Monthly Archives: October 2014
An OTT Lab Update
By Leslie Ellis
Given that Halloween punctuates the end of this week, it seemed timely to share some changes happening in my small-but-lively over-the-top video lab.
Background: The list of technologies, industries and companies that will “kill the cable industry!” is long and established. First there was microwave (a technology), then telcos and satellite (industries), then companies — name any of the OTT constituents. Spooky!
Until the OTT chapter, however, it was cost-prohibitive to conduct any kind of local experiment to vet the would-be cable-killers. A microwave antenna farm doesn’t exactly fit in a back bedroom, not to mention the coverage footprints of the subsequent competitors.
That’s why, a few years ago, it suddenly made sense (economically and space-wise) to see for myself: What about this growing army of video streamers is better or worse for video content consumption?
The lab hit its peak in 2012, with a gadget array so wide, the windowsill could barely hold the associated remote controls.
At the end of last year, however, it started to seem like “game over.” Google finally found its way (after countless iterations of “GoogleTV”) with Chromecast, at an astounding low price point – $35. Between it, Roku, and Apple TV, plus the virtualizing of video streaming into TVs and other hardware gadgets, it started to get dull.
(After that, Amazon’s Fire TV came out — too late, but not too little. It remains my personal favorite of the hardware streamers.)
So, this year, we made a deliberate shift in another direction: The Internet of Things. Between myself and my lab goddess, Sara Dirkse, we’re gradually gearing up to watch the IOT trajectory, across two specific parameters. One is “stuff that’s actually useful.” The other is “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Here’s the short list of both, so far. Actually useful: Front-door webcams, to see who’s at the door no matter where you are; beds that conquer snoring partners without the need for pointy elbows; sensors that over-ride the irrigation system on rainy days.
On the oddest things we’ve ever seen list: The “selfie sombrero,” a ghastly, hot pink bonnet equipped with a tablet holder hanging from its enormous brim. A connected toilet, which quickly got hacked, enabling anyone to flush, open and close the lid, and activate the bidet. A virtual reality apparatus (“airVR”), which essentially straps your tablet to your face. And, my personal favorite, a “smart wig,” apparently useful for times when you want to advance a PowerPoint presentation by tugging on its (ghastly) sideburns.
That’s the Halloween lab update. Boo! We’ll keep the lists growing.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
On Upstream Bandwidth and “Half Fast”
f you live in a Verizon FiOS market, you’ve likely seen the video ads denouncing upstream speeds other than theirs. If not, here’s the gist of it: Families, at home, surfing the web, but running into slowdowns when posting music and video to the web. The tagline? “Stop living with half-fast Internet,” uttered by Modern Family’s famously funny Ty Burrell, a Verizon spokesman.
On the one hand, “half-fast” is a brilliant and funny play on words, not unlike Kmart’s “shipped its pants” campaign, or the lesser known but still funny pairing of “sofa” with “king,” to emphasize how very … anything … something is. (“That is sofa king good,” for example.)
On the other hand, and as someone who perennially frets about the state of the upstream / home-to-headend signal direction, it’s another reminder about the growing plausibility of symmetric network traffic — meaning an environment where as much stuff flows out of a home, as flows into it.
For the longest time, now included, there’s not been a need, really, for symmetry. Think about it. When you click to retrieve a web page, or to initiate a video stream, that click is tiny, compared to what comes back. In general, and at any given time, we’re using way more downstream (towards us) capacity than upstream.
For me, the first vestige of the potential for upstream capacity calamities came last Spring, when my colleague Sara set up a chicken incubator at her farm. She used a paper clip to kickstand an old iPhone, which peered into the contraption, and live-streamed the output.
It was a forehead-smack moment: Video is big. Webcams stream it. Uh-oh, upstream path. Cameras that stream become part of the machine-to-machine scene, consuming bandwidth in ways not before seen. (Hey, that rhymes!)
Then, this year, the GoPro camera craze intensified. It won’t take too many of them, strapped to the dog’s head, or the kid’s bike, to gum up the upstream path.
The keepers of the bandwidth in my circles assure me (repeatedly) that from a normal traffic loading perspective, we’re nowhere near the need to build for network symmetry — meaning, as much data moving away from you, as toward you.
That said, there’s no shortage of gadgetry in our lives that can capture and stream video, and especially those that can be triggered to run remotely — you’re at work, but someone rings the doorbell at home. Who is it? See for yourself, via a live video stream.
One thing is certain: We can expect more video running upstream, coincident with the webcams and GoPros we use to capture and send live video. That alone will contribute to a tilt toward symmetry.
As a result, the widening of the upstream path will likely go from “not in my lifetime” — the decades-old harumph amongst technologists — to lots more trial expansions next year.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Chromecast, a year later
Last fall, we first got our hands on Google’s Chromecast. Now, a little over a year after its release, we’re taking a look back at the little dongle that could. Because by popular metrics, it took the market by storm.
Expanding app selection
When Chromecast launched on July 24, 2013, just two apps were available on iOS: Netflix and YouTube (Android users could also get music, movies, and TV through Google Play). In February, Google finally released the Chromecast SDK and developers everywhere began building the cast functionality into their apps.
Now, there are roughly 78 apps available for iOS — 24 of them “featured apps.” Notable streaming video apps include WatchESPN, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Watch ABC, YouTube, PBS Kids, MLB.TV, and Crackle. As for the number of Chromecast apps for Android, the count stands at “oh, hundreds” (in other words, we stopped counting).
A small sampling of the Chromecast-compatible apps available for Android
Netflix Post-Play makes marathon watching far too easy
Just this week, Netflix finally brought the “Post-Play” feature to Chromecast – meaning it will now automatically cue up the next episode if you’re watching a series. This feature has been on other devices since 2012, and is extremely useful if you happen to be marathon-watching episodes of Dexter while slicing and dicing your way through a bumper crop of plums (take it from me). Not so useful is the fact that there is no way to toggle this feature off within the app; you’ll need to go to the Netflix website and change the settings there, or risk getting sucked into a marathon. Netflix, you’re a terrible enabler.
Improved browser streaming, and Firefox support
Chromecast also allows you to stream virtually any web video from your computer, using a Chrome Browser extension, but when we first tested out the Chromecast, I found this feature to be downright useless. Because the video streams from the computer and not from the cloud, I ended up with a grainy, sputtering video where the audio track rarely synced up with the picture.
Fortunately, it’s now possible to change the resolution in the extension options. “Extreme” video quality equals 720p high-bitrate, so streaming from a browser never looks quite as sharp as watching something from the Netflix catalog. Dropping to “High” quality, which is still 720p, doesn’t cause much difference in resolution but does smooth out the playback considerably.
Changing the quality settings on the Chromecast browser plugin
The ability to send tabs to Chromecast is coming to Firefox, too. Mozilla now has a “Send to Device” extension in its latest Firefox Nightly Build for Android devices (Firefox for Android Beta 33), where it will presumably undergo further testing before showing up on our computers and other devices. Firefox’s new extension also casts browser tabs to the Roku 3.
Why Chromecast is my (input) #1:
These days, I find myself using the Chromecast more often than I do the Roku Streaming Stick that’s plugged into the same TV. Roku still has more content, but Chromecast is much more accessible and convenient to use. Because Chromecast uses CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), I can just select a piece of content to play on my phone and the Chromecast will seamlessly turn on the TV, switch to the correct input, and start playing the video. Roku’s Streaming Stick, which has no CEC and a limited selection of apps that support DIAL casting, still requires that I juggle two remote controls.
The simplicity of Chromecast is a beautiful thing, and the growing catalog of compatible apps makes it more relevant by the day. We’re hoping this will be the year that Spotify, Amazon Video, and Showtime Anytime get on the Chromecast bandwagon.
For that matter, we wouldn’t mind seeing some more TV Everywhere apps from broadcasters and cable operators, too…and by “everywhere,” we mean in-home and out. And yes we realize that’s a different and special hell of copyright stuff. But still…