Reflections from NAB 2017

Apr 28, 2017

Thoughts from NAB 2017

Big changes are sweeping through our industry. The emphatic presence of Google and Facebook at the entrance to the South Hall was a clear indication that 2020 is right around the corner. Look anywhere – at the floor organization, at the presentation schedules, and at the resumes and job requisitions circulating on the show floor – and it’s clear that the world of NAB as we know it will never be the same.  Here are the key happenings and non-happenings that jumped out from my whirlwind tour of NAB this year:

Forests and Weeds: The largest vendors of traditional broadcast equipment had a strong focus on articulating microservices-based workflow solutions. There is pressure from customers to deliver robust, open APIs with an emphasis on APIs and hybrid deployments. Key customer wins made the headlines here; the message was one of slow yet steady progress. Absent any compelling disruptions on the technical horizon (with 4K, ATSC and HEVC delayed; and with VR still very early), it is very difficult to grow revenues or drive major new investments. Accordingly, the emphasis of the traditional market leaders is on improving their own ability to support infrastructure upgrades and workflow modernization. The problem is that IT-centric companies are there already with mature and cost-efficient solutions. With those basics under their belt, these contenders are looking ahead at serious features such as automated localization, deep analytics and comprehensive monetization solutions. While traditional vendors focus on IP-fication and migration, tech leaders are putting machine learning and analytics to work on solving problems of monetization and global reach. This dichotomy jives with the challenges that the big-four are having in growing revenues and profits. Consolidation among market leaders is inevitable as their slow decline refuses to reverse itself. In contrast, system integrators continue to thrive; cloud-savvy workflow solutions and managed services providers also continue to see steady growth and increased floor space at NAB. Amazon (with Elemental), Bitmovin, Google (with Anvato), Microsoft, MLMBAM (BamTech) and IBM are companies to watch in this space.

Latency: Latency was the latent buzzword at NAB this year. As OTT workflows become ever more efficient, online streams are often being delivered 10 to 15 seconds earlier than traditional broadcast content. This poses yet another challenge for already beleaguered traditional services. At the same time, this is an interesting opportunity for enhanced playback services and interactive experiences to be developed. For example, 15 second is plenty of time to run high-quality stitching on a VR stream to complement the linear broadcast. It’s also plenty of time to find and serve a well-matched targeted ad. Latency is a top-of-mind consideration for contribution and production workflows as well, as they seek to restore competitive strength against online distribution. Direct connections to CDNs, growing investments in private CDNs, and increased emphasis on interconnects were all key initiatives at NAB, by vendors and service providers alike. Akamai, Cisco, Edgecast, Equinix, Haivision, Limelight, NetInsight and Wowza are all companies to watch in this space.

Virtual Reality: Looking past the razzle dazzle of cool demos, VR at NAB was a tale of modified adaptive streaming, commandeered 4K/8K workflows, innovative UX design, and of course latency. While client devices and hardware sales receive much of the media attention, the fact of the matter is that VR will be made or broken by infrastructure - infrastructure to capture, create, compress, store, deliver and render VR content. I discuss some of these aspects in detail in my blog post here. A key challenge is expanding fully imersive VR experiences to the mass-market volume that only ambient 360-video reaches today. One promising solution to this scaling issue is Facebook’s approach of field-of-view delivery through tiling. This was manifest in a number of newly designed solutions including TiledMedia (in partnership with Harmonic), Pixvana (in partnership with Akamai) and Fraunhofer. Pixvana is noteworthy as the engine behind Steam's VR video streaming capabilities. Video acquisition and stitching is also a critical hurdle, particularly for live VR. Cameras continue to become more capable and less expensive, as companies such as Google and Nokia aggressively tackle this aspect of the ecosystem. Last but not least, some of the user experiences built around VR – such as the one from Accedo - are starting to fully unlock the potential magic of the technology with steady filming, high-quality stitching and engaging interactivity. We fully expect that full-fledged VR will rise to mainstream status by 2018, and expand to mass-market reach by 2020.

Apps are the New Middleware: This is arguably where the rubber meets the road for new media business models. Apps should look to play three key roles for a video operator customer: engaging cross-device playback, agile contextual storefronts, and consistently secure rendering. Companies such as CastLabs, Massive and Viaccess-Orca are taking center stage alongside traditional middleware vendors as they seek to develop a magic bullet for visual merchandising and unmanaged service delivery. Roku is taking this one step further as it enables operators to build streaming channels in minutes, while also powering cost-competitive Smart TVs with licensing partners. Cloud DVR is seeing a gentle revival this year after a quiet 2016, with build as well as buy activity underway with vendors like Anevia (in partnership with ARRIS), Ericsson, Imagine Communications, and Nokia. On a related note, Multi-DRM offerings continue to mature. 

The big takeaway from NAB is that the future we’ve all been predicting is here. Silos are crumbling, solutions are the new product, the future is IP, and every industry stakeholder must mobilize to conduct business at the speed of the Internet. This is the age of social media, open platforms, and personalized content services. Major acquisitions and exits are inevitable over the coming year. At the same time, big wins and fundamental disruptions will continue to light up the skies. End-users will still see some turbulence, fragmentation and frustration for the time being, but a smoother ecosystem is very much in sight. Is your business ready?


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Avni Rambhia


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