NAB Special Report: On the right road, but miles to go

Harmonic booth at NAB2016
Tom Lattie, Harmonic
May 18th 2016 at 4:24PM : By

This year’s NAB shunned paradigm-changing announcements and dazzling tech in favour of hard-nosed problem solving, says Tom Lattie, VP of video products market management & development at Harmonic

The broadcast industry has seen the launch of several significant initiatives over the past few years, including Ultra HD, media over IP, software-based virtualised infrastructure, virtual reality (VR), and ATSC 3.0. With so many irons already in the fire, the 2016 NAB Show was characterised more by a display of meaningful progress on efforts already underway than by the launch of bold new initiatives.

Previous NAB Shows had big and exciting announcements around the transition from SDI to IP; this year’s show demonstrated the tangible outcome of the hard work required to deliver meaningful solutions. Demonstrations of multi-vendor IP-based workflows showcased the benefits of an open and standards-based IP architecture as championed by the AIMS Alliance.

The move to IP is not just about simplified cabling. Done properly, the use of IP infrastructures should drive cost efficiencies and increase operational flexibility by riding the cost and function innovation curve of the IT industry. For broadcasters to realise these goals, it is imperative that they can leverage “off the shelf” technologies while mixing and matching functional components from any technology company at any spot in the workflow. There is still much work to do as the industry migrates to IP, but we are heading in the right direction. Similarly, demonstrations and announcements at NAB 2016 show the industry continues to work hard on the migration to cloud-based solutions, but there is still a way to go.

Virtualisation - the dirty word

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool broadcast engineers have come to accept virtualisation and the cloud as part of their future, and they understand that the appliance phase is a transitional element in a fairly rapid move towards a virtualised cloud environment. Given this broad acceptance, it is no surprise that cloud-based solutions were a key component in the messaging from many vendors. Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed many of these cloud solutions to be repackaged versions of vendors’ existing software appliances into a virtual machine, shown running in Microsoft Azure or the AWS Cloud. This trend has made the term “virtualisation” something of a dirty word, with several media company CTOs stating on panels and in interviews that they want cloud-native solutions, not virtualised offerings.

The media factory of tomorrow

The industry has been waiting for technology providers to take a fresh look at what it takes to build and operate the media factory of tomorrow, and then start from the ground up to build cloud-native solutions that innovate both the technology aspects of an operation and the commercial schemes they enable. The drive for cloud is not for technology’s sake; it is for infrastructure flexibility that delivers both technical and commercial value.

While the move to software-based appliances and the ability to virtualise those appliances are productive steps in the industry’s transition, they do not come close to the desired end state. Only truly reimagined solutions can solve both the broadcast industry’s technical and commercial agility challenges. We didn’t see enough of truly cloud-native applications at the NAB Show, though it is clear that broadcasters see the shift of core technology infrastructure to the cloud — using such solutions — as a key enabler of their future success.

We didn’t see enough of truly cloud-native applications at the NAB Show

HDR on the horizon

Another area where the rubber has yet to fully hit the road is in the area of high dynamic range (HDR). Consumers and broadcasters alike, particularly following CES, are enthusiastic about the potential of HDR. While HDR experiences are trickling into consumers’ homes via targeted solutions such as Ultra HD Blu-ray and various streaming platforms, the industry must now focus on the nitty gritty details, particularly in the consumer’s living room, to make ubiquitous HDR media consumption possible.

Broadcasters are looking to HDR and the quantifiable benefits it offers because they are struggling to move forward with services based on resolution alone, particularly at the distribution bitrates that are available, and to differentiate it from today’s HD services. The Ultra HD Forum made an important first step with the release of industry guidelines for end-to-end workflows involved in the creation and delivery of live and prerecorded UHD programming with both SDR and HDR content. But even the forum acknowledged that there is still a lot of hard work ahead, declaring the scope of the guidelines to cover UHD services in 2016 and promising revised and expanded guidelines in 2017.

Thanks to bold statements about HDR at CES, the demand for HDR already exists. What’s more, the broadcast industry has an established track record of making new television experiences available to all consumers. Now the industry and display manufacturers need to get to work in making it interoperable and viable in the consumer realm.

Although this year’s NAB Show did not contain any grand revelations, it did showcase meaningful progress around many of the industry’s major initiatives. The energy of all at the show was very high, and it served as a reinvigoration of the resolve required to move efforts forward. It seems inevitable that by next April, we will see many of these solutions far better prepared to support the workflows and operational flexibility that broadcasters and media companies require to be successful.