Video-on-the-Go Gains Momentum

Next-gen TV, the third screen, mobile TV, cell phone TV--there are a lot of names for this next chapter in broadcast television, and quite a list of players too.
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FALLS CHURCH, VA

Next-gen TV, the third screen, mobile TV, cell phone TV--there are a lot of names for this next chapter in broadcast television, and quite a list of players too. NAB2006 identified 21 of them and this is just the tip of that proverbial iceberg.

While the service providers haven't exactly had to hire additional help to take subscription orders just yet, there is some interest for the small screen video service among the estimated 180 million cell phone customers in the United States.

With the rollout of third-generation, or "3G" cell phone network technology, telecom service providers are now able to implement video capability, but consumer acceptance and demand are still in their early stages.

SOUP TO NUTS

Howard Barouxis, Grass Valley senior director of sales for North America, sees a bright future for small screen video.

"I think that the market is great," said Barouxis "We've been involved in a lot of DVB-H trials and we've done a lot of deployments around the world. We're now working with all the major operators in the United States in small city trials."

"We see a huge market and are providing quite a bit of the overall solution--head ends, encoding, IP encapsulation--we're supporting both DVB-H and MediaFLO, and we're offering transmitters and middleware too," Barouxis said. "The only thing we wouldn't offer are handsets."

As for full-scale next-gen service within the United States, Barouxis thinks that it will be here soon.

"What you're seeing in the U.S. this year are small trials," he said. "There will be trials in the larger markets in 2007 and the market will probably open up in 2008."

According to Barouxis, it's a matter of "build it and they will come," and says major operators are working on this.

Vizrt, Harris, Snell & Wilcox, Tandberg Television and others have also been producing and marketing items for what may ultimately prove to be a large market.

Halid Hatic, vice president of business development for Vizrt, says that his company has had its ear to the ground when it comes to the small screen.

"What we realized by listening to our customers, especially in the United States, is that they are looking for ways to monetize their content in new and different ways," Hatic said. "Ipod and cell phone delivery has not gone unnoticed and we've designed a workflow product with which they can repurpose any of their product into a mobile platform."

Hatic sees delivery of video as just part of the equation, with graphics and metadata being value-added items.

"If a person is interested in sports scores, they could have them delivered in the form of a ticker rendered in a local environment with dynamic updating. The ability to deliver hyperlocal news to a subscriber base is the 'holy grail.' Vizrt can help stations simultaneously produce content for both local news and the handset subscriber."

Hatic views the small screen business as just getting started.

"Our customers [content producers] are already experiencing demands due to shareholder pressure to increase revenue," Hatic said. "On the other hand, stations are waiting for viewers to start asking for mobile delivery. It was a bit of a shock to the industry when ESPN folded up their mobile strategy [earlier this year]. This part of the industry is still in its early stages, but it was great to see Disney take the first steps."

Most proponents of handset video admit that there are some hurdles to overcome before the public completely embraces the technology. Among these are screen size, battery life and subscription costs (estimated to be $10 to $25 per month in addition to the cost of the cell service itself).

At least three major U.S. cell phone service providers are set up for video delivery: Cingular, Sprint and Verizon.

TOO MANY BITS

Depending on the methodology used for deploying the service, there are other issues too. There is concern that next-gen video delivery could become suicidally successful and drag down traffic throughout a vendor's network. A wideband stream would have to be provided to every customer wanting to view a particular event. Too many viewers could result in system congestion and crashing. The way around this is to provide a more generalized service similar to standard television broadcasting with RF transmission of signals to subscribers.

Jeffrey Nelson, executive director corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, was optimistic that congestion would not really be a problem with Verizon's current VCAST video service.

"When we launched VCAST almost three years ago, we designed the service in such a way as to provide network proper coverage and capacity. This is clearly part of our business model. We're not going to risk our reputation as having the best cellular system by oversubscribing the service."

In breaking away from conventional networked delivery of video, DVB-H and Qualcomm's MediaFLO appear to be the logical choices. MediaFLO supports 320x240 resolution and 30 fps (considerably beyond 3G capabilities) and could offer upwards of 15 live program choices and considerably more when content is limited to short video clips.

FUTURE FOR VCAST

As Verizon has plans to begin offering MediaFLO service in the first half of 2007, is there a real future for VCAST?

"We really view them as very different services," Nelson said. "On regular TV you can either watch programming where anyone sees the same selection--this is comparable to MediaFLO--or you can opt for on-demand viewing. That's where VCAST is today. It's long form versus short form. We see them as coexisting."

There's also the question of content suitability for the small screen. A wide shot of a football field during a kickoff is not going to play well on a two-inch screen. Content generation for next-gen viewing will have to be carefully considered and cannot be left to simply passing along reformatted video. Editing will no longer amount to decisions as to the best sequence of material and the location of cuts, wipes and dissolves.

It will also have to include "viewability" considerations with regard to wide versus tight shots and the way they are assembled to tell the story. The same goes for graphics. What works nicely on a sports bar 50-inch display may not play at all on a handset screen. Content providers will have to address these issues, just as they have had to do in going from SD to HD and from 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratios.

SMALL SCREEN ISSUES

Snell & Wilcox is another player in this nascent industry and the company is marketing their Helios product for easy repurposing of content. It not only handles standard, format and aspect ratio conversions, but also provides deinterlacing and scaling, along with a library of compression selections to ensure operability with various cell phone delivery systems, as well as other next-gen delivery methodologies.

Joe Zaller, vice president of strategic marketing at Snell & Wilcox, described some of the challenges associated with small screen television.

"There's a very big need to make pictures look good in the small space," Zaller said. "There are a lot of issues to deal with. Interlacing is one of those. Most deinterlacers start by throwing away half of the information so the displays are progressive. There are problems too with the different sizes and shapes of screens. With 16:9 coverage of sporting events, the director lets the action move through the frame. When you view this on a small screen you may not be able to find the ball. This is really a big issue for mobile TV."

Zaller described other problems that arise when repurposing content for small screen TV.

One of these is compression efficiency. When the camera sees crowds behind a sports player, the system tends to treat the randomness of that crowd as "noise" and wastes a lot of bits. Helios is designed to recognize such situations and defocus the background crowd images in order to reduce the bit count.

"Some 3G operators are streaming at 6 fps; we want to help them deliver a better picture, so our technology saves a significant amount of bandwidth," Zaller said. "We deliver at 15 fps and the viewer gets a better picture and will come back to watch again. Quality is going to be very important.

"People will initially look at it as a novelty. We don't want to keep it at this level."