While the annual Consumer Electronics Show has become more focused on content than electronics in recent years, understanding the latest ways for delivering video is still the primary reason broadcast and cable executives make the trek to Las Vegas each year.
A decade ago, the hot new technology was high-definition TV, and network executives were walking the floor to see the first-generation HDTV sets and talk to set manufacturers about improving digital TV reception. Now, with the digital TV transition wrapping up in February and HDTV programming being watched by almost 25% of U.S. households, HDTV is no longer so novel. Though set manufacturers are sure to exhibit lighter and thinner LCD and plasma HDTV displays at CES this week, the industry is looking for the next big thing in consumer video technology.
THE INTERNET IN YOUR TV
One possibility is bringing Internet content to the living-room TV easily, a long-awaited goal of both computer companies and TV set-makers. While “media extender” devices that serve as a bridge between the Internet and TV have been around for years, early devices were difficult to set up, home networks were still rare and broadband speeds remained slow. But with more homes receiving broadband service at 5 megabits per second or higher and being outfitted with a home router to share that high-speed connection, broadband-connected TVs are now becoming a reality.
Two years ago at CES, Sony introduced a $299 media extender device for its LCD sets, the Bravia Internet Video Link, which delivers Internet video from popular sites like YouTube and Yahoo. Last year at CES, manufacturers such as Sharp and Samsung showed LCD sets with built-in Ethernet ports that use the Internet to deliver personalized graphic “widgets” such as news and weather information. And last August, chip giant Intel teamed with Yahoo to further develop widget technology for a broad array of consumer electronics devices. That trend should continue.
One area drawing interest is using the Internet as a way to deliver traditional content, such as TV programming and pay-per-view movies, in an on-demand fashion to the TV set. Internet movie services like Apple's iTunes, Netflix and Vudu can now deliver both standard-definition and high-definition movies to big-screen sets using either dedicated set-top boxes (iTunes and Vudu), or as a feature of third-party devices like TiVo digital video recorders or high-end game consoles like Microsoft's Xbox (Netflix).
That provides fresh competition to cable video-on-demand services, as well as the Blu-ray high-definition optical disc format developed by Sony and now supported by all major movie studios. Vudu, which uses a proprietary $299 box, has even introduced a new high-end format called HDX that uses the same 1,080-line progressive scan format as Blu-ray, albeit at a much lower bitrate.
Sony responded to the burgeoning Internet movie on-demand market by creating its own movie download service for its popular PlayStation 3 console. It is also pushing the delivery of streaming content to the TV through the Bravia Internet Video Link, and used the media extender in October to deliver a streaming version of Hancock before the Blu-ray release.
Sony has hinted that it may unveil products at CES that directly integrate Internet connectivity into the TV set, eliminating a separate device like the Video Link or PlayStation to watch movies through the Internet. Such products might use the Tru2way software platform, which eliminates the need for a set-top box for premium cable programs and makes interactivity easier.
Tru2way, which has been touted by the NCTA and the top six cable companies, should receive continued attention this year, particularly from Panasonic and Samsung. The specification is also now supported by TV set-makers LGF Electronics, Toshiba and Funai Electric; set-top vendors Motorola, Cisco, Digeo, ADB, Thomson and EchoStar; and chip giant Intel.
Tru2way technology allows cable programmers to deliver interactive TV applications today and in the future may help cable operators develop interactive advertisements as part of Canoe Ventures, their new advanced advertising initiative. By this summer, ESPN will deploy a Tru2way application called “My Bottom Line” that will let fans customize the scrolling information that appears on their screens and also give additional access to stats and standings.
Broadcasters at CES will be focused on the latest developments in mobile DTV, a new technology that will allow local stations to broadcast to cellphones and other portable devices. The industry is on schedule to have mobile DTV devices at retail by late this year.
At CES, at least 10 manufacturers including handset maker LG Electronics and car stereo specialist Kenwood will demonstrate prototype mobile DTV devices. The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a group of more than 800 stations that has been driving the mobile DTV standards process, will stage a live demonstration using signals from local Las Vegas stations. In addition to multiple channels of simulcast mobile programming, the demonstration will include interactive and data applications and a functional program guide, says OMVC Executive Director Anne Schelle.
“There is an opportunity for real devices to be targeted with real services that broadcasters are committing to for 2009,” says Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group and one of the architects of the preliminary mobile DTV standard.
The hot news in HDTV displays is rapidly developing 3D technology. While Samsung and Mitsubishi have been selling 3D-capable DLP (digital light projection) HD sets for years, the 3D market is expected to grow in 2009 with the introduction of 3D-capable LCD units from various manufacturers. Sony is promoting its new 3D LCD sets by sponsoring Fox's 3D HD broadcast of the BCS championship game. The 3D game will be shown to VIP guests at CES, as well as paying customers in 82 3D-equipped theaters nationwide.
While 3D's business model is still unclear, the near-term opportunity for Sony and Fox is to wow the CES crowd by bringing a blitzing linebacker right into their laps, says Fox Sports Senior VP Jerry Steinberg. His prediction: “The buzz coming out of this show will be about 3D.”