Monthly Archives: December 2011
Streaming Video: Predictions for 2012
As 2011 draws to a close, it looks like we’re in for another exciting year on the streaming video front. So without further adieu, here are some predictions for the coming year:
PayTV on Connected Devices
Expect to see a lot more payTV content available via streaming apps like HBO GO and Comcast’s xfinity, and those apps moving to more connected devices. Comcast has already announced plans to bring its xfinity app to new devices, starting with the Xbox 360. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Roku is on the short list, too.
Live TV on Connected Devices
Boxee is releasing a live TV dongle in January, which allows you to connect an antenna and watch live, local broadcast TV through your Boxee — perfect for cord-cutters who don’t mind dealing with the antenna part. If you’re a payTV subscriber, Boxee and Google TV will also be getting the SlingPlayer app sometime in the early part of 2012, which works with a Slingbox (purchased separately) to stream content from your payTV set-top to connected devices — so you can watch your favorite shows or live sports from another room, or even halfway across the globe. Of course, the hullaballoo around DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) inside payTV provider gateways will do the same thing…
Lots of new updates to the Xbox
In addition to getting payTV apps like xfinity, we expect to see some other interesting developments on the Xbox front. Such as? Watch for the Xbox Playful Learning initiative sometime soon, with special episodes from studios like Disney and National Geographic that allow viewers to interact with the content using the Kinect camera. We’ve also been hearing a lot about a next-generation Kinect, which is rumored to be able to analyze head movement, detect emotions and read lips (I’ll believe that one when I see it.) We’ll look for it at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show.
A new Apple TV?
The rumor mill is alive with buzz about an Apple-built TV to be released in late 2012. According to Steve Jobs’ biography, he claimed to have “cracked the code” for building an integrated television set with “the simplest user interface you could imagine.” Many analysts expect to see Apple’s Siri virtual assistant as an integral part of the TV, allowing you to use your voice to control the TV instead of the remote. (Of course, this is already a feature on Xbox Connect, and will be built into LG’s “Magic Remote” next year, too.) If we do see a TV set from Apple this year, one thing is for certain: it’s going to be pricey.
Google TV Takes Over?
Here’s something interesting, uttered by Google honcho Eric Schmidt earlier this month: “By the summer of 2012, the majority of the televisions you see in stores will have Google TV embedded in it.” This sounds extremely optimistic, given the rough first year Google TV has had. But, it’s not totally out of the question given the list of new Google TV hardware partners for 2012: Samsung, Vizio, LG, Toshiba and Sharp. If these manufacturers put Google’s smart TV platform on their devices instead of continuing to develop their own, Schmidt’s prediction might not be so far off base after all. Our burning question: By “Google TV embedded in it,” does he mean a GoogleTV clickable app, or does he mean GoogleTV “underneath,” as in OS/middleware?
More on HTML5 and MPEG DASH
We’ve seen a lot of hype, we mean buzz, about HTML5 and streaming video this year, and it looks like that’s only going to continue through 2012. At this point, most websites are still using Flash video because there aren’t any accepted standards for the <video> tag in HTML5. Companies like Netflix, Microsoft and Apple are promoting MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) as a standard to be used with HTML5, which could resolve many of the issues including adaptive streaming and Digital Rights Management (DRM), and we’ll probably see that continue to gain traction in 2012. However, there are a number of issues that MPEG DASH doesn’t resolve (like the need for a standard video codec). So, allow us to join the chorus of people pointing out that there’s still quite a bit of work to be done before HTML5 is ready for primetime. But it won’t be a shocker if we start seeing more HTML5-only interfaces on our devices in the lab, which is already the case with Netflix on the PlayStation 3.
And on the services front…
It’s been a triumphant year for Amazon Instant Video, and 2012 could easily bring more of the same — or not. The streaming video package included with the $79 annual Amazon Prime memberships includes much of the same content as Netflix streaming now, and many people cite this as a reason for dropping Netflix. However, Amazon could just as easily fall from grace. For example, imagine the outrage if they decided to separate their streaming service from the Amazon Prime membership! (We harrumph in advance.)
As for Hulu, will we see it end up on the auction block again in 2012? We’ll keep an eye on it for you. That, and everything else we can squeeze into the lab…
Tech Trends for 2012
by Leslie Ellis // December 19 2011
And here we are again. Last issue of the year. This week, we’ll go more “things in motion stay in motion” than “history is a great teacher,” with a forecast of five big tech trends for ’12. Here goes:
- HTML5. This one skips into the shoptalk scene on a daily basis, it seems. Remember the big fight between Apple and Adobe, about which was better, HTML5 or Flash? Jobs won. What it means for cable: A way to render subscription video on all those IP-connected screens, without the need for customers to do anything (like download a player.) It’ll season the 2012 scene around efforts like remote user interfaces (RUIs), companion screen viewing, and putting clickable,” MSO-branded icons on IP-connected screens.
- ACR. Automatic Content Recognition, Audio Content Recognition, po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. If the hype about this one gets any more breathless than at the recent TV of Tomorrow conference, we’re in for a doozy of a year. Why: ACR, in essence, is an out-of-band bypass technique. An app on a handheld (or built into the TV) listens to the stream, as it plays out, and correlates interactive stuff with it. That portends a dance of angst between program networks and service providers, in the familiar tune of “We Don’t Need You To Do This.”
- IPv6. Short version: Everything connected to the Internet needs an address; the pool of addresses (IPv4) is running out. As in right now. There’s a remedy – IPv6 – but issues will abound, likely in a “death by a thousand cuts” pattern. No huge calamities; lots of little aggravations. IPv6 isn’t backwards compatible with IPv4, for starters. This one impacts all of us: Consumers, retailers, manufacturers, service providers.
- CDNs and “federated” CDNs. Content delivery networks, or CDNs, exist to hierarchically store and process video, for delivery to all of those IP-connected, video-capable screens we keep buying. They’re a mixture of national and fiber backbones, storage servers, and ways to slice and dice video files into right-sized chunks for the end screens that want them. Bigger operators, like Comcast, started years ago on their CDNs; smaller operators are talking about “federated” CDNs, useful to rent capabilities rather than having to buy glass and servers.
- Clouds and gateways. Gateways are mambo, in-home devices that work as both set-top boxes and cable modems. Lots of tuners, for bonded IP channels (read: shelf space for IP traffic). Lots of ways to transcode incoming video into other formats. Bigger processors, more memory, more ways to interconnect all the stuff in your house.
But wait: Isn’t the cloud to handle trans-coding and processing? Sit tight. Transitions, like the one we’re living in right now, usually can’t accommodate a flash-cut (to cloud, or to gateway). Both will exist, here in the fervor of the transition.
That’s the short list. Next time, what to expect at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. Until then, merry merry and Happy New Year to you!
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
TV of Tomorrow 2011: EBIF, or ACR?
by Leslie Ellis // December 12 2011
NEW YORK—One of the recurring themes at Tracy Swedlow’s twice-yearly “TV of Tomorrow” events is the interactive TV activity around EBIF. Last Monday’s episode was no exception.
But this time, a new wrinkle: EBIF, or ACR (audio content recognition; automatic content recognition), as the best means to do “companion apps” on second screens, like tablets?
Refresher: EBIF, which stands for Enhanced Binary Interchange Format, is a way for multichannel video providers to make those old, installed digital boxes do more stuff. That means building upon the standard EBIF deliverables, like RFIs (requests for information) and voting/polling.
(Aside: If you think this is tired and not happening, headsup — Comcast Spotlight reported 1,400 campaigns and over 3 billion impressions so far, using EBIF.)
Then there’s the (relatively) newer stuff of displaying caller ID on TV, and using companion devices (tablets, smartphones) as remote controls, using EBIF.
And now, said multiple panelists during the packed, day-long event, a new chapter for EBIF: The bridge to the world of IP (Internet Protocol.)
That means using EBIF as a signaling mechanism (more so than for interactive trigger delivery) to the world of connected devices. The thinking: Put the EBIF user agent, which traditionally sits in the set-top box, up into the service provider’s cloud. Then, use HTML5 to render that content on the companion screens.
Voila: The burgeoning in-home landscape of IP end points (tablets, connected TVs, etc.) can participate in the landscape of program-synchronous activities, using EBIF for the critical signaling.
That’s the EBIF side. Then there’s the ACR side, which is very active with another way to do companion apps.
In a nutshell, it goes like this: You like a show. It has an ACR component. You download that show’s app to your tablet. When the show airs, and the app is on, it listens to the audio feed coming from the TV, and serves up a batch of contextually relevant, advertising-friendly components, on that second screen.
But what if you regularly watch, say, 20 shows? Download the app for each one? Really? Seems like a pain.
Which brings us back to EBIF, and multichannel video providers in general, which exist as content aggregators. Watch for tons of activity around this mighty-chewy debate as the New Year progresses.
My biggest takeway from TVOT? When asked if 2012 is the year cable providers work to get their “clickable thing” – the xfinity icon, to use Comcast as one example – on as many consumer-purchased screens as possible, the answer came back as a resounding yes.
More on that, and the blessing/curse factor of HTML5, next time.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
On Shouting at the Xbox
This week we were planning to bring you some predictions for 2012, but decided to hold off in light of the fact that I spent a good part of the morning shouting at our Xbox 360.
That sounds worse than it is. Meaning this has nothing to do with troubleshooting. Xbox Live got a major update last week, and today I spent some time playing with testing the new Kinect voice search feature.
With this latest update, Xbox makes the process of searching for content much faster, provided you have the Kinect add-on and are not self-conscious about barking orders at your TV. Kinect’s new voice search returns results from Hulu Plus, Netflix and Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace, and allows you to search by title or actor — all just by speaking a few words. While you do still have to think about what you want to watch, this new feature really speeds up the process of navigating to that content.
I have to admit, it took me a little while to get the hang of using it. Hint: The Kinect is very picky about punctuation. Saying “Xbox, Bing, The Office” won’t work no matter how loud you say it, for instance. But “Xbox, Bing The Office” pulls up all seasons of the show on Hulu and Netflix, plus web exclusives on Zune. Once I figured out how to speak so that the Kinect could understand me, it worked surprisingly well. Of the 20 TV shows I searched for, it got 17 on the first try.
Since April, Kinect users could pause and play Netflix or Hulu content using voice controls. With this latest update, they’ve also added the ability to rewind, fast-forward, and skip to another episode. I found the rewind/fast-forward features to be a little clunky, but I really love being able to shout “Xbox, Pause!” instead of fumbling with the remote (which lives amongst many other remotes here in the lab) when my cell phone starts ringing from the depths of my purse.
The Xbox Kinect is also motion-sensitive, so you can navigate through content by waving your arm around, and then point at an episode to start playing it. This is definitely a cool feature, but it takes some practice — I found it much quicker to do this part using the remote. Plus I can’t imagine how this would work in a house crawling with activities and children and dogs.
Along with the new voice search features, the Xbox 360 got a user interface makeover. The old dashboard featured a glaring white background and several menus with cards to flip through, while the new one uses the same tile-based “Metro” design featured on Windows phones. The navigation’s not much better than the last version, but it is easier on the eyes. And consistent, from one screen to the next.
Not everybody is in love with these changes, however. The Netflix application was updated along with Xbox Live, to a bit of a mixed reaction. They finally enabled 720p streaming and surround sound, plus audio controls and subtitles — all good. However, a few of the changes got their customer base pretty riled up.
First of all, titles no longer have a restart option. They’ve also added an autoplay feature while browsing TV episodes, which mostly just sucks up bandwidth and makes it hard to select an episode.
But most of the uproar is over the elimination of Party Mode, an Xbox Kinect feature that let viewers chat with friends and family across the country, while “collaboratively” watching a show.
As it turns out, lots of people used Party Mode with Netflix. Think “movie night” with distant loved ones. As a direct result, they’re venting their frustrations on Netflix’s blog post about the update.
Example: Several people harrumphed that Party Mode on the Xbox was their sole reason for sticking with Netflix, through the recent changes in pricing structure. They threatened to cancel their subscriptions if Netflix didn’t restore it immediately.
I understand the sentiment, but this isn’t really the fault of Netflix. It wasn’t their decision to eliminate this feature. Party Mode no longer works because of changes to Microsoft’s codebase with the new update. Here’s what Microsoft has to say about it (the emphasis is mine):
“The new app platform on Xbox does not support the video party mode feature at this time, so it will not be available in any existing app partners that have updated their app and any of the new Xbox app partners,” Microsoft told Kotaku. “The feature is still available in some of our international video apps (i.e. BSkyB in the UK) and is a likely feature candidate for inclusion in the next version of the app dev kit. For customers that would like to chat with their Xbox LIVE friends while gaming or watching videos, the chat feature is still available via the Xbox Guide.”
So if you’re considering canceling your Netflix subscription because of the No Party Mode issue, maybe hold off a bit. Microsoft already hinted that they’ll include it as a feature that developers can put in their apps, and given the hullaballoo, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Party Mode makes a comeback.
Next time, some more predictions for 2012…
Adaptive Bit Rates and Picture Quality
by Leslie Ellis // December 05 2011
Ever wonder what could happen to picture quality when a given screen is displaying a “downshifted” stream of video, sent using adaptive bit rate techniques?
I did, and was glad to soak up a session about it at the recent SCTE Cable Tec Expo. Short version: Arris CTO Tom Cloonan and colleague Jim Allen built an emulator in their lab, to sample what happens when different types of traffic gets smooshed together on the IP plant.
Refresher: Tons-o-video moving over the Internet. Unprecedented growth. Uses a lot of bandwidth, comparatively. Everyone’s working on it – by adding IP bandwidth, and by working the end points. The “clients,” in the lingo, meaning your other screens – laptops, tablets, smart phones.
From a bandwidth perspective, here in the twilight of 2011 (and the eve of big channel bonding), adding more IP bandwidth means going beyond the 2 to 4 downstream digital channels reserved for broadband and voice-over-IP services. (Watch for this to rise to 12-18 bonded channels, in the next few years.)
Consequently, and inevitably, video service providers will start increasing the types of traffic sent over the IP (Internet Protocol) part of the plant. That means plain old web browsing, plus whatever’s moving “over the top” on the public Internet, plus the newer “managed IP” video services.
On the client (screen) side of the equation, adaptive bit rate streaming (a.k.a. “fragmented” streaming), is big. It works by chunking video streams into different sizes – in the Arris experiments, 3, 2.1, 1.5 and 1 Mbps – so that if bandwidth isn’t available to play the bigger chunk, the client can request a smaller chunk next.
Which brings us back to the question of what happens, on your various screens, when network congestion causes a downshift in video bit delivery?
Nice descriptive language in this wheelhouse, by the way. Example: Things that can go wrong crop up as “rendering engine starvation” and “video resolution dithering.”
Both conditions stem from network congestion — the former when the software in the end point device (tablet, TV) doesn’t get enough bits; the latter when not enough bits arrive to render a good quality picture, causing the screen to “dither” between 1080P and lower resolutions.
Also factored into the simulator: An “aggressiveness factor,” to assess who does what when bandwidth does become available. As it turns out, some client software is more aggressive than others – meaning they jump up to a higher resolution chunk, lickety-split.
Generally speaking, though, the simulator found that most adaptive streaming protocols back off quickly in times of congestion. Sort of a digital cacophony of “after you.” “No, after you.” “No, after YOU.”
This just scratches the surface of the 34-page paper, and companion presentation, titled “Competitive Analysis of Adaptive Video Streaming Implementations.” For more, contact the SCTE (www.scte.org) .
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Connected Devices: The Year in Review
As we begin the last month of 2011, it’s a little hard to wrap my head around how many things have happened with the technology in our lab since last year. So, this week we’re bringing you a review of what’s changed on the device and service front. Next week, predictions for the coming year.
The second-generation Apple TV was released a little over a year ago, and we’ve seen a few changes this year including the addition of AirPlay streaming functionality (so you can stream video from your computer or iPad to the AppleTV). AppleTV also received an iCloud update that allowed users to purchase and stream iTunes content directly through the device, instead of needing to use a computer to do so. Finally, Apple discontinued the 99-cent TV episode rentals in the iTunes store, because they weren’t getting a lot of takers — it turns out people prefer to purchase each episode, Apple says (and it may have something to do with the fact that several shows weren’t available for rental until several weeks after air date).
It’s been a busy year for Roku. Last year, a Netgear-branded Roku player was just making its way into big-box stores in time for the holidays. Since then, we’ve seen the Roku change from a boxy, utilitarian device to a sleek little player with a smaller footprint than the AppleTV. Roku also released two new models this year, the Roku XS (made for casual gaming, with a motion-sensitive remote) and the LT (an inexpensive but well-received SD-only streamer). Roku has also seen a lot of changes in the content available, with services like Amazon Prime and Crackle appearing this year.
The GoogleTV platform has been out a little over a year now, with quite a few hiccups along the way. After a much-hyped release, GoogleTV quickly fizzled due to its complicated user interface and lack of content (virtually all the major content providers blocked GoogleTV’s Chrome browser from playing video on their websites). This summer, returns for GoogleTV devices exceeded sales and prices were halved across the board. The long-awaited Android Honeycomb finally hit GoogleTV devices early last month, promising apps optimized for TV and a much cleaner user interface. I was especially excited to see the integration of Amazon Video into the new TV & Movies app, but was disappointed to find I still got kicked out to a web browser. Even worse, it didn’t know which titles were free under Amazon Prime or already in my library (if I already own something, it’s a little unnerving to click “BUY” every time I want to watch it!). You can read our full review of the new GoogleTV update here.
The Boxee Box by D-link was released a little over a year ago, and aside from some updates and user interface tweaks we haven’t seen a whole lot of changes. There are some interesting things confirmed for 2012, though, so expect to see a lot more about Boxee in next week’s post.
We haven’t seen many changes this year in the streaming video experience on our Xbox 360 with Kinect, but Xbox just announced a new update rolling out this week, centered around the Kinect camera — from what we’ve heard, this may make it a lot easier to find video content on the Xbox by integrating search results from all the available services, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. It looks like 2012 will be a big year for Xbox, too.
We got two new set top boxes this fall, the Sony SMP-N200 and the Netgear NeoTV 200. Both are meant to compete with Roku and AppleTV, but fall short — both devices have been on the market less than two months, and already dropped prices.
We’ve seen a huge influx of Android tablets in the past year, including the $199 Kindle Fire (which arrived on our doorstep two weeks ago.) While it has a smaller screen than the iPad, the Fire is a solid on-the-go streaming video device, with sources including Hulu Plus, Netflix, and (of course) Amazon Instant Video.
While I’m on the subject of Amazon, they’ve really come out of the woodwork this year with their unlimited Amazon Prime streaming service. Their catalog of free titles expanded to include several of the same shows available through Netflix, only they’re included as part of the Amazon Prime membership. Amazon also offers a huge variety of titles for rental or purchase through Amazon Instant Video, so you can supplement your unlimited streaming titles without going to another place.
Hulu introduced their Hulu Plus subscription service a little over a year ago, and steadily rolled out the service to a number of connected devices over the past year. Roku was for sale for a good part of the year, with companies like Google and Yahoo! joining the bidding. Ultimately, Hulu was taken off the auction block — but we’ll see if it goes back up in 2012.
Netflix had a rough ending this year, as you’ve probably heard (we don’t need to rehash that whole Qwikster debacle, do we?). Suffice it to say, TV viewers are a fickle bunch and nothing is set in stone. This time last year, Netflix was the clear leader in streaming subscription services. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year?
We’ve also seen an increase in streaming services that are linked to pay TV subscriptions, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime — also known as, “stuff I wish I could watch, but can’t because I’m a cord-cutter.” Sure, this model is great in terms of maximizing the value of the cord. But as someone who’s unable to get cable at home, I often find myself wishing I could subscribe to these services on an a la carte basis. But if these comments from HBO Co-President Eric Kessler are any indication, that’s still going to be on my Christmas list in 2013…