Top Tech Dazzlers at This Year’s Imagine Park
LOS ANGELES–This year’s Imagine Park program — a live TV “show within The Cable Show,” now in its fourth year, and designed to shine the light on the hot tickets in cable and broadband technology — served up plenty of sizzle, but a few rose to the top of the list.
Starting with FanTV, a new entrant in hardware-based video streamers, and by far the most attractive and uniquely designed in the category. (Especially now that the original and very funky Boxee Box is officially “tele-vestigial.” Meaning no longer on the market. Sigh. A nod to its out-of-the-box box design!)
FanTV is hands-down gorgeous — swoopy and elegant, with a buttonless remote that fits in the palm of the hand like a smooth rock, and perches magnetically on top of the player like some kind of electronic cairn.
Its intent, market-tested with Cox last year and now scheduled to enter Time Warner Cable’s footprint, is to provide subscription and over-the-top video to broadband-only consumers. If you live in a Time Warner Cable market, run-don’t-walk to get one when it hits the (retail) market this summer.
Also a gift to the category of television: “Dolby Vision,” an effort by the stalwarts in sound to make high definition video brighter, for lack of a visual term.
The set-up: When we think of HD, we think of higher resolution — more pixels. Dolby’s position is that two other dimensions can be manipulated to enhance television, beyond additional pixels: Better pixels, and faster pixels. It’s all about improved color gamut (blacker blacks, greener greens) and higher dynamic range. Watch for it to enter the market next year, as it gets licensed by CE and screen manufacturers.
My favorite Imagine Park session this year, even though it hadn’t happened yet at press time: A showcase of innovation coming out of the developmental labs inside Comcast, Liberty Global and Time Warner Cable.
For starters is the fact that these “lab weeks” even exist. All involved MSOs sponsor the activities as a way to let their developers stretch their wings, design-wise, then “pitch” their ideas, internally and throughout the year.
It’s part one of a broader body of work, known as “DevOps,” which blends people from product development and operations. It’s happening as a way to get new services out more quickly, by removing the friction that traditionally hamstrings those two groups.
Here’s a partial list of what was scheduled to happen in the Lab Week session: A tablet mosaic that links related, web-sourced content to subscription video; cloud-based services on legacy boxes; and a way to take your home phone service with you, internationally, on your mobile.
One other bit of extraordinarily good news coming out of this year’s Cable Show: The NCTA’s annual compilation of tech papers will be available online. (Go here: www.nctatechnicalpapers.com) Not just this year’s batch — all of them. And they go back for decades. Halleluiah!
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Summer Streaming Update
The original content battles are heating up this summer, and we’re seeing some interesting developments on the hardware side as well. In keeping, here’s a Summer Streaming roundup from our OTT Video Labs.
Chromecast: A successful TV device from Google at last?
In case you haven’t heard, Google released a new TV device on July 24th called “Chromecast.” Ours is set to arrive this week. Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle, similar in size to Roku’s streaming stick, but with some different features.
For starters, it uses a USB power source (either from your TV, or a wall socket adaptor), which means it works on HDTVs without MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link)-compatible HDMI ports. MHL allows devices to get power via the HDMI port, for instance the Roku Streaming Stick (which requires MHL). But most TVs in use today aren’t MHL-compatible, so we’re glad to see Chromecast will work for everyone.
And, it enables you play web video you select from a computer, tablet or phone, on the big-screen TV. It’s much like AirPlay Mirroring (or AirParrot) on AppleTV, meaning you can use Chromecast to watch browser-only content from Hulu or other sources, on your TV.
This last one is a biggie. Recall that when the first GoogleTV devices hit the marketplace, in 2010, Hulu and most networks blocked GoogleTV’s browser from accessing their content. With Chromecast, because the viewer is “flinging” content from another device to the TV, rather than tuning to it from an on-board browser, there’s no easy way to keep that “web-only” content off the TV. Hulu would have to either block the Chrome browser on all devices, or switch from Flash to Silverlight – both of which seem very unlikely.
Instead of putting up a fight, Hulu seems to be taking the position that Chromecast is about connectivity more so than access – that it’s just slightly easier than using an HDMI cable to connect a computer to a TV screen. Its bet: People will pay for easier. Plus, there’s the whole “more eyeballs” angle, always a factor.
Like Netflix and YouTube, Hulu is working to make its mobile app Chromecast-compatible. These compatible apps (located on the mobile device, not the Chromecast stick itself) provide much better video quality, because Chromecast essentially receives a URL link to the content, then pulls it directly from the public Internet, rather than streaming from one device to another.
We’ll be putting Chromecast through its paces in the lab over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for a full review.
And speaking of game-changing devices: Fanhattan’s FanTV box is now in trials with Cox in Orange County, Calif., for an IPTV service it calls “flareWatch.” FanTV is a small, attractive device that replaces the traditional cable box to combine live TV and DVR with streaming services. In the Cox implementation, access to Netflix or Hulu isn’t an option, at least initially. Cox says this is because they’re early on in the trial and just testing the user interface at this point, but we suspect it might have more to do with contractual obligations between the networks and OTT providers.
Redbox and Roku, together at last
And finally! We got the long-awaited Redbox Instant channel on Roku. While Redbox continues to add new content and devices, the selection is still quite limited when compared to other services, particularly because there’s no TV content – only movies. Assessment: Yawn.
Another almost-sale for Hulu
Hulu Plus was up for sale for a second time, and once again its owners pulled it off the auction block, opting to instead plow another $750 million into it. For what? As many as 20 original series premieres this year, two of which were released earlier this month: “The Awesomes” on August 1, and “Quick Draw” on August 5. Unlike the Netflix model, these are released on a weekly basis rather than all at once.
Hopefully these original series pay off for Hulu, because they’ve been losing content to exclusive deals between copyright owners, and competitors Netflix and Amazon. For example: Last month Netflix got exclusive rights to past seasons of Fox’s “New Girl,” so now Hulu Plus users will only have access to a few episodes at any given time. Before, it was the entire series.
Original content is taking off
Speaking of original content, Netflix is up for 14 Emmy Awards for its original content, nine of which are for “House of Cards.” (That’s up from zero nominations, any time before.) A new Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black,” is also getting rave reviews.
So it’s hardly surprising that we’re starting to see headlines calling Netflix “the new HBO.” More content is on the way, with the Ricky Gervais series “Derek” premiering September 12. Netflix also has quite a bit of original children’s content in the works, through its partnership with Dreamworks.
And to keep it all separate, Netflix recently introduced “identities,” allowing families to create multiple logins under the same account — so parents will no longer be inundated with Disney flicks, nor will they have to worry about their kids getting recommendations for “Breaking Bad.”
Let us not forget Amazon, also very busy with original content. It just announced another 5 new pilots, all geared towards children. As with its last round of pilots, Amazon involves viewers to participate in which shows get greenlighted for a full series.
With all this high-quality content now being produced by OTT providers, we’re interested to see where it ends up – will we eventually see the next big show coming from Netflix, and syndicated on cable TV? And if so, how will pay-TV providers incorporate it into their offerings?
We’ll keep an eye on it for you.