Wired magazine’s September issue covers “TV of Tomorrow.” I contributed a series of sidebars on new TV technologies, but they represent just a tiny sampling of all I learned while working on the piece. Here are some of the cool items that didn’t make it in.
Superchips that will Change TV
The next generation of TVs won’t simply be screens with tuners. New chips will make them into supercomputers.
Take the PWBSP-16 from Pixelworks and the SMPA8634 from Sigma Designs. In addition to the MPEG-2 video of today’s DVDs and HDTV, the new chips handle formats like H.264 and VC-1 – leading contenders for high-def DVDs, next-gen HDTV, and IP television. And they can plug into every video source - cable, antenna, satellite, and the Internet – making TV’s (or set-top boxes) with them into omnivorous media collectors. The PWBSP-16 can even download updates over the Internet – allowing it to pull in new video formats as they develop.
But Hollywood’s offerings will be more controlled than ever. The SMPA8634 uses military-grade encryption technology to protect against pirating. “It’s mind-boggling what they are putting in place,” says Sigma Designs’ VP of strategic marketing Ken Lowe.
Wherever the video comes from, it will look a lot better when it hits the screen, thanks again to military technology. The messy compression required to squeeze HD video down a wire results in some fuzziness and blockiness. Today’s video processors do a fair job of cleaning it up, but that pales in comparison to what the Realta from Silicon Optix can do. Based on a $60,000 component originally used for missile tracking, the Realta brings its one-Trillion-operations-per-second capacity into a chip costing under $100. That’s enough power to perform up to fifteen calculations on each of the over two million pixels of top-quality HD in real time. And the Realta can download new algorithms to address new video processing technologies.
Shopping the Video Bazaar
“It’s like eBay for video. It’s self-service and self-published,” says CEO Jeremy Allaire of his emerging company Brightcove. The same eBay comparison crosses the lips of Josh Goldman, his counterpart at rival Akimbo. They and other competitors, such as DAVETV, are all onto the same idea. Sources of video are virtually limitless, high-speed Internet access keeps growing, and bandwidth is dirt cheap. When he ran the mySimon price comparison site in 2001, Goldman was thrilled to pay $30 per gigabyte sent from his servers. Now he’s paying under thirty cents, and better compression technologies squeeze three times as much data into each gigabyte.
That lets Akimbo host, for free, anyone who wants to post video on its servers. Publishers range from big media companies like CNN and A&E to extreme sports channel High.TV to personal video blogs. Each publisher sets its own price terms – subscription, pay-per-view, ad-supported, or free – and the host takes a cut of any revenue. This gives them access to the Long Tail – a portion of the market comprised of many niche sectors that are small on their own but huge in aggregate. No one video niche may be big enough to get its own spot on channel-restricted traditional cable, but on-demand access via the Internet provides the equivalent of limitless channels (and limitless broadcast times) at virtually no extra cost.
Colorful Screens Big and Small
There’s no middle ground in TV screens. Twenty-seven inch versions are passé, but people go equally gaga for handheld models and cinema-size displays. One technology makes both of them possible.
Light-emitting diodes are moving far beyond the power indicator lamp on your TV. Their greatest attribute is astounding color. In the 1950s, the National Television Standards Committee drew a line around a big chunk of the colors that the human eye can see and set that as a goal for the American TV system. A half-century later, TVs still haven’t been able to cover much more than seventy percent of the NTSC color gamut.
But LEDs produce far-richer colors than the phosphors in CRTs and plasmas or the lamps and color filters in LCDs and projectors. New LED-based LCDs from Sony and Samsung are hitting over 100 percent of the NTSC colors, and upcoming front projectors and rear-projection TVs may hit 130 percent – displaying colors that have never appeared in video.
And LEDs work for displays of almost any size – from a 46-inch Sony LCD TV with 450 LEDs to a handheld projector from Mitsubishi with three.
TelcoTV versus Cable
Some people bitch about their cable providers, others about their phone companies. And many hate both. They should all enjoy the coming slugfest over TV service. The hoopla is about IPTV, which transmits video as a stream of data packets using Internet Protocol, but not using the Internet itself. Currently, cable companies send out from dozens to hundreds of channels – of which viewers filter out all but one at a time. Though the number of channels is high, they are limited to offerings with big enough appeal to earn a spot in the broadcast. With IPTV, viewers select just what they want – from a theoretically limitless supply of options - as if downloading a Web page.
A few dozen regional telecom companies already provide IPTV. SureWest, in central California, has been offering standard-def TV service since 2003. But the big companies are just now stretching their fiber optic networks close enough to homes to provide the capacity high-def IPTV. To guarantee smooth play, telcos will set aside a good chunk of the total bandwidth as a direct link between their video servers and people’s homes: Internet access and voice will be kept separate from TV data. SBC Communications is in the middle of a $4 billion expansion that aims to bring 25 megabit-per-second connections to 18 million customers by mid-2008, and it has a $400 million deal with Microsoft to offer IPTV to all those customers.
But telcos have a long way to go in catching up to cable companies – for example, in making deals with hundreds of content providers. And cable companies offer their own broadband services (though not with the data rates that telcos are promising). So they have the option of mixing both digital cable and IP-based video services for customers.
Will Microsoft be the Big Show?
Launched in 2002, Windows Media 9 has already taken over Internet audio – being the file format for most music download services. WM9 also handles video up to and beyond today’s high-definition resolutions, plus it’s only one-third as bulky as the old MPEG-2 standard used for today’s DVDs and HD broadcasts. And to please Hollywood, it has strict digital rights management to prevent copying. It also has a built-in system for embedding metadata -- making it easier to search for and filter video content.
WM9 is already dominating Internet video. It’s the format for movie download services such as Cinema Now, and it’s used by aspiring new video services, such as Akimbo, Brightcove, and DAVETV. Even the antiestablishment Participatory Culture Foundation supports it (along with most other media formats). And Crown Castle will use WM9 for its upcoming TV broadcast service for cell phones.
Windows Media 9 is gaining respectability because the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is adopting an open version of it called VC-1. Standardization makes it more likely to be supported in non-PC applications, such as set-top boxes and DVD players, and Warner Brothers Studios plans to use VC-1 for high-def DVDs of its films.
BYOD (Be Your Own Distributor)
As SETI@home uses hundreds of thousands of humble PCs to do the work of a supercomputer, Bit Torrent pools many wimpy Internet connections to form a mondo download network. When you request a file, the network polls all the computers that have any portion of the file, and several of them send out chunks that add up to the finished product. Using multiple servers prevents any one file source from getting swamped. In fact, the more popular a file is, the more people are likely to have it, and thus the more servers are available to contribute to the upload. It’s almost a perfect technology for distributing indy videos – hefty downloads that may start out as unknown titles but have the potential to grow into blockbusters.
The one drawback to Bit Torrent is actually using it. Putting up files for sharing requires some rather techy operations, such as setting up a database to track its changing whereabouts on the network and creating a Torrent file that people use the initiate the download. So the Participatory Culture Foundation created Broadcast Machine - a free application that automates the process. All you need is a basic Web site (the “My Home Page” variety will suffice). Broadcast Machine installs the database and allows you to simply point and click on the files you want to share. PCF also has a free application for searching out and playing videos.
Find that Film
If you think it’s overwhelming to channel surf through a hundred or so offerings on cable TV, imagine trying to get through thousands or even millions of Internet channels. Search engines made Web pages navigable, and similar tools are needed for video. Some approaches to video search look a lot like old-fashioned Web page indexing. For example, both Google and Yahoo crawl the Web and identify videos using descriptions on the hosting pages or links to the videos from other sites.
Rather than looking for the text already associated with video, a company called Blinkx sucks text from the audio feed via speech recognition. And it uses context clues to improve the accuracy – for example, guessing at a mumbled word based on what people were discussing before and after it was uttered. Blinkx has also developed visual analysis tools, such as face recognition, that it may use in the future.
But artificial intelligence doesn’t always trump the real thing. Bradley Horowitz, who developed the original technologies for Blinkx while a grad student at MIT, says he experienced a transformation when he first saw Flickr. The photo-sharing site lets people specify keyword tags that make their photos searchable. It also allows visitors to add comments and allows members to join groups based on similar interests.
Flickr is now a part of Yahoo, where Horowitz is now the director of technology development. Yahoo hasn’t launched a video Flickr, but Horowitz leaves little doubt that something along those lines is coming. In addition, Yahoo recently developed a video tagging system called Media RSS – which allows creators of material to provide Yahoo’s video search service with descriptive text such as film credits or transcripts.