Posts Tagged ‘broadcasting’

Wal-Mart Buys VuDu. What does it mean?

On Monday, February 22, Wal-Mart announced it was buying the movie download service VUDU.

The announcement, which was a bit of a surprise, nevertheless makes sense in light of Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to downplay in-store sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Now, Wal-Mart can deliver HD-quality movies directly to a variety of compatible TVs and media players, including LG’s new BD590 player/DVR.

According to a Business Week story, a VUDU executive said he expects the VUDU platform to be integrated into more than 150 TVs and related AV products in 2010. This is significant because VUDU picture quality tends to be higher than iTunes and Netflix streaming video. In fact, many VUDU movies can be downloaded in the 1080p/24 format for true HD playback.

VUDU’s original set-top box

This move also pits Wal-Mart directly against Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as demand for digital downloads of TV shows and movies heats up.

So – what does that mean for packaged media sales? DVD sales continued their slide last year, falling off 13% from 2008, according to Adams Media Research. Even the Blu-ray format hasn’t proven compelling enough to reverse this trend, which many analysts still blame on the economy.

I’ve got three more sensible explanations. First off, DVD rentals are still hanging in there, which means more consumers have decided they really don’t need to buy every movie or TV show boxed set out there. Renting once is just fine, particularly if you have a $1-per-night Redbox DVD kiosk in your local grocery store.

Second, there just aren’t that many memorable movies out there from recent years that are worth owning. And if you’ve already accumulated RL or BD copies of the ‘classics’ plus some boxed sets here and there, why continue to fill up your shelves with more DVDs that will likely still be sitting in their original shrink wrap a year later?

Third, it’s pretty clear that the public is captivated by broadband video. That includes video-on-demand over cable, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Amazon digital downloads, and YouTube.  Granted, mailing Netflix and Blockbuster movies back and forth is pretty convenient (although Netflix spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make that happen!).

But pointing your remote at the TV and downloading a movie or TV show is even more convenient (and cheaper for Netflix). And if you have access to thousands of movie titles and TV shows at the click of a button, why do you need to fill up your shelves at home with DVDs you might watch one time, then consign to a garage sale or your local library?

Wal-Mart is betting that you don’t, and that direct downloads are what you crave. And they want a piece of that action.

Reflections On a ‘Super’ Bowl

It’s the day after the biggest football game of the year, and the New Orleans Saints pulled off a miracle, beating the odds and those ‘smart’ talking heads to upset favored Indianapolis, 31-17.

Unlike past years, I had a small group of friends over to watch the game in HD. And unlike past years, I didn’t stuff the house with HDTVs and projectors to create an immersive football environment.

And that was just fine by me.

Way back in 2000, when the Titans – Rams clash was televised in HD by ABC and Panasonic, the subject of HDTV was rocket science to my neighbors. You couldn’t get it on cable, or from DirecTV. The only place to find HD broadcasts was from your local TV station…and that took an outside antenna, an expensive set-top box, and a wing and a prayer.

For that game, I set up a Princeton AF3.0HD widescreen CRT monitor (an ugly and bulky cuss, if I ever saw one) in my family room, and Sony’s VPL-VW10HT 768p LCD projector in my basement, driving a Stewart 82-inch matte screen. A single Panasonic TU-DST51A set-top box pulled in the signals from a Radio Shack UHF yagi, mounted on my rear deck.

With each successive year, the number of TVs grew…and grew…and grew.  We had LCD HDTVs, plasma HDTVs, DLP projectors, CRT projectors, and 3LCD projectors. Antennas were mounted on the roof, in the attic, along inside walls, and on that same rear deck.

Coaxial and video cables snaked all over the house. TVs popped up atop the refrigerator, in the bathroom, in the front hall (viewed from inside a closet!), on the rear deck, and even outside the front door.

The record for attendees was 70, in 2009. The record for TVs was 14, set the year Indy won it’s first Super Bowl and equaled last year. After that game, I decided to pull the plug on an ‘official’ HDTV party and keep it simple. After all, there’s no real mystery in HDTV anymore – you can buy a 32-inch LCD HDTV at Kmart for $300 nowadays!

This year’s party, which came together at the last minute, featured six screens, two of which are permanently installed. Panasonic’s TH-42PZ80U 42-inch 1080p plasma entertained guests in my family room, while Mitsubishi’s HC6000 1080p LCD projector lit up a JKP Affinity 92-inch screen in my theater.

A couple of 50-inch plasma monitors were hooked up in the living room and main theater, while Eviant’s T7 portable DTV sat atop the refrigerator and functioned as an air check monitor. As has been the case every year, all of the RF feeds came from roof-top and indoor antennas – no cable or satellite feeds were used.

And that 6th TV? Turns out that we actually got enough snow on Saturday to cover the lawn for the first time in 11 years…and it didn’t melt. So, I took a Canon SX80 MKII LCoS projector and aimed out it a second-floor window at a very steep down angle. Then, I hooked up a spare Samsung DTB-H260F DTV tuner to my house RF system.

Voila! I was now projecting HDTV onto the front lawn, using snow as a screen. The projected image had some keystoning issues, to be sure. But it still looked cool. I figure the size of the projected images was about 15 feet diagonally. And having 3300 lumens from the projector really helped punch up the brightness!

Here’s how the Canon SX80 was mounted. Talk about steep angles!

(For any ISF guys reading this, I used the Cool color temperature setting…naturally!)

 

Surprisingly, there were no 3D broadcasts during the game. I was ready if there were, though – I still had a pile of anaglyph 3D glasses left over from 2009 (remember the Monsters vs. Aliens trailer and the Pepsi SoBe commercials?) Some of this year’s commercials were entertaining, many were forgettable.

But the real story was New Orleans’ dramatic, come-from-behind win, a real feel-good result for that beleaguered city. The HD slow-mo replays were awesome, in particular the one that conclusively proved the Saints had gotten a crucial two-point conversion in the 2nd half. And The Who’s halftime show was one of the best in memory – it rocked out!

Our house was loaded with Saints fans, some sporting ‘Who Dat?’ T-shirts and wearing strings of colorful beads. The eats included jambalaya and pork barbecue, with Hurricanes do drink on the side. And my hat’s off to one guest who managed to bring back the original Café Du Monde beignet mix and whip up a batch of those tasty treats for us.

So…no more extravagant Super Bowl parties from now on. Just some good food and a couple of TVs (OK, maybe three, or five, or six) on which to enjoy the action.

And if Fox decides to carry the game in 3D next year, I still have those glasses…

CES 2010 – Part I: Big crowds, smaller booths, 3D, MIAs…

CES 2010 rebounded nicely from last year’s lightly-attended show. But there weren’t as many surprises this year.

First off, 3D was everywhere. You couldn’t hide from it. I estimate I saw at least 20 demos of 3D over two days, and toards the end I simply declined the active or passive glasses and just took notes on the manufacturer and the projector or TV on display. 3D is like the wild west right now – everyone’s advancing their own “solution” and there aren’t any standards for home delivery just yet. (Where’s a sheriff when you need one?) Some of the more ballyhooed demos were actually disappointing, like JVC’s 4K 3D demo that used passive glasses. Yes, the images had lots of detail. Yes, they were larger than life. But they also exhibited too much crosstalk for my liking. (Crosstalk in 3D appears as unwanted ghost images in your glasses and is actually left or right eye information showing up in the wrong eye.) My preference was for the active shutter demos – they were cleaner and a better representation of 3D.

Secondly, more and more companies are jumping on the NeTV bandwagon. In addition to new Widget alliances and an entire App Store that Samsung announced, I saw numerous demonstrations of image processing for cleaning up Internet video to be shown on large screens. IDT’s suite at the Wynn had some particularly effective processing for not only YouTube videos, but movies downloaded to iPods as well. Those of you who own large LCD and plasma TVs know exactly how bad Internet video looks on a 1080p screen. These processors don’t make it look substantially better, but they do clean it up enough to be tolerable. This movement towards broadband delivery of video content is exactly why CE companies are asking the FCC why it is that digital TV stations really need all of the channels currently allocated to broadcasters.

One good answer is mobile handheld digital TV, or MH. There was an entire MH pavilion this year in the Central Hall, loaded with exhibits of integrated MH cell phones, MH receivers inside portable DVD players, and USB plug-in MH receiver sticks.  Participants included LG, Samsung, Movee, and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC),  among others. Combined with a primary HD program stream, MH could be a real game-changer for broadcast television. Add in custom widgets from local TV stations to appear on NeTVs, and voila – broadcasting has re-invented itself.

Yet another trend was green displays, from pocket LED projectors to LED-backlit LCD TVs. Even Panasonic got into the game with a demonstration of 25% to 30% reductions in energy usage on their latest line of plasma TVs. LED baklights are rapidly replacing cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) commonly used in LCD TVs. My prediction is that LEDs will be the dominant backlight technology within two years across all sizes of LCD TVs – they contain no mercury (although they do contain gallium, a rare metal) and enable much better color control and local area dimming. In the projector world, Samsung showed an LED-powered 3LCD model that was rated at over 1000 lumens, while Casio featured a hybrid red diode – blue laser – green phosphor color wheel design in an ultra-slim $800 XGA DLP chassis!

I was quite impressed with the size of the booths staged by Chinese TV manufacturers TCL, Haier, and HiSense. TCL manufactures the RCA line of LCD TVs, while HiSense is planning to launcha full line of TVs and related products this year, under its own name. That includes 240Hz Tvs, 3D models, and Blu-ray players.These are major players, and wil give the Japanese and Korean manufacturers a run for their money.

Missing in action? Pioneer’s AV receivers and BD players (they opted to skip the show to “conserve resources”), Hitachi’s LCD TVs and camcorders (no public explanation why), and Sanyo’s line of camcorders, cameras, and projectors (again, no official word on why they passed up the show).  Those are three substantial, heavyweight players in the CE marketplace!

Well, back to work. Look for more detailed coverage next week, this time with photos. (Boy, it takes a LONG time to download and edit 750 images…)

Classic Pete: Once More, Out To The DTV Fringe

Recently, I made a third trip to my brother’s house in the hills of southwestern Vermont to finish what I started over two years ago – set up this distant, remote location to receive every digital TV channel from Albany. And I succeeded.

 

 

My first visit in May of 2007, chronicled here, showed that a modest suburban UHF yagi (Channel Master’s model 4308) and a low-noise preamp was sufficient to pull in four Albany DTV stations over a 54-mile path by taking advantage of knife-edge refraction of the RF signals, bending over a range of hills about ½ mile to the southwest of the house.

I was surprised at how strong the “bent” signals were, even with moderate multipath distortion. But they came in just fine on a pair of Gen5 ATSC DTV receivers, with minor interruptions in service during periods of heavy rain or dense fog.

Still, I hadn’t resolved the issue of receiving a pair of high-band Albany VHF DTV channels – WXXA-7 (Fox) and WNYT-12 (NBC). That would be addressed during my next visit in early January of this year, and you can read about it here. Trust me; it wasn’t much fun working outside in sub-zero temperatures. And I didn’t have the best antenna for the job, relying on a used Terk TV35 suburban VHF/UHF yagi to pull in the signals, aided by a dual-band, low noise preamplifier.

I knew a third and final tweak to the system would inevitably be in order, particularly to improve the reception of WXXA-DT. Plus, WRGB-DT (CBS), previously operating on UHF channel 39, was scheduled to move back to VHF channel 6 on June 12 as the analog TV shutdown was completed. And another Albany DTV station, WNYA (MyTV), hadn’t even signed on yet- they were still waiting for WNYT to vacate their analog signal from channel 13.

 

 

THE FINAL PUZZLE PIECE

The first order of business was to replace the Terk TV35 with a more serious VHF yagi. Fred Lass, chief engineer at WRGB, kindly sent along a pair of Antennacraft Y5-2-6 low-band VHF yagis for the job, but those wouldn’t help me with channels 7, 12, and 13.

Instead, I opted for the Antennacraft CS600 VHF yagi, which would provide reception from channel 2 through 13 and which (according to the specs) was good for up to 40 miles on low-band VHF and 50 miles on high-band VHF. Coupled to the Channel Master #7777 dual-band preamp, I figured it would be enough.

The next step was to check reception from the January installation by recording new spectrum analyzer plots and comparing them to the screen grabs I captured eight months ago. Good news – the 8VSB carriers from the remaining UHF stations (WTEN-26, WMHT-34, and WCWN-43) hadn’t changed any, even with all the nearby trees fully leafed out.

Unfortunately, signals from WXXA-7 and WNYT-12 didn’t look too good, thanks to a broken rear reflector element on the TV35. So, I removed the Terk from the system and assembled the CS600. I also had to install a second, offset antenna mast to clear the rear elements of the CS600 from the deck supports, not to mention a large rose bush which had grown around the mast and TV35!

 

 

 

 

 

To make everything fit in this tight space, I drilled a set of new boom-to-mast bracket holes near the rear of the CS600. The antenna is light and sturdy enough to be mounted this way, although I recommend using the standard mounting holes when up on a rooftop mast to balance the antenna and reduce wind load.

From my January escapades, I found that the TV35 worked better when it was offset about 30 degrees farther west from the UHF antenna heading. I chalked that up to different reflections of the knife-edge signal than I had seen on UHF, and initially installed the CS600 at the same height, facing in the same direction.

A quick test with a Zenith DTT901 NTIA converter grabbed WRGB-6, WNYT-12, and newcomer WNYA-13 with no difficulty. But WXXA-7 was intermittent, and now WMHT-34 (PBS) was becoming problematic to receive. This wasn’t going to be easy! (It never is…)

ZEROING IN

In my January conversations with Fred Lass, he mentioned that the refraction angle for channel 6 could be more severe than that of the UHF DTV stations. That meant I might have more luck if I lowered the CS600…and that’s exactly what happened.

After a night to clear my head and socialize with my relatives, I walked outside early the next morning, connected my spectrum analyzer, loosened the mast bracket, and lowered the CS600 to within a foot of the ground. I also rotated it south to the same antenna heading (230 degrees) that I eventually used to clean up reception of WMHT-34 on the Channel Master 4308.

 

After firing up the DTT901, I was finally done. All eight of the Albany DTV stations were now coming in reliably, free of dropouts. WXXA-7’s waveform, although still somewhat bowed, was considerably cleaner than before. And a modest amount of tilt on WNYT-12 and WNYA-13 was no problem even for the adaptive equalizers in my Gen 5 OnAir Solution HDTV-GT receiver.

In fact, I had enough signal out of the CM 7777 preamp to run a second coaxial drop upstairs to a bedroom, feeding a second DT901 converter box with the same results. Oddly, WRGB’s signal on channel 6 remained consistent through the CS600 at any height and with either of the compass headings I used. The 8VSB carrier wasn’t perfectly level, but the converter boxes and HDTV-GT locked it up quickly every time.

 

PROBLEM SOLVED

When TV signals bend, they really bend! Knife-edge refraction works so well at this location that I actually received all of the Albany DTV channels with the CS600 resting nose-down on the ground and its rear elements tilted up at a 45-degree angle against the mast! That certainly was cool.

The only weather effects I observed happened the last night of my stay, when dense clouds of moisture formed in the valley right before a strong weather front passed through. The resulting mist and fog caused ABC affiliate WTEN-DT’s signal on channel 26 to break up on a regular basis, while all other channels were unaffected. The next morning, all was well again. (Coincidentally, I’ve observed the same effect at home on Philadelphia’s KYW-DT, also transmitting on channel 26 and otherwise a very strong and reliable signal.)

Because the CS600 sits so low on the mast, I wrapped the longest elements with bright orange electrical tape so no one would walk into it. I also capped the swaged ends of the elements with plastic bolt protectors, glued in with silicone seal. Some new flower plantings around the antenna should keep visitors from accidentally walking into it in the future. (Don’t these problems sound ridiculous?)

 

 

Now, my brother and sister-in-law are going to try terrestrial digital TV for a month and see if they still want to pay for their existing DirecTV service. Given how little television my brother watches, I think I know how he’ll cast his vote, but I’m not sure about his wife.

I will say that she showed remarkable enthusiasm for finally having gained access to “free TV,” and she subsequently informed me that there would be a stampede for my services from nearby neighbors who’d also want in on this deal. Maybe it’s a good thing that I live almost 300 miles away?

I’m also amazed at how robust the 8VSB DTV system turned out to be, and how it’s perfectly suited to unusual propagation paths like this one. Granted, I also pulled in analog VHF and UHF TV stations with the earlier antenna setups, but the signals were fairly noisy and had more than a few ghosts, as you might expect.

Digital TV cleans all of that up. All you need is enough signal to get over the required carrier-to-noise threshold (in this case, about 20 dB C/N), and voila – perfect pictures and audio. (Never mind that a few of them were infomercials.) The fact that converter boxes and new integrated digital TV sets are largely using Generation 6 adaptive equalizers is just icing on the cake.

 


Any disappointments? Well, I never could pull in WYPX-50 from Amsterdam, although it’s strong enough to show up on my spectrum analyzer. The problem is their transmitter location, much farther west than the Helderberg Mountain antenna farm used by everyone else. That would require “sacrificing the good of the many for the good of the one” (to misquote Mr. Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

Also, I could see another 8VSB carrier on channel 9 from WVER (Vermont Public Television) in Rutland, Vermont. But to receive that station would have required divine intervention, as the signal was coming from the opposite direction, 34 miles to the north/northeast over a tall range of hills, including Mt. Equinox (3,848’ ASL), and ricocheting off the 1300-foot-tall ridge in front of the house. Now, THAT would have been one heck of a billiards shot!

The good news is, if you live in a “tough” DTV reception location, you may not be completely out of luck. It helps if the DTV stations you want to receive are co-located, because having only one antenna heading to deal with is a real blessing. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t succeed with a broader antenna pattern if DTV stations are spread farther part – you just need to get enough signal to the receiver, and you’re home free.

As they used to say in those old Westerns, “Looks like my work here is done.” Time to saddle up, and head off in search of the next fringe…