An evident trend at the IBC show this year is the emergence of hybrid broadcast and broadband television and video services. This is leading to innovation in user interfaces that integrate these offerings. Broadcasters are now recognising the importance of hybrid services but as ever there are issues of standardisation.
Going over the top, referring to the delivery of video over open broadband networks, was the theme of a conference session produced and introduced by William Cooper of informitv.
Eddie Abrams of IP Vision presented the Fetch TV service recently launched in the United Kingdom, combining a Freeview+ digital video recorder with video delivered over broadband. He described the benefits of a retail product that can be self-installed and used on any broadband network. Using existing web standards, including widely used syndication mechanisms, it can offer download video from any number of providers.
“There’s a democratisation aspect there, which I think is important,” he said. With broadband connected devices, he suggested that interactive services will become more successful in the future. “The only way that we have been able to get to this point is to adopt existing standards,” he said. “There’s a balance to be struck between attempting to formalise everything across the whole chain, which could delay investment, and the value of reaching a common framework to allow the development and proliferation of content and services.”
Peter MacAvock of the European Broadcasting Union, which now hopes to harmonise various initiatives across Europe, saw a continuity with the evolution of previous interactive television standards, from Teletext to MHEG, MHP and the more recent HbbTV initiative for hybrid broadcast broadband television services. He said there were common elements to all of the current initiatives to standardise hybrid broadcast and broadband platforms.
“Our job is to try and harmonise these initiatives,” he said. “Standards are useful but we need to try and foster invention and innovation, which standards can sometimes seem to curtail, although it is important to have some degree of interoperability across platforms and for broadcasters to be able to offer their programming across them in a viable manner.”
“The efforts at harmonisation will centre on identifying common elements, rather than getting bogged down in the details of individual platforms,” he said. It was still not clear what the killer application would be, although he suggested that catch-up television would be important. What was obvious, he said, was that “broadcasters are not going to be able to control the internet” or “control what a user wishes to do with an internet connected device.”
“Broadcast distribution will be there for the foreseeable future, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. It’s just so efficient,” he said. “Broadband will become more and more indispensable, although it will never supplant broadcasting, at least in our view. Once hybrid is successful, I certainly believe that broadcasting will never be the same again, and to the benefit of all of us.”
Monika Gadhammer of the Open IPTV Forum outlined the work of the organisation founded in 2007, which now has 58 members, representing many but not all of those involved in the value chain. They comprise network operators, consumer electronics companies, other technology vendors and chipset supplier and some programming providers, including some members of the European Broadcasting Union.
Yun Chao Hu, the chairman of the Open IPTV Forum, went on to set the scene for mass market interoperable internet protocol television services. The forum aims to bring together standards from many other organisations. So far its rather technical approach, with an emphasis on network and telecommunications specifications and profiles, has some way to go to engage broadcasters and programming providers.
According to Peter MacAvock of the EBU, the hybrid broadcast broadband model is going to change the game for free to air broadcasting: “It will be one of those paradigm shifts that take place over time”. The DVB project, based at the EBU has been strong in standardisation in the broadcast domain, but he concedes that is a much simpler to standardise than an internet or interactive environment.
Until relatively recently, most broadcasters were too busy playing their own game of catch-up to pay much attention. However, the HbbTV initiative, which builds on some standards established by the OIPF, has been the focus of a flurry of activity, with a an EBU and ETSI workshop arranged to coincide with IBC.
Erik Huggers elsewhere referred to two BBC projects first announced towards the end of 2008, still awaiting approval from the Trust, its governing body. The first is a plan to offer a version of the BBC iPlayer to other broadcasters, a project internally known as Marquee. The second is a plan to develop and promote a hybrid broadcast and broadband platform, known internally as project Canvas.
The proposal to open up the iPlayer to other broadcasters was enthusiastically reported by some as if it were news, although still seems fraught with problems. It is not entirely clear what is involved, since the iPlayer is essentially simply a web site with a Flash video player. “What we’re talking about here today is the concept of working with third parties and allowing them to run their own iPlayer on their own site,” explained the BBC executive, adding that the concept was one of federation, rather than aggregation. He said: “There’s a real big opportunity here which I think could be quite game changing.”
Then there is the more challenging concept of Canvas, a proposed platform for converged broadcast and broadband devices and displays. “We really believe that there is an opportunity to bring together the best of linear broadcasting with the best of the web,” he said. “We think that’s a great opportunity for the industry.”
“Corporations like Hulu or others could simply get the software development kit for this platform, develop the app and run it on there,” he suggested. “We think it’s much, much more than that,” he continued. “The ambition is not just to bring on demand via the internet to the living room and thereby secure the future of free to air platforms in the UK. We think that this is about allowing a large group of entrepreneurs access to the living room. Internally we call it democratising access to the living room.”
The success of the BBC iPlayer has demonstrated the potential for catch-up programming delivered over broadband. Many other broadcasters across Europe have already invested in similar services, but the BBC iPlayer has been repeatedly cited as a successful example.
Some remain sceptical that broadcasters will continue to be a position to dictate standards in this field. As IP Vision has shown, it is already possible to put together a commercial proposition based on existing open standards, combining conventional broadcast reception with the world of the web. There seems at least the prospect of common standards for devices in Europe emerging through the work of the Open IPTV Forum and initiatives such as HbbTV. While Canvas remains for many an unclear concept, others are considering concrete candidate standards.
On the show floor, there are any number of products that aim to address the convergence of broadcast and broadband. There is an increasing emphasis on the importance of the user interface and navigation. It seems unlikely that the consumer electronics industry is going to allow broadcasters to limit their opportunities to differentiate their products and dictate how consumers will access media in their living rooms.
Widgets are everywhere, providing on screen interactive services that are largely independent of broadcasters. Notably, these include media sharing services like YouTube or Flicker, or social network applications like Facebook or Twitter.
Among those demonstrating their own platforms was Miniweb, a startup company showing impressive integration of the worlds of television and the web, with an intuitive search interface that brings together online video from multiple providers.
There is also a recognition that as consumers are able to create their own digital media, they will want to be able to store, retrieve, manage and share their own experiences, as well as being able to access other forms of digital media within the home.
GooMe was one of a number of companies showing ways in which users might access their own media on screen. Having previously developed services for other operators, it was showing what is possible with a modern browser-based user interface.
The network connected display aspires to be the hub of home entertainment experiences, with broadcast television being only one of a number of available sources. With high definition displays and broadband networks now widely adopted in many markets, many recognise the opportunity to transform the experience of television.
While broadcast television will remain an important medium, its unique capability will be in delivering live events and shared experiences to large audiences. In the connected home, iit seems nternet standards will become increasingly important in enabling the next generation of interactive television.