For several years I have been attending the NAB convention and this year I was asked to craft a report for my current employer: ION Media Networks.
The last few years I have noticed a progressive thinning of broadcast television specific technology and a steady shift toward digital media primarily focusing on its creation, storage, automation and management.The attendees are less and less broadcast engineers and more production people (video editors, sound personnel, cameramen, etc.), a lot of whom are independents and small shops. Then there are the attendees of the RTNDA annexed into NAB which, since 2003, has been entertaining in that you get to see all the 22-year-old journalism majors dressed to the nines trying to impress some news director in the hall with their résumé. Good times.
There wasn’t much novelty regarding broadcast television yet there was considerable buzz regarding mobile/portable entertainment and media. For broadcasters there exist four potential schemes for delivery (E-VSB from Zenith/LG, Mobile 8-VSB being pioneered by Triveni for in-car infotainment, A-VSB developed by Samsung/Rohde & Schwarz and MPH developed by LG/Harris). Only E-VSB is a part of the DTV standard and it is being solidly ignored. In addition, there are no consumer electronic products in production that the average consumer could buy today if there were one delivery method that the majority of broadcasters embraced and planned to implement. Wireless phone companies are enjoying a head start and a nice roundup of current and would-be mobile video/TV players in the telecommunications scene can be found here.
I purchased the full conference package and despite the fact that there was very little aimed at the broadcast television industry I did find some interesting sessions to sit in on. Many of the engineering conferences were for HD radio or mobile or portable video. Notes from the ones I attended are as follows:
February 2009” – Sunday April 15th:
A series of presentations regarding the coming analog shutoff: The first of a few key things brought up by MSW were that there are about 600 stations that will need to fully maximize their facilities or relocate their channel and there are little more than 600 days before the deadline – start working on it now! Also, don’t expect the date to change – too many things are in place or in motion to make delaying it an even remote possibility.
ERI showed that many reused RF components (even broadband elements) will need to be replaced simply because of normal mechanical wear and tear on the components through expansion / contraction and oxidation / time. Nice tools and papers…
Triveni pointed out the obvious that when we lose our analog transmitters and the digital signal is our primary signal source we need to have redundant equipment and they would be more than happy to sell back-up PSIP generators.The indoor and outdoor models of the new “Smart Antenna” looked to be a ray of sunshine for broadcasters. It appeared to have promising trials in the few, non-comparative results that were shown. Now, if broadcasters were to start promoting free over-the-air HD reception it might sell a few units…
“Portable! Digital Media” – Monday April 16th:
An interesting demonstration of the Sling Media’s new Slingbox product called “Clip & Sling”. You can ‘sling’ content to friends or create a playlist for viewing later. The panelists that discussed the future of portable digital media were extremely optimistic and excited with one exception, the NAB staff attorney seemed a bit depressed, quiet and cautiously interested. Probably because these new innovations had very little to do with broadcasting and the NAB.
“Innovator’s Spotlight” – Monday April 16th:
Despite the ridiculously grandiose stage entrance, made by some rotund buffoon from the NAB (complete with a deafening crescendo of music) whose name was so important I immediately forgot it, this was an interesting sit-down discussion with Eric Schmidt from Google. Mostly commenting on business, their new deal with Clear Channel to insert radio ads in CC’s unsold inventory slots and how Google will operate in the future.
“IPTV – Market Outlook” – Tuesday April 17th:
This was priceless! If anyone wanted to see just how out of touch broadcasters and the NAB are with current viewing habits and trends they just needed to listen to what Jim Goodmon had to say during this panel discussion. While the other panelists from non-broadcast television industries were talking about ways to bring choice and portability to the consumer / viewer, Jim proposed that anyone who wanted to stream his station’s programming (and ultimately any station’s programming) buy a USB FM tuner dongle for their laptop or PC that would listen for a ‘code’ being transmitted by two or three local FM stations. This ‘code’ would tell the USB dongle that it was within the station’s DMA and unlock the station’s streaming video. Any laptop or PC not within range of the FM station(s) would not be able to unlock the stream and view the programming. At that point the packed and standing-room-only audience began to murmur in disbelief. Jim went on to say that he “was not going to discuss how many of these things we will sell” and that in his opinion “the Slingbox is illegal”. Even if the Slingbox were declared “illegal” and pulled off of store shelves tomorrow there are free and open-source applications like SOPcast, VLC (my personal favorite) and Orb Media to take up the slack. Ed Horowitz made a great quote later during the panel discussion, “A strategy based on technology is not a strategy”. Jim Goodman can have my Slingbox when he pries it from my cold, dead fingers…
“Profiting From Broadband” – Tuesday April 17th:
Another interesting presentation about how Google plans to develop Google Video and YouTube into slightly different, yet complimentary services. Google Video will be a video search tool while YouTube will become a marketing & content distribution platform with customizable channels. Oh yeah, it’s free to set up and next year it could be generating revenue… So, if you thought Google was just about search read this and this and this.
“Mobile Reception of ATSC” – Wednesday April 18th:
This consisted of a couple presentations on how mobile ATSC might be implemented. The first plan from Triveni described using 8-VSB ATSC for large file transfers like movies, while E/A-VSB, WiMax / WiFi used as needed when the receiver was moving too fast for 8-VSB reception and only small amounts of data were needed, such as traffic info – obviously targeted for vehicular entertainment systems.
The second plan was the implementation of A-VSB and “turbo streams” to push content, mainly video, to a portable device and can be used in a Single Frequency Network. One drawback is that it relies on a diversity receive antenna configuration.
The third plan is the MPH delivery system which is similar but different enough to be its own scheme and doesn’t rely on a diversity reception model. No white paper and very few technical details and information were available on this; however I did find a decent technical summary here. A good overview and review of all the technologies can also be found here.
“Multicasting for DTV” – Thursday April 19th:
A couple new twists on existing technology. Thomson outlined a concept using a “transrater engine” and “blended remote statistical multiplexer” to more optimally utilize available bits in the stream and effectively eliminate null packet usage.
Samsung representatives showed a “Multi-Mode Service” (MMS) scheme where there was HD, SD, an audio channel, data and SDDS (software data download service) in 6MHz.
This is the first NAB where transmitters from the various manufacturers were simply an afterthought. Most of the main “transmitter company” booths were filled with digital media management tools, software and hardware. The main push from Harris, Thomson and others was ‘facility management’ and ‘workflow management’. It seems to be a drum they beat louder every year. The old standby RF companies like Bird, ERI and Dielectric were still there with their displays of antennae and dummy loads for anyone still buying.
I talked with an old friend at Microwave Radio and he says they have LOTS of radio inventory waiting for orders to be placed so they can get it out the door. Almost all of it is ear-marked for the Sprint/Nextel 2GHz BAS relocation.
Since the usual suspects of companies selling cameras, switchers and graphics generators were showing off much of the same stuff, I went looking for things out of the ordinary – useful or not, however they had to have some measure of “coolness”.
Here was my first surprise:
Google’s AdSense for Audio
First time seen at NAB. I’ll bet next year’s booth will be larger…
Anyone that spends any time around me during an EAS test, EAS alert or EAS problem already knows of my utter disdain and loathing for this abused, burdensome, un-trusted, antiquated and lame-duck system. Fortunately, someone heard my cursing or read my mind (I don’t care which). Alert FM is an alternate emergency information delivery service from GSS that encompasses the hardware and delivery system for that information to be delivered into multiple small, portable devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, USB drives, clocks, portable media devices, in-car navigation systems, etc. While it doesn’t revamp the crummy delivery system to the broadcaster, it does deliver the information to the people that may want it without expecting them to be watching TV when the alert is issued and could replace the EAS system if widely adopted. I like it more and more… If we are stuck with EAS much longer we really need to look at ridding ourselves of the damn-near-worthless TFT EAS 911 boxes. One item we should consider is the Trilithic EASyPLUS Encoder/Decoder. Remotely (IP) configurable and controllable, settings can be exported and saved; alert logs can be downloaded and printed out. Blows the TFT system out of the water, ocean and nearby planetary bodies.
One item I stumbled on that may be useful back at the NOC is this mouth-tracking lip sync analyzer. LipTracker is available from Pixel Instruments for about $17K. It needs a few seconds of a talking head or a two-shot in order to work its magic, then it displays the amount of sync error, pre or post.
A very cool, but not very useful for our company, product I found was a working demo of software called Comet Mobile from Comet Technologies which allows any Windows Mobile cell phone user to turn it into a streaming camera to a computer, broadcaster or a website for video Podcasting to a live audience so a person can be “live to air from anywhere”. Unfortunately, their handout flyer does not include a website. It’s not clear if these are the same guys…
Lastly, I end this with a link to some videos of a slick software package from a company called Total Immersion and their Augmented Reality software. Their product isn’t one we are likely to buy, but it was a cool demo and is fun to watch. They’re French, but don’t hold it against them.
Maybe next year will be better…