD). Bit rates are constant and optimized for each mode (i.e. 38.8 Mb/s for each HD channel).

 

Cydle: This new start-up demonstrated an app for iPods and iPhones that allows viewing of ATSC MH (A/153) video. Along with it comes the i30,  a battery-powered docking station with built-in antenna (UHF). This means that your ‘i-whatever’ has two batteries to draw from, so if you run low on talk power, simply switch to the i30 battery. Both can charge simultaneously. Cool!

Sezmi’s personal program guide rivals TiVo for user-friendliness.

Panasonic: I’ve seen it before at CES, but it now has a model number. The company’s first production camcorder now goes by the moniker AG-3DA1 and is yours for the low, low price of just $21,000. (Well, all things are relative, I guess.) The camera weighs about 6 and a half pounds and uses a pair of 2.l07 MP sensors (full 1920×1080) to record 1080i and 720p HD content to SD memory cards. Convergence and horizontal and vertical displacement are fully adjustable.

Panasonic gets another mention for the AG-AF100, which they claim is the world’s first Micro 4/3-inch (1.33:1) HD camcorder. That’s a big deal because the 4/3” format matches the coverage area of 35mm film frames…which means you can use standard 35mm film camera lenses to get effects like shallow focus, soft focus, and vignettes. The camera records to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards using the AVCHD format and supports 1080i/p and 720p formats, including 23.98/24/25 Hz.

Sony gets extra credit for announcing the world’s second (or first) AM-OLED professional video monitor. The PVM-750 ($3,850) is a bit smaller than TV Logic’s offering at 7.4 inches (16:9), and is not quite full HD resolution at 960×540 pixels. (Not that you’d notice on such  small screen!)  The PVM-750 has 3G HD-SDI, HDMI, and composite video inputs, the full range of adjustments from tally and markers to blue screen mode and AC/battery power operation. No word on lifespan of the display, but Sony uses small molecule (SM) OLED technology, as does LG Display.

LP Technologies rounds out my list with one of those ‘too good to be true’ products: An LCD-based 9 kHz to 3 GHz spectrum analyzer with USB 2.0 interface, built-in preamp, and Ethernet connectivity for remote monitoring. Sorry, no internal battery pack!) The USB hook-up can be used to save data in the Excel format, while the internal memory can tore 900 different waveforms. The display is a 6.4” 640×480 (VGA) LCD type. And the cost? Just $4,500…

Stick one of these on a Canon 5D MK II, and you can shoot an entire episode of ‘House!’ (No kidding!)

TiVo’s Got A New Box Up Its Sleeve

Last night, TiVo held a coming-out party for the TiVo Premiere, the latest in a series of DVRs that can receive and record content from cable, terrestrial, and broadband TV.

The event, held atop Rockefeller Center, featured CEO Tom Rogers bantering with 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) while Rogers listed the new functions and menu designs. The “premiere” of Premiere wasn’t a very well-kept secret – some Best Buy employees leaked specs and pricing information in late February.

Tom Rogers gives us the skinny on TiVo’s Premiere. Ironically, Rogers used to be an NBC executive!

What was significant about the event was the announcement that cable overbuilder and MSO RCN will offer Premiere as an option to its customers. TiVo’s DVR, although a great product in design and execution, has long suffered from a lack of content delivery partners.

At one time, the company had a partnership with DirecTV, but that went by the wayside. Partnering with RCN, even though the latter is a small player in the world of cable TV, will help drive acceptance and sales considerably.

The Premiere – which actually comes in two flavors – is a slimmer, sleeker version of the current Series 3 and HD DVRs, both of which will be discontinued. The basic Premiere offers 45 hours of recording for $300, while the XL version triples that capacity to 150 hours for a couple hundred extra dollars.

TiVo’s Premiere DVR is even thinner than the TiVo HD.

As configured, Premiere offers a ‘triple play’ of terrestrial, cable, and broadband video recording and playback. (Sorry, no DirecTV or Dish support!) There is a single M-style CableCARD slot which allows bi-directionality for video on demand (VOD) services. But Premiere isn’t ready to replace tru2way yet…not that the latter bi-directional cable platform has been setting the world on fire exactly.

Wireless connectivity is based on 802.11n protocols, and you can link Premiere with older Series 3 and HD units to share recorded shows and files on the same home media network. TiVo has also added broadband content sites Pandora and FrameChannel (over 1,000 widgets and counting) to existing Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, and Amazon services. (Sorry, still no connections to Hulu!).

For the first time that I know of, Adobe’s Flash player has been incorporated into a set-top box (hey, who puts these things on top of TV sets anymore?). Premiere makes extensive use of Flash in its menus and video preview windows.

There are also new Search parameters that take you more quickly to a given actor’s resume, lets you search by such arcane topics as “Oscar-nominated movies,” and in general lets you REALLY drill down to find out everything you want about a particular TV show or movie, and the people who directed and acted in it.

Premiere’s new mernus make extensive use of Flash.

TiVo also showed its latest remote controls that incorporate a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Those readers who have suffered with the directional arrows and Select button to type in keywords for program searches should be deliriously happy with that development!

Here’s the new QWERTY remote. Hooray!

I’ve had TiVo service since 1999, and just retired my first Series 1 Philips DVR, which had enough capacity to record a whopping 14 hours of standard-definition TV. (It still works, even with the dial-up phone connection for program guide info!) I also have a pair of Humax Series 2 combo DVD/DVR boxes sitting in hibernation, now that Comcast has gone all-digital.

So I’m looking forward to test-driving a Premiere and seeing how it compares to my workhorse TiVo HD, which records both digital cable and terrestrial HD signals and has downloaded several TV shows in HD from Amazon’s Unbox service. Look for a review later this spring when TiVo starts shipping.

Best Buy will be the exclusive brick-and-mortar retail outlet for Premiere, and it will also be available from Amazon. The Wireless-N adapter will start shipping in May.

Don’t ask this guy to program your Tivo, though…