Second-screen magic

You don’t hear the ching-ching-ching of change in ‘Vegas casinos anymore, but you couldn’t miss the roar of change echoing throughout the exhibit halls at the recent NAB. I’ve been to some NABs. Some weren’t in Las Vegas. A few were boring and easily forgettable. Some are memorable as milestones of incremental change. NAB 2012 was none of the above.

After nearly a week of non-stop press events and booths tours, listening carefully to visitors, VIPs, front-line experts, and asking my own questions, I think it is safe to report the following: The evolution of television technology is at or nearing a renaissance. Not a seachange or paradigm shift. We’ve already seen that. Renaissance is not a word to use lightly, but you know it’s a renaissance when legendary industry humor becomes as obsolete as magnetic tape.

You’ve heard the joke: “You can have it better, faster or cheaper. Pick two.” The punch line has become irrelevant. Nearly every new product at NAB was better, faster, less expensive and way cooler.

Renaissance comes in many forms. For the stereotypical pocket protector-wearing broadcast engineer and manager, one form is obvious. Apple’s iPad has replaced the green Xcelite screwdriver. Okay, most of us don’t wear pocket protectors, but most new electronic broadcast products are only adjustable in the software, and nearly all allow an iPad, iPhone or Android to access all the adjustments and assignments. The day when an engineering manager can access and control nearly every device in the content flow chain with a handheld device, anytime or anywhere is here. Who wouldn’t rather fix something from an iPad at home rather than drive into the broadcast studio in the middle of the night?

Here are a couple of new broadcast TV jokes. Somewhere, someone is working on a fingernail cleaning app. You know it’s coming. The other is simply a punch line. Apple doesn’t exhibit at NAB anymore. Yet, the iPad was the most ubiquitous item at this year’s show.

Second screens
If I were to summarize NAB in two words, it would have to be “second screens.” The first screen is the digital television display, sometimes called the linear screen. The second screen could be an iPad, because the second screen is Internet-connected and often handheld. The second screen can be operating in real-time in conjunction with the first screen, or it can be a totally independent experience, such as Mobile DTV. Typically, the second screen is intended to add to or enhance the first screen experience. How that is successfully accomplished remains to be seen and will change the future of television.

I’ve witnessed several over-hyped attempts to make money with interactive television, starting with interactive Betamax and so-called multimedia. Every attempt was fundamentally bogus and eventually flopped. Why? Confusing content and clunky hardware simply contributed to interactive TV’s biggest problem: Interactive TV required the viewer to do more than sit and watch a picture. The fact is that many viewers prefer to sit and watch.

In a universe of second screens, first-screen viewers who are happy to sit and watch pictures probably won’t notice any difference. The beauty of second-screen interactivity is that it provides a voluntary option to interact with what’s happening on the first screen. An analogy would be to look up a movie at IMDb on your handheld device while watching that movie on your TV. Imagine that experience taken to the next level with an interactive feedback loop to your station. As more stations and viewers deploy and enjoy the second-screen experience, stations can expand their inventories and focus their markets, creating more sales opportunities for stations and advertisers. Everyone wins.

A significant number of interesting second-screen enabling products were on display, from simple viewer polling software to software aggregating feeds from many social networks to one prompter-style screen for on-air talent to use for interaction with viewers. The installed base of devices capable of being used as a second screen is huge and growing. It is up to the creativity of broadcasters to popularize it.

“Television is immortal”
Harris Morris of Harris Broadcast said at his company’s NAB press conference, “Television is immortal. Change is constant.” Truer words have never been spoken at any NAB. And how ironic is it that just two short weeks later, Harris Corp. announces it wants to sell its Broadcast Communications division because it feels “the transition to digital is mainly finished.” Note to Harris Corp. Board: The transition to digital is just getting started. Here’s why.

Think of your market’s potential audience as a pie. While the size of the pie remains fairly constant, the slices are getting smaller, and there are more of them. To maintain their market share, broadcasters must create more slices for themselves. They can do this by repackaging or revealing more than the original content of their primary first-screen programming for the emerging second-screen market.

The Internet and second-screens are huge growth opportunities for broadcasters to strengthen their brand, build closer relationships with audiences, improve overall market share and increase station revenue.

Don’t be too distracted by the dazzle of technology because in the final analysis, TV stations are merely sales organizations. More slices of the market pie equals more inventory, more targeted markets and more sales revenue. As Ray Cross, Quantel CEO said at their NAB press conference, “The battle for more slices of the same pie is on.”

Moving broadcast content to the Internet is not easy. Stations have typically added “digital operators” to do the “digital” work. Creating clips and encoding them in a timely manner is tricky and time-consuming, particularly when there are approximately 41 platforms and 30 file formats that must be addressed to reach the potential audience. A number of NAB exhibitors demonstrated specialized broadcast automation software that automated the “digital operator” recording and encoding process by interfacing with newsroom and traffic automation systems.

At an Autodesk (opens in new tab) press event, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron shared how he created and produced some scenes in his films, including “Gravity” and “Children of Men.” Cuaron’s credits can be seen at here. He demonstrated how he used Autodesk’s Smoke in his work. Autodesk significantly lowered the price of Smoke, and it will run on Mac OS X or an iPad. Another example of better, faster, less expensive and way cool was born.

Nearly every NAB exhibitor showed products that were significantly less expensive yet superior to its predecessors. This trend wasn’t necessarily limited to electronics products. New production lighting, professional camera support, studio robotics and other mechanical production necessities from a host of well-known exhibitors offered improved features and benefits at amazingly lower pricing.

Why movies are dark
One of the things I like best about sporting a Broadcast Engineering magazine press badge at NAB is the privilege to attend press events. One particular evening event at the Bellagio was hosted by NVIDIA (opens in new tab), HP (opens in new tab), Limelight Networks and others. It featured filmmaker and visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who gave a fascinating presentation on the past and future of movies, film and theaters. Among his credits are Special Photographic Effects Supervisor, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He immediately received the undivided attention of everyone in the room, even the bartenders. That effect in itself was impressive, considering he was speaking in a huge meeting room with open bars, free food and a couple of hundred people who just spent the day at NAB.

I learned the eye detects 24fps film flicker when the screen is too bright. The direct relationship between brightness and frame rate is called the flicker fusion threshold. In movie theaters, SMPTE spec 196M calls for a screen luminance of 16 Foot-Lamberts (FtL). 3-D glasses typically reduce screen luminance by half or more. That’s why 3-D movies in theaters seem so dark. Less luminance makes frame to frame movement and flicker turn to more of a blur. Many say the effect is due to the different characteristics of our photoreceptor cells, rods and cones.

For reference, FtL is a measurement of illuminance, which is light reflected from an object or screen. Many factors can affect movie theater screen illuminance, from bulb current to screen gain. Luminous emittance is a measurement of light emitting from a screen, typically a video display, often measured in Lux. They’re apples and oranges, with different color temperatures, and there is no way to objectively convert from one measurement to the other. But, we can do a subjective comparison. The average full white luminance of a 50in LED flat screen is about 1000 lux, which subjectively approximates to the neighborhood of 93 FtL. Thus, a LED screen is almost 6X brighter than a movie theater screen conforming SMPTE 196M.

What was funny and surprising was when Trumball stated that all movie film shot in traditional shutter film cameras missed half the action in every scene. Why? The shutter was closed half the time. Think about it.

Not surprisingly, Trumball advocated high frame rates and bigger, brighter screens. Many filmmakers, he said, are concerned higher frame rates make content look too much like reality television or TV news. Trumball’s view is that higher frame rates and big bright screens can transform the theatrical movie presentation into a seriously immersive personal experience, making viewers feel they are in the movie. Could this simulator-on-steroids movie presentation machine make rides like the Big Shot atop the Stratisphere obsolete? The lesson to be learned at this year’s NAB is to never say never. Trumbull’s credits can be found here.