Monthly Archives: June 2013
An Update on Redbox Instant
A few months ago, I reviewed the latest streaming service to hit the lab, Redbox Instant by Verizon. Back then it was still in the beta test phase, and the experience (and lack of content) made that all too clear.
But the beta tests are over, and Redbox Instant launched publicly on June 3rd. So how is it doing now?
Devices and Playback:
Redbox Instant originally worked only on mobile phones, tablets, and computers, with an Xbox 360 app added during the beta phase. In early June, GoogleTV devices (2nd-generation and later; the Intel-based devices don’t work) got a Redbox app too. What’s more, we’re told we’ll have an app on Roku before the summer’s over.
I tried out the GoogleTV app (which doesn’t automatically appear with the latest update — you have to search for it in the Play Store) and I liked the interface well enough, but the app crashed a couple times during playback. Though to its credit, the app did remember where it left off and was able to resume when it crashed.
Of course, with any new app glitches will be discovered and resolved, so this kind of thing is somewhat expected. You may recall that I experienced a few playback issues with the iPad app for Redbox Instant, back when I tested it during the beta phase. Those issues have cleared up and the Redbox app now performs as well as any other video service on my slow connection. We’re expecting the same from the GoogleTV app, and the Roku app when it eventually launches (don’t disappoint us now, Redbox.)
I also found that the resolution was noticably lower on Redbox than when I streamed the same title on the same device through Netflix — while Netflix and Hulu Plus have some titles at 1080p, Redbox and Amazon Prime top off at 720p. This was especially pronounced on my slow DSL connection at the farm, so I think the way each service handles adaptive streaming plays a role as well (in our experience Netflix seems to be particularly good at this.)
Redbox Instant’s web interface
Last time, I complained about the fact that Redbox Instant has very little subscription streaming content, and that most of what’s available isn’t exclusive – so if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, there’s not much on Redbox that’ll be new to you. That’s still largely the case, though we have seen Redbox’s streaming catalog expand to about 8,000 titles since the beta launch (for comparison, Amazon Prime has about 33,000 titles in its unlimited streaming catalog.)
The latest streaming content from Redbox (on Google TV)
The catalog is still movies only, no TV, and it still combines titles that you can see for free with your subscription with those that you have to pay extra and/or drive to a kiosk to pick up. While they offer the flexibility of unlimited streaming and per-transaction titles, and you can do things from the app like reserve titles at a kiosk, it all starts to feel a bit cluttered. There are filters for each content source – kiosk, rental, and subscription – but I occasionally found myself accidentally browsing everything of just the unlimited streaming content. It’s hard enough to choose something to watch, without deciding on a title and then realizing you have to drive to a kiosk or pay extra to watch it.
Browsing titles to rent or buy on Google TV
What’s next for Redbox Instant?
Like virtually every other streaming video service, Redbox Instant plans to create some original content in the future. According to CEO Shawn Strickland, the primary focus will be family-oriented programming, a genre he claims is lacking in other services. (We’re not so sure – Amazon has three new original childrens’ series planned, and just scored a deal with Viacom to pick up a bunch of Nickelodeon programming. Not to mention Netflix’s exclusive deal with Disney.)
But if you listen to Redbox tell it, they don’t want or need to compete with Netflix and the other services – disc rentals are an important part of their plan, as that allows their customers to get new releases from a kiosk before they’re available to stream. Their plan is to focus on disc rentals and then upsell streaming packages to those customers who are already heavy users of Redbox kiosks. So they’re betting that there’s still enough life in physical media to carry them through.
Us, we’re not so sure. But we’ll be watching to see how this all shakes out.
Cable Show Technology Roundup
WASHINGTON, D.C.—As expected, “cloud,” Gigabit services and the Reference Design Kit (“RDK”) led the tech headlines at this year’s Cable Show. Given that you’ve likely read plenty about them by now, this week’s translation will drop in on the rest of the tech scene.
Starting with some big news that tucked in to the last day of this year’s show: A deal between Time Warner Cable and Samsung for HDTVs that come with the TWC TV application built-in. No box.
Strategically, it means that owners of the Samsung sets, who live in Time Warner Cable territory, will see the MSO’s services on “both inputs” – one and two. Meaning, whether the viewer is looking at “input one,” where “regular cable” plugs in (read: HDMI), or at “input two,” where the TV connects to IP over Ethernet or Wi-Fi, they’re seeing TWC services.
Note: Several news reports said that people who buy the TV will be able to “download” the TWC TV app. Yet, few of the connected TVs in the marketplace yet offer a “download” feature. None of the connected Samsung devices (TV, blu-ray DVD) in my little OTT video lab do. It’s more likely that the TWC TV app will show up in a negotiated section of screen within Samsung’s “walled garden” of apps.
Just as you can “see” the TWC TV on screens attached to Roku 3 streamers, the app can’t be accessed unless it is “behind” a Time Warner Cable-provisioned cable modem or gateway. That way, the viewer’s login can be checked against the MAC (media access control) address of the modem. Having a login isn’t enough. (Found THAT out.)
Another palpable tech trend at this year’s show: Wi-Fi. Right here, at the mid-point of 2013, cable-delivered Wi-Fi is spraying bits from about 200,000 outdoor hotspots. That makes cable the largest Wi-Fi provider in the U.S.
But in all likelihood, cable’s Wi-Fi footprint will expand by an order of magnitude, if Comcast has its way. At the Show, it announced plans for “neighborhood hotspots,” which works by turning existing, Wi-Fi-equipped cable modems into hot spots.
At an Imagine Park session here last Wednesday, Comcast CTO Tony Werner said that means millions and ultimately tens of millions of devices, after a firmware upgrade.
Here’s how it works: Say you have broadband service through a Comcast cable modem or wireless gateway. That device came to you with two SSIDs — service set identifiers. That’s what populates the list of names of available WiFi hot spots, when you’re looking for signal.
One of them, of course, is whatever yours is called. The other – partitioned such that it can’t see or mess with your traffic on the other — will presumably say “xfinity Wi-Fi.” (Sadly, Comcast’s WiFi momentum hasn’t reached Denver yet.)
The technique of turning home equipment into hot spots isn’t unique to Comcast – overseas operators who can’t get workable access to aerial plant, to place WiFi radios, like it too. Telenet, in Belgium, is one example, as is Liberty Global.
So for those reasons, it just seems like 200,000 cable-delivered WiFi hot spots is going to seem real puny real soon.
Lastly: I purchased this year’s batch of tech papers (I now have 25 sets, go figure), and spent a few moments looking for the masterpieces of tech-talk. A later column will pluck out the informational dandies, but just in terms of gibberish, this year’s hands-down winner goes to Patricio Latini and Ayham Al-Banna, of Arris. Their paper: “A Simple Approach for Deriving the Symbol Error Rate of Non-Rectangular 22k+1 M-ary AMPM Modulation.”
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
NextGuide: The Next Generation of TV Guides
Have you ever spent 30 minutes combing through multiple streaming video apps, trying to decide on something to watch? Me too. And apparently, we’re not alone.
At OTT-con, we heard a lot about this particular challenge from Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit. He called it the “Chinese restaurant menu effect,” where we have so much to choose from that it becomes a burden. Dijit aims to solve this with NextGuide, an overhaul of the traditional TV guide that combines live and on-demand content into a single place.
NextGuide started as an iPad app, and released a web browser version last month. The browser version is still in beta (you can sign up if you’re registered on the iPad app) and it appears there are still a few things to be ironed out, but in general both apps work well.
NextGuide has much in common with other video discovery appslike Fanhattan (which just announced a new device) and Matcha (which just shut down its app, but claims to have something new in the works.) It hooks into many of the same content sources: Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Amazon, and live TV. (No HBO Go though.)
Like the earlier discovery apps, NextGuide lets you browse a bunch of sources in one place. When you pick something, it automatically launches an app (or website, in the case of the browser version) and starts playing the content. This worked solidly on both the iPad and web versions for me, and with none of the Netflix playback issues we noticed with Fanhattan.
Dijit’s recommendations go a step further than any other app or service I’ve yet seen. They work on an episodic level – meaning, you get recommendations for a specific episodes rather than the whole show.
Here’s how it works: You set customized categories based on your interests, location, favorite actors, and so on. Then Dijit combs through all the content it can see to identify episodes that might be of particular interest to you.
The iPad app has a section called “Your Picks” that highlights the top recommendations for you, but I was only interested in about 10% of the titles it gave me. To be fair, I didn’t give it a lot to work with: Dijit takes into account shows that you’ve “liked” on both Facebook and NextGuide, and uses these to fine-tune recommendations. It also lets you edit the “My Picks” section to veto things you don’t want to see.
The content is organized into a bunch of different categories, like “Denver” or “Sports,” which you can customize and browse through by selecting the icon at the top of the page or swiping right and left. You can choose the sources of content, and even select favorite channels in your live TV lineup.
But one thing that is notably missing is a separation between Amazon Prime and On-Demand content — it’s all combined, and my recommendations list fills up with a bunch of titles that I have to pay extra to see. One more button on the content filters would do a lot to help this experience.
On the iPad app, content is organized in a series of screens that you can flip through by swiping or tapping the icons at the top. It defaults to a section called “Your Picks” that combines all of your recommendations, and if you want to see content related to a particular interest or genre you just head to that section.
It also includes some other features beyond the typical content discovery mix. Last month, it added USA Network’s “USA Sync” technology, which uses ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) to recognize the content playing on your TV and bring up polls, trivia, and cast information on your iPad.
This feature only works with a few USA shows that this point, and only when they’re playing live – when I tried to test it at home with Burn Notice via Slingbox, the short delay (~10 seconds) was enough to make this feature not work on either NextGuide or the USA app. This would be so much more useful if it behaved more like Yahoo’s IntoNow app, which recognizes content whether it’s live, timeshifted, or on-demand.
NextGuide also includes a social layer that allows you to connect with Facebook friends and other users with similar tastes (this came from Miso, which Dijit acquired back in February.)
There were a few things specific to the iPad app that bothered me, after quite a few hours of using it. Like that it’s far too easy to accidentally switch categories while trying to scroll down. And the iPad app defaults to displaying 12 hours worth of content, so at first glance it was a jumble of shows with daytime television alongside 11 p.m. listings.
Fortunately, Dijit included a very intuitive way to change the date and time range for listings, I just didn’t notice it right away:
The browser version, released May 20, is a bit different in terms of functionality. Like the iPad app, the web version kicks you over to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon and starts playing your video automatically. But this version also lets you schedule DVR recordings (if you’re a Comcast or DirecTV subscriber, that is.)
NextGuide’s web interface
There are some discrepancies between the two interfaces – the website doesn’t display a “Your Picks” section, only favorites from the entire user base. And it allows you to add things to a “Watchlist,” but this same list is called “Bookmarks” on the iPad app. The web version is still in beta, so we’re guessing these inconsistencies will be ironed out before the official launch.
Final assessment: NextGuide is an app on a bit of a learning curve, with some minor inconsistencies that should be worked out – but it shows a lot of promise.
However: We’re still waiting to see one of these discovery apps make the jump to the big screen. Somebody tell me: How long until I can use my iPad to cue up content on my Roku? And will we see a NextGuide app popping up on some of our devices in the lab – or a white label version of if? I hope so, but only time will tell.
Your 2013 Cable Show Tech-Talk Decoder Ring!
It’s Cable Show time again, so it’s time to sift through this year’s grab-bag of tech-speak. Always a gas!
Let’s start with The Gig. In sessions, in “The Observatory” area of the show, and likely in news, you’ll be hearing about Gigs.
Funny thing about the Gig: It’s a unit of measure, yes, but in cable, it carries three distinctly different meanings. One involves speed, one involves storage, one involves capacity.
Back to basics: “Giga” means “billion.” It comes after “Mega,” for million, and before “Tera,” for trillion.
A few handy contextual references: There are (roughly) as many bits in a Gigabit per second as there are Facebook members; a Gigabit per second is more than 15,000 times faster than the fastest ever dial-up modem (56 kbps.)
Let’s do it in hamburgers. Let’s say the average person eats 150 burgers per year. If bits were burgers, it would take the Earth’s entire population about 7 million years to eat as many burgers, as a Gig is in bits. (Burp.)
So whether you’re talking speed, storage or capacity, Gigs are big.
Gig-wise, what you’ll be hearing about at Cable Show is speed. Gigabits per second, specifically. Synonymous with billions of bits per second.
But! The Gigabyte is a unit of storage. Bits and bytes are different; rule of thumb is, there are eight bits in a byte. Gigabytes come into play when talking about how big something is to download.
And then there’s the GigaHertz (GHz) – a measure of capacity. Most cable systems are built to top out between 750 MHz and 1,000 MHz, and 1,000 MHz is the same as 1 GHz.
THE CLOUD VS. THE GATEWAY
Another chewy set of intertwined topics sure to unfold in DC: The cloud, versus the gateway. Does one (cloud) ultimately supplant the other (gateway)? Putting video in the cloud – which also goes by network DVR, although the two have subtle differences – is a hot topic because it’s a great way to keep stuff consistent, one screen to the next.
In tech talk, that batch of activities is known as “preservation of state” – “pause” is a state, for instance. So is “play,” when you resume.
Yet, the show floor will be bulging with gateways. Half cable modem, half set-top, they’re hot because they’re a way to bridge from today’s world (set-tops connected to TVs), to the other today’s world (tablets, PCs, gadgets connected to cable modems.)
In the fullness of time, “gateways” will persist as the thing in the home that exists to do the things the cloud can’t yet do, or isn’t as good at doing. Like pausing live TV, for instance. Buffering locally, so far, works better than buffering in the network.
Reference Design Kit / “RDK”
As you wander the show floor, you’re likely to see signage and demo-buzz about “RDK,” which stands for “Reference Design Kit.” It’s not the easiest thing to wrap the head around, because it happens at the intersection of silicon, and standards. It started out as a Comcast thing, but is expanding to other MSOs. Something like 20 RDK constituents will be showing their stuff this week.
People involved with RDK like it because it shaves time from how long it takes to get new hardware and services to market. It shaves time because it eliminates the repeating labyrinths of regression testing that occurs, as a device moves from chip to manufacturer to MSO to service environment.
Close to 50 companies will be exhibiting for the first time this week – on the tech side, companies like LG Electronics (connected devices), DigitalSmiths (search and recommendation), Qwilt (OTT traffic management), and Ruckus Wireless (“wickedly fast wireless.”) My personal favorite NCTA newbie, as a beekeeper: Beesion, which apparently does business support systems. I like the honeybee in the logo.
Parting thought: Take a moment to think through how much effort goes into putting on an event as big and multi-faceted as Cable Show. Be sure to thank any NCTA people you see. They’ve been working their brains out.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Unicast, Multicast, and the Super Bowl Problem
For bandwidth people, hardly anything is a surprise anymore. Not even that 50% and higher rise in broadband usage, year after year after year, since about 2009.
Not even when they realized that nothing has ever grown that fast, and for that long, in the history of consumable goods.
It’s because of all of our Internet-connected stuff, of course, and how much we’re using those screens to create, ship, download and stream video.
Video is the undisputed fat man of the Internet.
Cisco reconfirmed the trend last week in the latest installment of its Visual Networking Index (VNI), a recurring study that tracks what’s going on with Internet usage. The report covers tons of ground, with numbers so big they’re hard to conjure.
Like this: “Internet video-to-TV traffic will increase nearly 5-fold between 2012 (1.3 exabytes per month) and 2017 (6.5 exabytes per month.)”
(In the hierarchy of increasing numerical size, it goes “kilo-“, “mega-,” “giga-,”, “tera-,” “peta-,” then “exa-.” “Exa” is a quintillion. As in million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, quantillion. Sextillion, septillion, octillion, nonillion, decillion. Ok I’ll stop.)
But let’s get back to bandwidth people. Part of their work is to ensure that demand doesn’t outstrip supply. Which brings us to “the Super Bowl problem.”
The Super Bowl problem, from a bandwidth perspective, has two parts: One, what if everyone tunes in all at once? Two: What if everyone pauses all at once?
“Everyone,” when it comes to the Super Bowl, was 108 million people this year. They all saw the game, on their small, medium, and super-large screens. So what’s the problem?
It’s the “Internet-connected” part. See, of the 108 million, only 3 million saw the game as an online video stream. Which brings us to the lingo of video distribution, tweaked for online usage: Multicast and unicast.
Refresher: In the good old days (meaning today), to broadcast is to send one to many. Whether one person watches the game, or 108 million, doesn’t matter. In bandwidth terms, it’s all the same.
The Internet doesn’t work that way. It’s intrinsically many to many. When you stream House of Cards on Netflix, other people might be streaming it at the same time, sure. But how it works is called “unicast.” One stream unicast to me, another to you, another to Harry, another to Jane.
Nailing up enough bandwidth to unicast 108 million unique streams is both a horrific waste of bandwidth, and a great way to buckle the system.
So, there’s multicast. It’s the streaming equivalent of raising the red flag on your (physical) mailbox – not to say “there’s mail in here,” but to say “gimme.” With multicast, if someone in your serving area is already watching what you want to watch, you “join that stream.”
Multicasting to 108 million screens is non-trivial, in engineering-speak. Computationally intensive. Getting there involves work on everything from cloud to protocols to servers to routers to devices. It’s about making sure that video cloud has enough intelligence to recognize a URL with multicast headers, then making sure enough “multicast join” mechanisms are in place. And lots more.
Right now, the thinking is to multicast to the home — which is why you keep hearing about “gateways,” by the way. The interim step to “all-IP.”
From the multicast stream to the gateway, streams can be unicast to the other devices in the house that want a look. That way, the buffers needed to pause are in the house, not in the network. Imagine building a buffer big enough for 108 million pauses!
That’s the short version of broadcast, multicast, unicast, and the Super Bowl problem. Or you could just skip the game, and go to Costco. No lines. So I’ve heard…
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.