The world according to gizmos
By Kate Bulkley
September 22 2003
The cutting-edge technologies that will shape the way we watch TV and use mobile phones in the future were on show at a trade fair in Amsterdam. Kate Bulkley went along
From smaller wireless TV cameras to whizzy new on-screen programme guides, the products and prototypes on show in Amsterdam last week will influence how we look at TV and use our mobile phones in the future. Some two years after the dotcom crash, the world's broadcasting industry has gone through some lean times, but the post-tech crash reality check has spurred more innovative products.
Microsoft showed off its new video player technology, which will make it easier to download music and TV programming to PCs, TVs and mobile devices. The recently resurrected UK cable giant NTL was demonstrating a networked home system using digital radio signals to wirelessly move a personal CD music collection and photo album from the PC to the TV and even to an in-car system. "You can put your album of your holiday on the TV and show granny," says Simon Mason, head of new product development at NTL.
The International Broadcast Convention has always been about unveiling new technologies, but products, prototypes and profit potential on display from the major companies was more firmly planted in reality than in recent years. For example, the long-promised savings of switching from analogue to digital systems have moved from the drawing board to the show floor.
"We've been an industry dealing in tape in various forms for ever," says Craig Dwyer, marketing director for BBC Technology. "Now there are new ways of recording and storing media."
The BBC was displaying small wireless TV cameras for lower-cost news production, and next month the corporation plans to add simple text services for people listening to BBC radio through their Sky TVs, and there is also discussion about adding text to TV programming. It's all part of a realisation that people are watching TV while they are also doing something else, perhaps checking their email or listening to the radio.
The new offerings from the more than 1,000 company stands were not limited to giants like Sony and Panasonic, but included smaller players like Norwegian company Pronto-TV, which had in a corner of its booth a video-on-demand (VOD) TV system sitting on a rolling rack that altogether was not much bigger than a washing machine. The low-cost technology is based on open-standard technology, including Linux software, that has been sold to hotels in Europe and used to power on-demand TV on a cruise ship, but now the makers are talking to cable and telephone operators about using it to bring VOD into the living room. In the UK, the VOD company Home Choice has struggled financially partly because of high equipment costs.
"VOD has been delayed because the equipment and the roll-out is too expensive," says Pronto TV CEO Jon Bohmer, adding that he hopes to have some residential trials of his service running by the end of the year. NTL Broadcast's prototype system for taking content from the PC to the TV and on to mobile and in-car devices involved a series of joined-up laptops and used Microsoft's Windows Media 9 Series player and digital audio broadcast (DAB) technology to move the content around.
NTL's head of business development for broadcast media solutions, Terry Howard, says that he is looking for companies willing to commit to the system before NTL produces anything. "The technology is there, but it's about having the right business model," he says. One of the first takers for this, according to Howard, could be mobile operators such as Vodafone and Orange, which need to be able to expand the services they offer their subscribers without building expensive 3G wireless networks. "What we can offer with this technology is mobile broadcasting which is a lot cheaper than 3G," he says.
NDS, the technology arm of News Corp, was showcasing a new, on-screen i-betting technology as well as an e-ticket technology to prevent the piracy of copyrighted content. "These are things that are really useful for the broadcasters," said Jesper Knutsson, managing director of Visionik, an NDS unit.
In its most recent bid to extend its software dominance beyond the PC desktop, Microsoft announced at IBC that the video-compression software underlying its Windows Media Series 9 player has been submitted to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, a break in tradition for the software giant, which likes to keep control of its technology. Microsoft wants to make its player a standard on set-top boxes, satellite broadcasts, internet-delivered services and consumer electronics, where it lags rivals like RealNetworks and Apple Computer. In the UK, Capital Radio and NTL Broadcast will begin a trial next month using the Microsoft player technology to test 5.1 surround sound on digital radios.
There were also many examples of technologies that help turn telephone networks into TV systems, offering customers another way to get video services either on their TV through the phone line or on their PCs. Tandberg TV's CEO Eric Cooney says his company already makes these kinds of products and he is putting "significant money" into developing this technology further. "Today only 5% of my revenues are in telco video but it has great potential," says Cooney. "I"m convinced there is a business model and a sense of urgency from the telcos because they need to make sure that they stop losing customers to cable TV companies."
And for the financially-challenged European cable TV operators, a product from US company Bigband Networks was on show that claims to allow operators to upgrade their systems from analogue to digital at a fraction of the cost of other technologies. This could help cable systems to launch new and better services faster in Europe.