CES in Review: Beyond 3D

The Consumer Electronics Show is fading in the memory banks, but the announcements are just beginning to sink in. And surprisingly, while 3D may have been the hot topic at the show, other announcements and trends could have just as much, if not bigger, impact on sports content distribution and new revenue streams. Even better? They don’t involve wearing glasses.

Simply put, this year’s CES truly reflected the paradigm shift to “anytime, anywhere” with technologies that allow content to flow anywhere and to do so almost effortlessly. In fact, it will be business rules and rights negotiations that stand in the way of “anytime, anywhere.” It is no longer technology.

HDTV With WiFi
Topping the list of innovations with important near-term ramifications to the sports community was the explosion of HDTV sets that have built-in WiFi connectivity and allow users to access a wide variety of content within a walled garden of widgets, YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and much more. The concept was introduced by Sony a couple of years ago in the form of Bravialink, and Sony’s product offering has expanded to cover Netflix, Pandora, NPR, and more than 20 other providers.

Samsung’s Internet@TV exemplifies the shift to a delivery means that could eventually allow sports leagues and college conferences to reach sports fans without the help of TV networks and cable and satellite partners.

For example, Amazon Video On Demand is available through the service. A deal between MLB, the NBA, the NHL, or the NFL to deliver League Pass-type subscription services with Amazon’s VOD service opens a new way to monetize professional-level content and smaller, collegiate-level events. And the use of WiFi connectivity makes it easier and cleaner than ever to close the delivery loop.

Another new connectivity feature seen consistently from one HDTV manufacturer to the next was the incorporation of Skype. Panasonic’s VIERA CAST, for example, allows free Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls; calls to landlines or mobile phones at Skype rates; and the ability to participate in voice conference calls with up to 24 other parties.

Both the introduction of Skype and the WiFi connectivity signal a sea change in the living-room environment as the TV moves from simple display to fully functioning communications device. Most important, it solves a decades-old challenge facing interactive-TV services. In the late 1990s, interactive TV failed to take off, not because of a lack of demand but because, in order to be deployed, an application needed to be compatible with a wide variety of set-top boxes, headend technologies, middleware operating systems, and more.

But integrating WiFi into TV sets moves the burden of interactive technologies off cable headends, satellite set-top boxes, middleware, and software and allows sports networks and leagues to more easily port interactive tools built for the computer environment over to the TV environment.

The Holy Grail, of course, is the ability to access the Web through the TV set and the WiFi connection. For now, all the services are “walled-garden” applications and content controlled by the TV-set manufacturer. And, realistically, getting to open access is most likely not going to happen in the near term, perhaps ever. Simply put, cable and satellite operators don’t want broadband pipes that cost $50 a month to be an end around subscribing to a cable package that costs $120 a month. So don’t expect Hulu to be available soon.

As for products like MLB Extra Innings, NBA League Pass, and NFL Sunday Ticket, the real opportunity lies outside the U.S. For ex-pats living overseas, the ability to watch their favorite teams on TV could potentially be a huge hit. The same goes for college alumni.

Going Mobile
The other top non-3D trend at CES was the continued maturation of devices that can help laptop computers, iPhones, and other portable video devices receive over-the-air DTV signals.

For over-the-air broadcasters (and organizations like the ATSC), on-the-go DTV reception has been a massive undertaking for seven years. Standards were developed amid turmoil (remember the COFDM-vs.-8VSB battle because COFDM was more mobile-friendly?), and broadcasters and others formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition to make sure broadcast station groups, networks, and manufacturers were on the same page.

The big announcement at CES was that a real-world showcase to gauge consumer interest in Mobile Digital Television begins in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area in the first quarter, with eight local stations transmitting up to 20 channels of free and premium broadcast-TV programming to hundreds of mobile devices that will be used by actual viewers and local residents.

The Dell Inspiron Mini 10, a new mini netbook computer; the Samsung Moment mobile phone; LG Mobile Digital Television; and Wi-Fi Accessory Tivit are among the Mobile DTV-enabled devices that will be made available to showcase participants in the nation’s ninth-largest media market.

The OMVC now has more than 800 stations and 29 station groups on hand, so there is much potential for quick deployment.

In an age when wireless and cellular networks seem to be crumbling under the weight of heavy users (AT&T’s infamous problems related to the iPhone are exhibit A), the ability to deliver video services without using a cellular network holds much promise for consumers and service providers. Sports fans seem likely to benefit greatly, especially those who are in a stadium or arena. The ability for thousands of fans in the stands to simultaneously watch the feed of a baseball or football game on their handheld device or even laptop (a small dongle receiver will do the trick) may mean bad news for umpires who make bad calls, but it will do wonders for fans who long to see replays at the ballpark.

One device that definitely seems to deliver on the promise of mobile DTV is the Tivit, a small accessory about the size of a deck of cards (but smaller and lighter) that has an antenna and can be fired up and connected to WiFi-enabled devices like a Blackberry Bold, iPhone, or even a laptop. The WiFi bridges the gap, delivering video in h.264 format to the display device. Look for it to ship in the spring for around $120.

And expect more devices like phones to begin shipping with build-reception capability toward the end of 2010 and definitely in 2011. Devices like the Samsung Moment , which can receive live digital TV using Samsung’s Mobile DTV Chip, the world’s first single-chip solution for the Mobile Digital TV standard.

Also, there’s Sony’s dash personal Internet viewer, another portable device that doesn’t offer DTV reception but does offer much more. The $199 device with a touchscreen interface has a 7-in. LCD screen and access to 1,000-plus apps that can deliver sports scores, weather, traffic, social networking, music, and entertainment.

It’s the form factor of the dash that is most interesting. It isn’t designed to be a tablet that slips in the pocket. Instead, it’s quite deep, and the size is more reminiscent of a clock radio (in fact, the clock function is a major feature). So it seems a natural fit for road warriors (a NAVTEQ app is available) or for the bedside night table, again, bringing Internet connectivity to a new location.

What Now?
With the connected home moving beyond wires and cables, allowing viewers to jump on wireless networks and push and pull content at will around the home, the big question is what kind of content will flow?

Services like Netflix, Amazon VOD, and YouTube are great, but even they tend to greatly limit the choices of first-rate and fresh content that will be deliverable via WiFi-enabled walled gardens. And for all the potential of over-the-air DTV delivery to mobile devices, there are questions about whether programming rights will need to be renegotiated before content can be delivered to those devices.

So it seems that the industry is facing another series of tough questions. Will consumers embrace these new delivery mediums without first-rate content? Probably not. So it is up to the industry to quickly begin rights negotiations to ensure that the compelling technical capabilities of these services are matched by compelling content.

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