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Tech innovation leads the 'slow demise of traditional broadcast'

The broadcast sector is being revolutionised by internet technology, as delegates to the annual IBC show in Amsterdam found out

The broadcast technology industry recently convened in Amsterdam to discuss the innovations transforming the sector, with more than 55,000 delegates and 1,800 suppliers from more than 170 countries attending the annual International Broadcast Convention (IBC).

As one senior technical broadcast executive put it, this year’s event was a testament to the “slow demise of traditional broadcast”, but it was also a demonstration of its evolution. The show included a test area for drones and virtual reality (VR) demonstrations, with industry giant Walt Disney recently announcing its lead investor role in Jaunt VR. 

Video delivery went not only over the top (OTT) but ultra-high definition (UHD), and the humble set-top box (STB) was showcased as the potential new centre of the smart home and internet of things (IoT).

Smart home and the internet of things

Smart home technology isn’t new, it’s just been in the hands of the elite – installed as part of their basement or yacht home cinema, multimedia centre or home automation and security system. This calibre of technology is set up by home installation specialists who belong to organisations such as the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA). But with prosumer and consumer home installations becoming more prevalent, installation has to become more cost-effective, foolproof and secure.

A big issue around smart home technology is the diverse range of protocols, including ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Dect Ultra Low Energy (ULE), Insteon, KNX – to name just a few – resulting in a further stack of boxes for the consumer under their television set. This also brings a lack of a consistent and simple user interface design for pairing and configuring systems, as well as for securing devices that can contain extensive personal information on habits and whereabouts.

An obvious place to position communication in and around the home is in a central set-top box, home gateway or media server. These boxes can be extended to take communication in, route data in different protocols, secure the data, and configure the interfaces via TV or apps. A number of STB manufacturers are already discussing this potential, including ADB Global, Pace and recently Humax. Companies such as SoftAtHome provide abstraction layers and USB dongles which extend protocol support, but say one of the issues is that there’s no single standard adopted by all manufacturers so all devices have to be continually tested for compliance and updated into a repository.

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Technicolor claims to address some of the standards, usability and protocol issues and is targeting network service providers with its Ize application suite, which it refers to as “digital concierge applications”. These are intended to simplify installation and use of devices by providing overlay alerts to TV as well as to smartphone and tablets for different activities including a doorman, messenger, guard, caretaker, nanny and nurse. This is built with the AllSeen Alliance framework, an open-source collaborative project, which now has around 170 members.

To facilitate communication and delivery, Technicolor also provides an Ize extender box, a small Android-based HDMI box that sits between a set-top box or home gateway and a TV. It provides support for ZigBee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, LTE, BLE, 868MHz and 915MHz protocols, and claims no interference between signals.

Earlier in 2015, Technicolor acquired Cisco’s customer premises equipment (CPE) business. The firm intends to run a strategic partnership with Cisco on IoT systems and services alongside video and broadband technology innovation through a long-term patent cross-licencing agreement. This should introduce further cross-pollination between the video and IoT sectors.

While Cisco did not have its customary Connected Life exhibit in the IBC this year, it did discuss its HomeGuard system, designed to secure unprotected IoT devices in the home from being turned into botnets used for distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.  

Cisco is concerned that many IoT devices do not have adequate built-in security and identifying DDoS traffic patterns at the internet service provider (ISP) level may be too late and still result in significant investment by the ISP in excess capacity to serve malicious traffic. HomeGuard Broadband Service Protection can run as a software module on the residential gateway in the home. It looks for and rejects attack patterns including spoofed SRC IPs, malformed UDP and TCP/IP packets, domain name system (DNS) reflections, abnormal message rates and provides full analysis of the attacks it mitigates.

Ultra-high definition is the new 4K

2014 was all about 4K, a term often incorrectly used interchangeably with UHD, which is more than just a screen resolution. These new technologies will have a significant impact on broadcast networks due to their higher bandwidth requirements. In 2015, UHD stood out, specifically its subcomponents, which include: resolution at a minimum of four times 1080i HD (3840x2160); high frame rate (HFR); wide colour gamut (WCG); and high dynamic range (HDR).

The biggest quality difference, and one of the biggest topics at this year’s IBC, is in high dynamic range, referred to as HDR. This is the ability of the human eye to look into a room with a window opening onto a sunny day and see both the detail in the shadows of the room and the detail outside in the brightness. This range is measured in “nits” - or candela per square metre, the standard measure of luminance.

Currently most TV content is displayed in standard dynamic range (SDR) – between 0.117 and 100 nits. Studios and broadcasters are extending their workflows by starting to master content in 4K HDR, using products such as UHD HDR Dolby Vision. Dolby’s Professional Reference Monitor at 4000 nits extends the range of detail for colour grading into different viewing contexts, and content is encoded into a Dolby Vision stream. 

This ecosystem of providers includes Grass Valley cameras, Adobe and Avid editing, and encoding by Arris, Cisco, Elemental, Envivio, Harmonic, Thompson and Vanguard Video. Decoding for playback needs to be done in hardware on a Dolby Vision capable product. Warner Brothers and Sony Pictures are launching UHD HDR Dolby Vision content over the top via Walmart’s Vudu internet TV service on the new Vizio TVs. Dolby Vision will also be available as a system-on-a-chip (SoC) in partnership with a range of companies including Broadcom, MediaTek and ST.

Dolby also updated its audio Codec to AC-4 from AC-3. AC-4 gives broadcasters 50% more efficiency than Dolby Digital Plus, loudness controls for regulatory needs, accessibility, one stream for every localised audience and device, personalisation and, of course, immersive 3D object-based audio.

A frequently voiced concern around 4K and UHD is the bandwidth required for delivery. High-efficiency video coding (HEVC) – H.265 – doubles the data compression ratio of H.264/Mpeg-4. The newly announced 4K UHD Amazon Fire TV will be using HEVC. Some companies are further optimising both H.264 and HEVC. EyeIO was one of the first significant entries into this market, optimising HD H.264 for Netflix and making UHD delivery more efficient for Sony. 

The new potential game-changer is V-Nova’s Perseus compression technology. It claims to deliver UHD in high definition (HD) bitrates, HD in standard definition (SD) bitrates and SD in sub-audio bitrates. All three formats, UHD, HD and SD can also all be delivered in a single transport stream at just the UHD bitrate, rather than adding UHD to HD to SD. That means delivering all three formats at around 8Mbps. 

With mobile video viewing steadily increasing, V-Nova recently announced a successful test with mobile operator EE, delivering HD and UHD/4K over EE’s 4K network – continuously at rush hour, while travelling and into rural areas where mobile bandwidth may be limited. Perseus enabled a high-quality viewer experience over a 90-mile journey, with more than 40 signal site handovers and at the edge of the EE 4G network.

To increase understanding of the UHD sector, the recently established Ultra HD Forum hosted a masterclass at IBC. In the UK, the Digital Television Group (DTG) founded the UK UHD forum, and in August 2015, BT launched Europe’s first UHD channel, BT Sport Ultra HD. According to Simon Gauntlett, DTG's chief technology officer, the UK UHD Forum “enabled BT and other members to clarify the understanding of the terms like 4K, UHD and HDR, which are used liberally with a wide range of interpretation”.

The UK UHD forum also hosts plugfests, bringing together consumer electronics manufacturers to investigate HDMI support, HEVC modes capabilities and high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) interoperability.

What about Apple?

Apple announced its update to Apple TV just before IBC, but it didn’t seem as ready for the extra features UHD offers since it included HDMI 1.4 rather than HDMI 2.0, although the iPhone 6s will include 4K video. Apple TV also didn’t seem ready to position itself as the connected life hub just yet as it didn’t include smart home protocols. 

Post-IBC however, Apple updated its HomeKit home automation framework in iOS 9. Crucially, Apple has opened up HomeKit to app developers and more device manufactures. In the next few months products will be released from more than 50 worldwide brands, which after being reviewed and approved by Apple, including for privacy and security, will include a “Works with Apple HomeKit” symbol. Apple has also attempted to solve the “pairing” issue by standardising the process for all HomeKit devices to require scanning or entering a setup code. 

Apple TV will no longer be required to control HomeKit devices remotely, instead remote authentication will take place through iCloud. Of course everything can be controlled via the voice recognition service Siri, and with the new Siri Remote, Apple TV may yet position itself more strategically, especially as the Siri Remote trademark paperwork specifically references “home automation hubs”.

Others in the broadcast industry are also seeing the opportunities for innovation. Google launched a similar initiative called Brillo in May 2015 and Samsung bought SmartThings in August 2014.

Apple TV may not yet be the centre of consumers’ smart home life, but perhaps Apple just has an upgrade plan to get us all to spend more money in 2016.

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