4K, Tiny Set-Tops on Tap at CES

MOMENTUM BUILDS BEHIND FASTER WIRES, SMALLER BOXES
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The push toward 4K/Ultra HD video and the shrinking of the cable set-top box will be two of the many trends taking center stage at this week’s International CES, the annual gadget-fest in Las Vegas.

Hoping to succeed where 3D failed, TV manufacturers will trot out the latest generation of 4K TV sets, aiming to drum up interest in an eye-popping format that, they hope, will spark a fresh cycle of consumer purchasing.

The market is still at the early phase of that cycle, with global shipments of 4K sets anticipated to reach a mere 1.3 million units in 2013 before spiking up to 23 million in 2017, according to an NPD DisplaySearch forecast.

While increased volumes of those sets should lead to reduced pricing, there’s still a dearth of content available in the new format. Netflix will fill some of that gap with a 4K offering slated to appear in the next month or two, and it’s expected that the over-the-top video provider will announce several 4K distribution deals with TV manufacturers at this week’s show.

3NET’S 4K PUSH

One company that believes there’s enough momentum behind the 4K movement to support a sizably larger investment in the format is 3net, the Sony, Imax and Discovery Communications video production joint venture.

3net, which produced one 4K project in 2013 — a three-part series called Space: Unravelling the Universe — is “prepared to do upwards of 80 hours of [4K] content” this year, Tom Cosgrove, 3net’s president and CEO, predicted.

3net has aligned its production strategy around what it calls “Total D,” meaning it shoots everything in 3D/4K, but can convert those shows into other formats, including traditional two-dimensional HDTV, as well as standard-definition.

Cosgrove said 3net is already marketing the Space series to potential distributors, and will offer an “institutional theatrical version” that could be used by museums.

“We’re seeing a real interest for it across the board,” Cosgrove said of the Space series. “We’ve been talking to everyone who’s out there looking at 4K.” That includes 3net’s current roster of distribution partners, which in the U.S. includes Comcast, Service Electric Cablevision, Google Fiber, DirecTV and Netflix. Cosgrove wouldn’t say if Netflix has already agreed to distribute 3net’s 4K offerings.

At this week’s show, a fresh look at how the this market is shaping up among TV makers, programmers and distributors will come in the form of a Tuesday (Jan. 7) panel featuring Cosgove; Tony Werner, Comcast executive vice president and chief technology officer; and Sony Pictures Technologies president Chris Cookson.

SHRINKING SET-TOP

Although the set-top increasingly is becoming a virtualized app for tablets, smartphones and other IP-connected devices, standalone set-tops and video clients aren’t expected to disappear completely from view anytime soon. But they are getting smaller.

Taking a cue from devices such as Google Chromecast, the Sony Bravia Smart Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick, the MSO-supplied video client is starting to take the form of a settop “stick” that can be connected via a television’s High- Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) port.

Alticast, a supplier of set-top software, applications and integration services, will offer an early glimpse at this vision at the show.

And Alticast’s initial entry will have a distinct cableindustry angle, as it will demonstrate a set-top stick outfi tted with the Reference Design Kit, the pre-integrated software stack for hybrid quadrature amplitude modulation/ Internet protocol and IP-only set-tops and gateways being managed by Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

As designed, this HDMI-connected device can receive content over Wi-Fi from an MSO-managed multimedia gateway or receive IP content directly from the cloud. In addition to supporting network-based digital video recorders, its on-board storage will also pave the way for a personalized device that customers can take with them and plug into other TVs. That portability could also enable operators to extend their user experience when customers are on the go.

Alticast developed the device with a yet-unidentified original equipment manufacturer, but it represents “part of a broader trend of miniaturization and increased mobility,” John Carlucci, Alticast’s chief technology officer and a former TWC engineering executive, said.

Alticast is already working with a service provider in South Korea that plans to introduce this form factor to deliver IP video services later this year, Carlucci said. U.S.- based operators have also expressed interest in the approach, he said.

This approach could also give operators an opportunity to sell the device at retail as MSOs look to deliver their services directly to smart TVs, gaming consoles and other consumer-electronics devices with HDMI ports, he said.

The notion of the HDMI set-top stick might also enable the cable industry to broaden its base of suppliers and further reduce product costs. While traditional settop box silicon providers are weaving their way into this emerging product set, it’s also drawing interest from chip suppliers that specialize in mobile devices, Carlucci said. Alticast has already demonstrated its RDK stack running on chips from three set-top box chip vendors: Broadcom, STMicroelectronics and Entropic Communications.

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