UPC’s Horizon was worth the wait

This year’s IBC event lacked a big, overarching theme, or new “wow” topic to get journalists, analysts and market-watchers foaming at the mouth. And that’s no bad thing. It’s the sign of a maturing industry, and as a result, the show retained a healthy focus on improving existing products and trying to get the big things – multiscreen, OTT, hybrid – right. Nevertheless, there was plenty on show that highlighted that the market remains miles away from anything resembling certainty.

HEVC is here, sort of

Encoding ain’t sexy, but it provided arguably the biggest new development of the show. The arrival of HEVC, or H.265, promises to be a genuine game changer, and vendors were showing off their capabilities in force, even though the standard is not yet fully ratified, and few were able to actually show live demos. Most vendors stuck to the well-aired strapline that HEVC will provide a 50 per cent reduction in bandwidth for comparable picture quality to AVC/H.264. But Elemental – also one of the only companies that provided a live demo rather than a video – also showed the improvements in picture quality that operators could achieve if they did not try and reduce bandwidth. Which begs an intriguing question: who will use HEVC to reward their consumers, by offering much better picture quality for the same bitrate, and who will reward themselves, by offering the same quality for less resources?

Horizon is here, definitely

No “sort of” caveat with UPC’s near-mythical Horizon set-top box, which after significant delays has now officially launched in the Netherlands, with Switzerland and Germany to follow in the coming months.  The verdict? Horizon was worth the wait. It may be several years late, but it’s a product that looks like it belongs in 2012 and not 2010. The user interface is very appealing (“swooshy” being the adjective used most often to describe it), if perhaps suffering from overkill and over-complication in places, and it manages to offer a huge array of features, while not detracting from the quality of experience of those who just want to watch TV. Sky recently claimed that consumers are ahead of them in terms of expectation; with Horizon, it is arguably the other way around. Whether this is a good thing for operators or not is another matter.

TeliaSonera’s Smart TV takeover

Informa has long mooted the benefits of operator and Smart TV partnerships, and at IBC, TeliaSonera and Samsung showcased what they described as the first fully-fledged IPTV service to launch on a Smart TV.  Fully-fledged was perhaps pushing it a little but the service did offer most of the core features of a Pay TV service, including a network DVR for some (but, for rights reasons, not all) channels. One key feature is the ability, after the TeliaSonera app is downloaded to the TV, for consumers to select the TeliaSonera interface as the default UI for the TV. It even appears as an option in the list of inputs on the device, alongside HDMI, USB, et al. This is a win for everyone. It’s much easier for consumers, and operators, who have always expressed concerned about appearing next to their competitors on Smart TVs, will be delighted. It’s also an intriguing sign of Samsung’s strategy in the area. Smart TV manufacturers are heavily criticised for trying to over-exert their own influence on the way users use those devices, so Samsung’s ceding of this territory is very telling.

Social TV – the post-Zeebox wave

All vendors were keen to share their visions for how best to create content and experiences for the companion screen. While it’s easy to be cynical about bandwagon-jumping, Zeebox’s approach is only one of many, and there are lot of other ways the second screen can be used. The newly christened ViaccessOrca showed Deep, its take on aggregating content about what viewers are watching within a magazine-style app on a tablet. Capablue was focused much more on monetisation, providing broadcasters with the opportunity to offer targeted offers to consumers based on what they are watching. Yet we did see one too many demos that essentially used the second screen as target practice for ads, bombarding the device with commercial messages and essentially bringing the very worst of the world of display advertising to tablet. Consumers don’t spend hundreds of Euros on a device to see lots of banners, and broadcasters, operators, and everyone else in this space must exercise restraint in this area.

NDS challenges some TV givens

The prevailing attitude among many in the TV industry is that apps – or doing anything on the TV that isn’t watching video – are the biggest and blindest alley the TV industry has strayed down since smell-o-vision. But NDS, with its Fresco demo, presented a future that indicated we may have been too quick with this assessment. Fresco-an update of NDS’ Spaces demo from last year – shows a home-of-the-future where TV prices, thickness and design have reached a point where consumers are able to have a “wall of TVs” in their home. With this set-up, users are easily able to shift both video and non-video content around these screens, and their personal devices. The key is that they can easily chose between being fully immersed in big-screen video content, doing something else entirely, or doing something in between. Everyone in the household controls what they do and don’t do with their personal devices, eliminating what we internally refer to as “I-don’t-want-my-kids/parents-to-see-my-Facebook-profile” syndrome.

We are sceptical at the four-year timeframe that NDS touts as it taking for this technology to become affordable to anyone (the current bill for this kind of setup would reach hundreds of thousands of pounds). But it’s an intriguing vision that shows that it may be too early to write off the future of the TV as a big, dumb screen.

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