Tuesday, September 7, 2010

IFA 2010 - 3D revolution or marketing hype?

This year´s comprehensive IFA Posting covers the following topics
  • About IFA
  • 3D Television
  • 3D Gaming
  • 3D Photography and  3D Home movies
  • Hybrid Internet TV - the HbbTV Standard
  • Analog TV Switchoff in Germany
  • Summary and Prognosis on Google TV, Apple TV and European HbbTV

About IFA
IFA (Internationale Funktausstellung) has evolved into one of the leading Consumer Electronics Shows on the globe, probably outpacing CES in Las Vegas. This may seem odd for an audience in the States but there are several data points to prove it:
IFA is massive, yet yery compact and therefore effective for visitors.
IFA Main entrance "East" at the ICC and Funkturm
The Berlin Messegelände (trade show fairground) is one large gigantic campus - like CeBIT in Hannover und much unlike the Hotel suite hopping that you have to do at  CES.

More that 1400 international  Exhibitors and 134 thousand square meters filled exhibition space will attract more than 350.000 visitors. This does of course include private persons.
There are two main success factors:
1. the perfect time in the year allows vendors to launch products at IFA for the holiday season. More and more global players make use of that opportunity.
2. The concept to positively embrace the interest of the private consumer and to allow private visitors to access the trade show. Business visitors pay 37€, private visitors only 15€. Business users get access to the Conference program and also a badge that identifies them as business users.

CeBIT on the contrary has partially tried to disencourage private visitors by high entrance fees and CES and 3GSM  are for business insiders only by definition.

And last, not least Berlin is an attractive place to visit - with all the infrastructure and benefits that a leading capital can offer.

3D Television

The 3 most important topics and dominating trends this year have been
  • 3D TV
  • Hybrid TV and HbbTV
  • more 3D ;-)
3D  everywhere:
Rolleiflex 4x4 from 1931

This beautiful Rolleiflex from 1931 is on display at the Rollei booth demonstrating their 80 year background with 3D imaging.
Panasonic even used a newly invented trade show accessory: an adjustable 3D glass holder
Hygienic 3D Glass holder solution at Panasonic
 Otherwise glasses have to be touched - some of the more classic approaches at Loewe or Grundig required  new jobs as "Glass Cleaning Hostess". Expect to have these at all future Consumer Electronics trade shows - (as long as visitors don´t bring their own shutter glasses)

The group 3D experience at the Panasonic Video wall.
Panasonic 3D Video Wall - IFA 2010

Technology - wise 3D TV is settled around LCD shutter technology. Everybody (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Grundig, LG etc) uses active LCD shutter glasses triggered and sychronized by an Infrared signal from the TV.
I tried several displays and found substantial differences - though totally subjective and not truely comparable as different vendors had different demo content on their booths.

The effect is generally really  impressive and very close to the movie theater 3D experience in IMAX theaters.
However, before buying a 3D TV,  do yourself a favor and watch AVATAR 3D in the theater - in full length.
Then decide yourself how many times a week and how many hours a day you would want that sensation.

It is a great experience and 3D@home truely works - but is is a different kind of viewing. It is stressful in a sense and you probably don´t want that all the time. Once or two times a week, a single movie or documentary might be ok. More is not. It´s like a cream pie or glass of champagne. You don´t want to miss these things on special occassions but you can´t live from it and you don´t want these extra luxuries every day.
This is my subjective opinion, but as an expert for consumer trends I predict it will turn out to be a mainstream opinion as time goes by.
Therefore, 3D is currently overrated -it  is a hype and the bubble will burst.
3D Technology will be there to stay, don´t get me wrong. The incremental cost - once developed . is minimal. 3D will be a checklist item on future TVs and BlueRay Players, but the audience will not shift viewing habits towards a "3D takeover trend" or anything close to it.
Much unlike HD - the previous industry megatrend. Once you migrated to HD, you wouln´t want to ever go back and watch lower resolution SD content instead. HD is a mainstream paradigm shift, and 3D IS NOT.

This answers also the question whether a just recently aquired HD home theater system is already obsolete because it is not 3D capable. It is not.
Grant yourself the occasional sensation of a 3D feature lenght movie by going to the box office every other week or so.
Next time you upgrade your home theater equipment - it will be 3D capable if you like or request it or not. Until then content is so rare that by going to the movies once a week you have seen each relevant 3D title anyway.
3D works on some content better or worse. It does work on documenteries, slow pan and zoom, impressive pictures of landscape and wildlife, no quick cuts, no extreme action. It may work an sports, but quick cuts and fast switching of camera angles  confuse and make you dizzy. It works on close ups when things "stick out". Yes, you guessed it - 3D will work on adult entertainment - or 3D porn to be more direct. There is no such thing on display at IFA but it can be easily extrapolated that this is going to be one the content categories that will help 3D to grow.

3D Games

3D in Games has - I believe - an even greater importance than 3D Television.
This has several reasons:

Gaming is in many cases single player activity (with regards to interacting with the equipment). Massive Multiplayer Games or online Teamplay with one Person per indiviual PC is technically a single Player activity. Deciding to wear shutter glasses to make the experience even more immersive is more likely and logical. Immersiveness is all what counts in virtual reality. 3D adds an extra step forward. 3D content is easily available as all Game Engines are essentially full 3D worlds and each picture is actually a 2D down-rendered image of  this Computer Generated reality.

Instead of rendering just one 2D image, any Game Engine can be easily modified to be viewed with "Stereoscopic 3D Cameras". This makes high quality 3D content almost the rule rather than the exception. The graphics card along with shutter glasses can provide all that is needed so you DO NOT need a 3D TV to enjoy 3D Gaming - this is true for PC Gaming.

However, for Console Gaming (Xbox 360, PS3) you are again in the 3D TV world. Sony will upgrade the PS3 with firmware to support 3D BlueRays and 3D PS3 game titles will require the same 3D-TV and shutter glasses setup that is needed for classic TV content.

I tried a racing game at the panasonic booth and can only agree that immersiveness and the brain illusion of "being in the action" is just great.

For reasons of completeness I have to mention the new Nintendo DS with 3D without glasses - the most recent attempt to revive the lagging Console business of Nintendo. I have not tried or seen it yet - if you have a comment about the 3DS it is appreciated.
Apple has recently announced that the iPod Touch (as a portable game console) has outsold the PSP and Nintendo DS combined and it is questionable wether the 3DS will be able to revert that.

3D Home made Conent / Photography and Camcorders

The Panasonic VW-CLT1 3D Full HD Camcorder

on display and shooting a live juggling performance

and the Aiptek3D i2

represent the low and high end of the current 3D Camcorder offerings for consumers.
Test movies and images of the Aiptek can shortly be downloaded from my Gallery website.

Making 3D Movies of your vacation might be a nice gimmick - but is it a mainstream trend? I doubt it.

User Generated content can also be published and supported by Youtube - this is not new. Experiments can be made by using the search term "yt3d:enable=true"  on Youtube. Stereoscopic content will be listed. Expect to see Google TV Android implementations on TV Sets to directly support Home made 3D content on 3D TVs.

Finally it should be mentioned that all those shutter glasses from different vendors are not compatible to each other. If you want to watch a 3D movie at home together with friends an neighbors they have to bring their glasses - but ONLY if they have same TV vendor (!).
This is seen as a welcome window of opportunity for XPanD.

Their Universal 3D Glasses work with any of the current 3D TVs, according to a test of c´t magazine with Sony even better than their own glasses. I tried XPand on two different Models - it worked fine!.
They are expected to be available on retail for 129€ or $ very soon.

Hybrid Internet TVs, STBS and HbbTV

As mentioned before, 3D is this year so dominant, that the other "megatrend" comes only after a long distance after 3D. "Hybrid TV" means the inclusion of Web Based content, VoD, Widgets, Web based Apps and Video Platforms on the the TV screen.
There have been - for years - several approaches to this:
- Microsoft believed a PC needs to be in the living room
- Intel and Fujitsu as well as Shuttle tried to make the PC small and look like a Hifi System.
- More recently hybrid Set-Top-Boxess with small footprint Linux implementations offered Web Access, often combined with a VoD-Service
- Every time the opportunity to create a walled garded is hard to resist and proprietary vendor portals  have appeared
- Content owners like the major Studios and TV stations were confused, they did not want to miss the opportunity but feared to lose more control than neccessary.

In this confusing developing environment the German TV industry has lead an european initiative to create an open standard for web content on TVs and still preserve the content rights and interests of the TV stations.

The resulting HbbTV (Hybrid broadcast broadband TV) has become an approved EISA standard in July 2010. Driven by the German Public Television and their technical advisory organisation IRT (Institut für Rundfunktechnik) it is now deployed and in service. It so competes  with Samsung´s "Yahoo Widges", Panasonic "Viera Cast" and Sony´s "Internet TV" as well as with Loewe´s "Media TV" and Philips´s NetTV - and more importantly with Apple TV and Google TV which was not display at IFA (at least I didn´t find any relevant exhibit).

Content is king, and based on this universal truth there is a good chance that the vendors mentioned will have to rethink their strategies to embrace the German public TV Mediatheken (7 day catchup content).
HbbTV is an API that defines how Web Content can overlay live TV - IF (and that is a key aspect) the broadcaster allows any such overlay. This effectivly means the broadcaster is in control over any web content that is overlayed on his live stream - which is a good to control the business model.
This is best explained looking at one of the leading HbbTV implementations which is the ARD Mediathek, the ARD HD Videotext and program specific EPG.
It further includes a signaling path and adressability to make the advertiser´s dream come true:

Broadcast ad campaigns with direkt personalized conversion and feedback.

IRT Managing Director Dr. Illgner-Fehns demostrates   HbbTV interactive TV Ads to SES Astra CEO and Presdent Ferdinand Kayser
Here SES Astra CEO Ferdinand Kayser views a demo of the "Red Button" in action. A Volkwagen TV Ad offers a "sign up for a test drive" Red button overlay (signalled through DVB). Pushing the red button on the remote takes the user to web landing page with a TV optimized layout. Here the user interact get more info on the car, view videos and submit the form to actually register for test drive.
As the STB has an active Web session the user is instantly addressable.

ARD HbbTV initial DVB menu
Signaling an initial Menu is also done over DVB. This way the broadcaster has full control over the additional web overlay content, alternatively web pages like vendors portals can always be brought up directly independent of any DVB stream or program but only as full screen and not as overlay.

Mediathek (7 day TV catchup) navigation screen

Navigating into the content brings up the 7 day catchup content (above), the new HD Videotext content and the EPG (below)
HD Videotext / HbbTV based
What looks like classic TV overlay graphics produced by the video chipset is actually HTML Web content retrieved through TCT/IP - the internet channel of the hybrid HbbTV Set-Top-Box (a HUMAX Box is used here for demo purpose).
ARD EPG Navigation screen

Above is the Station specific (!) EPG screen - the beauty of the Broadcaster controlled content offering shows its limitations here - an EPG which does by definition not feature any competing content is somewhat questionable in it´s usefulness.

Morgenmagazin Anchor man Jens Lorig explains the benefits of the ARD Mediathek

Analog Switchoff

The 30th of April 2012 has been set as the switchoff for analog broadcasting for German Television.
As a service to consumers who are not sure if they are "digital" or not, as special Videotext page has been set up.
Analog Switchoff service page - ARD Videotext Seite 198

Page 198 in the ARD or Bayern3 programs is split during broadcasting so that the digital path display a confirming text "yes, you are digital", while the analog path explains that viewing this page means that the equipment is analog and will not work after April 2012.

Summary and Prognosis on Hybrid TV 

From what I have seen at this year´s IFA - and based on many years of experience with the iTV development - I make the following prognosis:

There are 3 major movements or trends:

1. Apple TV - an exception to rule. Apple TV is NOT hybrid - it is simply an additional IP-Box. It is centered around the user experience to optimize two very specific use cases:
  - Watching Hollywood Movies on demand (in HD or 3D if you like)
  - Using your own content (photos, movies) with seamless integration of your mobile devices (iPhone,  iPad, iPod Touch).
 - Apple will like before dominate these categories - best integration, ease of use, overall user experience. No open standard, a reletavily cheap box, not integration with live TV no Pause TV.
Apple will be supplemental to any other hybrid or Pause TV solution you have (TiVO, Comcast etc.)

2. Google TV - not released yet, therefore it can not be finally rated or categorized. But with Android being "the new Windows" ( the domination OS of this century), Android based STBs and TV integration is a likely candidate to become a defacto standard. It has to be seen how Google TV protects content interests and business models

3. HbbTV in this context is not likely to become a world standard - but parts of it -the interaction of broadcast and Web content - the signaling of DVB to call a web page is a likely candidate to be embraced by Google TV in future revisions. Therefore I expect that Google TV and HbbTV will evolve to reach a final level that embraces both.

- Vendor solutions like Viera Cast and Philips Net TV will evolve into standard Web offerings for Google TV and/or HbbTV. They will coexist for some time and then evolve as Web based vendor portals. (similar to AOL from being a proprietary walled garden to becoming just another web portal.)

For consumers this means that any of todays hybrid solutions is still a short lived intermediate. Watch for Google TV in 2011 and getting an Apple TV box in additon will be no mistake. Apple TV (the NEW one, as of Sep. 2010) is much more mature, but does not even try to be hybrid - it is meant to be supplemental and as such lives outside the hybrid evolution.

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