Broadcast, CES Grow Closer

From virtual reality to eSports, the mega-conference is offering plenty for pay-TV stakeholders to latch on to

Related: Future of TV Front and Center at CES

Black-and-white TVs, stereos and transistor radios. That’s pretty much what the 100-odd exhibitors for the first Consumer Electronics Show had to show off to 17,000-plus attendees in late June 1967.

It’s been 50 years since, and CES has grown just a bit.

The Jan. 5-8, 2017, edition will welcome upwards of 180,000 badge-holders, approximately 4,000 exhibitors and more product announcements than anyone can track in one place (some 20,000 came during the 2016 CES event).

The broadcast and cable industry looks to the annual NAB Show as its first love in the conference space. And media and entertainment is just one among 20 or so industries CES caters to each January. Still, a look at 2017 sees CES and the TV content industry paying more attention to each other than ever before.

A CES broadcast industry attendee in Las Vegas may never have to leave the Aria Resort’s C Space program, where more than 68,000-plus senior level media execs (from A&E to The Weather Co.) are expected to be on hand for conference programs, private meetings and floor exhibits. And on the TV side, TNT’s Inside the NBA team will broadcast live from CES Jan. 5; ABC’s Shark Tank will use CES as an open call to cast new products and businesses for the show on Jan. 6; and you can look for a virtual FIA Formula E Championship eRace to be broadcast via Twitch on Jan. 7.

“Video will be a huge star at CES 2017, and it will be accompanied by a host of new ways to experience it,” said Louis Gump, CEO of local news digital aggregator NewsOn. “Mobile phones will continue to have important advances, while streaming devices for the home will be two super interesting areas to watch. In both cases, they’re tech opportunities with massive potential to grow and are very conducive to an improved video experience in the form of enhanced device capabilities, network speed, control and convenience.”

Beyond the conference spaces and live events, here are a few trends those in the TV space will be looking out for at CES:

Virtual Reality’s Moment?

More than one broadcaster made virtual reality noise in 2016, but none more so than Fox Sports. Starting with the Daytona 500 in February and ending with December’s MLS Cup, the network gave VR treatment to seven different sports during the year. Clearly, they have a vested interest in what happens on the hardware front for VR in Vegas, according to Devin Poolman, senior VP of digital platforms for Fox Sports.

“We’re keeping an eye out,” Poolman said. “We’re going to see this growth in the increase in the available headsets [and] I think it’s really going to help the gaming industry first, and then we’re going to find opportunities for wider [VR] streaming of sports to kind of follow that uptick.”

More than 75 exhibitors will be in the gaming and virtual reality space that’s set aside in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and more than one VR company sees 2017 as the true breakout year for the technology, now that the long-awaited headsets have hit the retail market.

According to a late-November forecast from research firm SuperData, only 4.2 million VR headsets will have been sold in the U.S. before CES 2017 kicks off. That’s not keeping companies in the VR space from striking an upbeat tone.

“[2016] was the breakout year for virtual reality at CES, and there’s been a lot of industry movement in the space since,” said Youssri Helmy, CEO and founder of Eonite, which produces multiplatform positional head tracking software for VR systems. “I’m looking forward to seeing new virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed-reality form factors from a variety of original equipment manufacturers, improvements to the core tech stack like advances in inside-out positional tracking, and interesting, immersive new content.”

Yoel Zanger, CEO of Giraffic, which provides streaming technologies for consumer electronics companies and content service providers, said CES 2017 will see major 4K TV manufacturers unveil technologies that cater to the needs of broadcast virtual reality, including higher refresh rates and improved resolution. And don’t be surprised if more VR headset manufacturers emerge to tackle the likes of Samsung, HTC and Oculus, Zanger added.

“There will be the improvements in perception of space and delivery of more dynamic experiences,” Zanger said. “We will be looking at introductions of enhanced motion sensors and movement predictions techniques to enable more room-scale VR experiences, and combination of augmented reality with VR, for the integration of real-world environment with the virtual one.”

Tripp Boyle, VP of emerging platforms for digital video and 360-degree tech company YuMe, said the 2017 CES show should prove eye-opening for content companies that have been sitting on the sidelines when it comes to VR. “Virtual reality’s popularity shows no signs of a slowdown. In fact, it is fast emerging as the way in which entertainment properties, as well as brands, offer consumers a richer, more personal and meaningful experience,” he said. “With issues of availability and cost in the rearview, consumer adoption is growing rapidly and many are naturally drawn to brands on the leading edge of this immersive format.

“Brands that have already experimented with VR are realizing the benefits of higher engagement with consumers.”

There’s no question 2016 was a banner year in the VR space, with the launch of several major headsets, the combo of the Daydream VR platform being put on Google’s Pixel phones and Microsoft announcing headsets for Windows 10.

But for CES 2017, Guido Voltolina, head of VR capture for the Ozo VR platform at Nokia Technologies, hopes that content is what makes all the headlines. “In terms of content, 2016 was all about ‘Look what I can do’ vs. this year which is ‘I have something of substance.’ Studios will show far superior content than a year ago,” he said. “We are also seeing the combination of hardware and premium content come to fruition with live-streaming content. Live-streaming is opening the doors for event-type content and sports, which will be showcased.”

Lane Cooper, VP of corporate communications for Technicolor—which chairs the Consumer Technology Association’s Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Working Group—concurred: CES 2017 will see VR content front and center during VR industry meetings and panels, with everyone looking for the right way to get the technology adopted by mainstream consumers.

“The emergence of virtual and augmented reality raises key questions around the creative storytelling process and how band-width-intensive content will be delivered to consumers in the home,” he said.

The signs of increased content creation in the VR space have been there leading up to CES. Fox Sports did nearly a dozen events in virtual reality, adding new features along the way; 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures announced partnerships with virtual reality production companies to produce original VR content; and most every major VR stakeholder (including Google, Facebook, HTC, Samsung and Sony) announced the Global Virtual Reality Association, with the intent of addressing challenges needed to make VR a long-term success.

At CES 2016, Fox’s Innovation Lab debuted The Martian VR Experience, and at CES 2017, the studio will show off its final version, available for $20 (the studio’s first-ever commercial VR endeavor). “The Martian VR Experience is a testament to the opportunity for filmmakers to connect with audiences in new and deeper ways,” Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and the Fox Innovation Lab, said in a statement. “The Fox Innovation Lab is at the forefront of exploring virtual reality as a new storytelling medium.”

A look at the 2017 CES conference program sees both broadcasters and content owners weighing in on the potential of VR:

• On Jan. 4 (1 p.m., Aria, Level 1, Bristlecone 10), Rebecca Howard, senior VP of emerging platforms and partnerships for Discovery Networks, will discuss how her network has leveraged virtual reality to grab new viewers. In addition to launching its own Discovery VR app for the Gear VR and Oculus Rift, Discovery in September launched a YouTube-hosted VR content channel, Seeker VR.

• Entertainment’s place in VR will be tackled in back-to-back discussion Jan. 5, beginning at 2:15 p.m. (Aria, Level 1, Bristlecone 10), first during the panel “Expanded Horizons for Virtual Reality,” featuring speakers from HTC Vive, konVRge entertainment and Starbreeze Studios, and then during “Hollywood’s Very Real Virtual Reality Push,” with Oren Rosenbaum, agent with United Talent Agency, interviewing Jake Zim, senior VP of VR for Sony Pictures Entertainment.

• Charlotte Jones, executive producer of BBC Earth Productions for BBC Worldwide, will discuss the authoring process behind VR films in her Jan. 6, 1 p.m. C Space presentation (Aria, Level 1, Pinyon 4 Ballroom).

• In “The Reality of Virtual Reality” (Jan. 6, 1 p.m., LVCC, North Hall, N259), Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and the Fox Innovation Lab, headlines a discussion on what’s needed for mass consumer adoption of VR. Reps from Technicolor and Reverge VR will also be on hand.

4K…of Course

It wouldn’t be a CES show without the introduction of new displays, and while it’s only speculation before the announcements are actually revealed, pre-CES reports have both Sony and Panasonic debuting new 4K, OLED displays, LG showing off super-thin “wallpaper” TV technology, and the possible introduction of affordable consumer 8K displays.

Of note on the 4K front before CES: on Dec. 12, high-end consumer electronics company Oppo debuted its UDP-203 ultra hi-def Blu-ray Disc player, with a retail price of $550, adding another player to a very small selection of UHD BD set-tops available.

However, the market for Oppo’s player—along with those available from Samsung, Panasonic and Philips—may be limited: The price points for all three are already being undercut by the $250-$300 price point for the Xbox One S, which includes a UHD BD drive.

Hollywood’s investment in UHD Blu-ray, one last shot at making a physical disc format profitable, would be helped if other consumer electronics companies announced more (and more affordable) UHD BD hardware at CES.

Audio, Audio, Audio

More than 550 audio-specific exhibitors are slated to exhibit at the Venetian during CES, marking audio as the largest tech category represented at the show. And for good reason.

“Voice recognition technology is the next big thing, and it’s going to be huge,” said Rasika D’Souza, senior audio device market analyst for research firm Futuresource Consulting. “Speakers have the ideal feature set for incorporating voice, and right now this is a colossal opportunity for audio companies, if they get it right.

“Over the next two to three years we’re going to see the voice interface flourish,” she added. “Where visual and touch have dominated to date, voice and speakers will become more relevant for certain environments. Longer term we’re going to see integration with TVs…and the companies that act quickly on the opportunity are the ones who will emerge victorious.”

Futuresource estimates that in 2016 approximately 6.3 million voice-equipped consumer electronic speaker devices will have been sold, with Amazon’s Alexa voice-enabled devices (Echo, Tap and Dot) accounting for 15% of all wireless speaker shipments (voice-enabled or not) in the U.S. in 2016.

“Whether it’s home entertainment or the smart home, the growing demand to make technology easier than ever for consumers to connect, control and interact with their content is critical,” Lou Hughes, chief operating officer for Universal Electronics, said of CES 2017. “We expect 2017 to be a record year for voice integration.”

“Studio pro-fessionals aspire to make great recordings that deliver the impact and emotion that great songs and performances are capable of,” Maureen Droney, managing director of the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing (which is partnering with DEG on the exhibit), said in a statement. “This first-of-its-kind exhibit at CES will provide attendees with insight into the process of creating high-resolution studio-quality recordings, and perspective on how to better appreciate these recordings as a listener.”

Additionally, a panel covering the latest developments in hi-res audio devices and services will be held at noon, Jan. 5, LVCC, S228.

Attention to ATSC 3.0

This past year saw nothing but good news for ATSC 3.0, the next-gen broadcast TV transmission system that will allow for over-the-air delivery of high dynamic range (HDR), 4K resolution and similar advanced TV features.

The nation’s first TV station simulcasting around the clock with ATSC 3.0 gave us a World Series game broadcast using the technology, and several parts of the overall standard received approval from the Advanced Television Systems Committee.

Nil Shah, CEO of Verance—whose audio watermarking solution is part of the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard—sees CES as an opportunity for broadcast tech companies to help inform consumer electronics companies of what’s coming up next.

“As broadcast and broadband converge, CES will give us an opportunity to collaborate with consumer electronics manufacturers on incorporating interactivity, personalization and measurement technologies into their product lines,” he said.

On Jan. 4 at 11:30 a.m. (LVCC, North Hall, N256) a panel on the standard—“ATSC 3.0: A New Broadband Network”—will take place, with Kevin Gage, CTO of One Media, Aslam Khader, chief product officer for Elemental Technologies, Chris Ripley, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Gordon Castle, head of technology for Ericsson, set to discuss.

Drones in the Desert

Last year was also an important one for broadcasting and the use of drones, with the FAA easing restrictions on drone use for newsgathering and making it easier for broadcast crews to get licensed to operate drones for commercial use.

At CES 2017, approximately 40 drone companies will be exhibiting their wares, at the LVCC, South Hall 2 and Sands, Level 2, halls A-D. Additionally, Jan. 4, noon-5 p.m. will see the annual CES Drone Rodeo just south of Las Vegas in Boulder City, Nev., with a half-dozen drone companies showing off their latest tech.

“Flying inside a cage at the convention center doesn’t really show off the true power of a drone, and air space around the convention center is restricted,” Matt Sloane, CEO of Atlanta Drone Group, and executive producer of the Drone Rodeo, said in an email. “We’re doing the next best thing, finding a cool place in the desert to show off [this] amazing technology.”

Beginning at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 5 (LVCC, North Hall, N256), Nan Shellabarger, executive director of aviation policy for the FAA, will sit down with Brendan Schulman, VP of policy and legal affairs for top drone manufacturer DJI, to discuss the regulatory issues facing broadcasters and commercial drone usage.

eSports Comes Alive in a Bigger Way

If virtual reality was a top tech story in the broadcast space for 2016, eSports was up there as well.

During the year, Comcast, ESPN, European broadcaster Sky, and both the Xbox and PlayStation platforms all backed major competitive video gaming endeavors. And maybe no TV company backed eSports with more enthusiasm than Tuner, with the summer debut of eLeague, a new show on TBS (and a professional eSports league).

For CES 2017, Turner will host a live (and free-to-attend) presentation of eLeague 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. Jan. 5 (Sands, Level 2, Hall D, Booth No. 45045), previewing the league’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) competition, being held in Atlanta Jan. 22-29. In its first season, eLeague generated close to 900 million minutes of video viewing between TBS and Twitch, according to Turner.

Additionally, on Jan. 7, beginning at 1:30 p.m., Turner will host a virtual “eRace” for the FIA Formula E Championship, featuring a Las Vegas Strip track and 20 Formula E drivers and 10 fans competing in a $1 million prize pool.

On the eSports panel front at CES, eLeague host Richard Lewis will host a discussion on the current state of eSports, and the future outlook of the game (Jan. 5 11:15 a.m., Sands, Level 2, Hall D, Booth No. 45045).

More—and Better—OTT?

Aneesh Rajaram, CEO of content app platform company Opera TV, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a trend at CES 2017 where over-the-top platforms are integrated and extended into connected devices “all the way down to the chip level.”

“Pre-integrated OTT platforms within connected devices starting at the chip provide cost savings and reduce the time-to-market for connected device manufacturers and content providers alike,” he said. “These market-ready solutions will enable manufacturers and service providers the opportunity to deliver consumers immediate access to premium OTT content through an engaging viewing experience directly from their connected device and will expand the reach of OTT platforms available today.”

Rajaram also expects OTT app developers to get more on the same page at CES when it comes to developing and testing their HTML5 apps across connected TV devices, with increased participation in certification programs.

The CES 2017 hope for Jamie Power, managing partner for targeted ad firm Modi Media, is that more consumer electronics companies keep the data and analytics portion of digital content today in mind with their offerings. “Addressable TV [targeted advertising] is at a tipping point, and at CES, with technology partners, you’re going to see that data-related research be better incorporated,” she said. “It’s going to hit the main stage.”

Meanwhile, Jay Prasad, chief business officer for video ad-focused software and data platform company VideoAmp, predicts CES will see more content types and distribution support for 4K video, to keep pace with the onslaught of cheap 4K sets.

And on the OTT side? “More OTT devices that will have smaller bundles of programming, and increasingly have live programming elements that will dominate a lot of conversation and press time,” Prasad said. “TV and Video are becoming more about the software that is going to be distributed on a stick, within a TV, or connected to your mobile devices—the race to get the formula right with advertising should be interesting.”