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Be The Director: The Future of Event Television

Television used to be such a passive experience. Lean back on your cushions and let the drama flood your brain. Not so anymore. From the red button, to SMS voting, to third screen apps like zeebox, it seems the trend is to pass control from the hidden directors and writers behind the scenes to us, the audience.

At a demonstration of a new suite of TV technologies yesterday I got some insight into where this trend might be going.

The FascinatE Project is one of those weird international collaborations between public and private that could probably only happen in the EU (it is funded to the tune of EURO9.5m by the EU). It involves technology companies like Alcatel Lucent, broadcasters like the BBC, research organisations like Fraunhofer (creators of the ubiquitous MP3 music format), and universities like Salford, location for yesterday’s presentation.

FascinatE (a slightly tortured acronym accounts for that capitalised final letter) aims to provide a more interactive experience for users watching live events — concerts, dramas, sports etc. The technology it uses to does this comes in four main parts.

Capture

If you want to let users direct their own viewing, then you need to capture more of what’s going on at an event. That means more cameras and more microphones. But the ability to switch between a series of fixed shots — where the focus is still in the control of a camera operator or director — is a bit old school. Why not capture EVERYTHING and then allow users to choose their own virtual camera shot?

To do this FascinatE uses a new panoramic camera created by Fraunhofer. Featuring 10 Indiecam 2K (twice HD) or even ALEXA 4K cameras (in a much larger form factor). Each camera is sited as close as possible to its two neighbours in a ring, pointed upwards towards a continuous circle of mirrors at 45 degrees to the floor. Siting the cameras so close together enables their images to be stitched together in software with minimal distortion, providing a complete, panoramic, high resolution capture of the event.

If you have ever taken a series of photos in a circle and then stitched them together on a computer to make a single panorama, imagine the same process but for live video, and done in real time.

3D sound is captured by a single MH Acoustics Eigenmike — essentially 32 microphones in a single sphere, giving a complete picture of the soundfield in three dimensions. The 3D sound is tied to the view: focus on the drummer and the drum sounds come up in the mix. Pan to the left and the drum sounds get louder on your right.

Having just a single mike and camera to do complete capture of the event makes for a potentially very portable and easy to set up package. Although in the demonstration and likely in reality, these are supplemented with mics on all the main sound sources (instruments, singers etc) and standard cameras for alternative views.

With the current technology you need these extra cameras, particularly for large scale events like football. The lack of focal length control on the panoramic camera means that there’s some loss of resolution when zoomed right in, even when shooting at 2K.

Transfer

When you’re shooting with that many cameras at high definition, you’re going to be storing and more importantly shipping a lot of data. Since we’re talking about live events, the first issue is getting the raw video — 20Gbps of it using the 2K camera setup — to somewhere you can process it. This is just a question of raw bandwidth.

The next issue is getting it out to consumers across all of the many devices they may want to use: TV, smartphone, tablet, etc. You obviously can’t ship they everything, so how do you ensure they can choose exactly which view they want to see?

Alcatel Lucent tackled this problem and came up with a way of breaking the enormous 20x2K picture into a grid of smaller ‘tiles’. Rather than shipping the whole picture, the network node serving the video only sends the tiles that feature in the picture the consumer has selected. For example, they might have chosen to focus on the lead singer at a gig. Only the tiles that feature the singer and his surrounds need to be sent, compressed, to the user device.

This is clever but it doesn’t scale too well: what if 10,000 people choose the same view? You’re streaming the same four tiles 10,000 times — tough on bandwidth and your servers. Here the server’s intelligence kicks in and switches from unicast (tiles that only one person wants) to broadcast (popular tiles that are shared) ensuring it minimises server load and bandwidth.

So you’ve got huge amounts of video and three dimensional sound. How do you choose what view to watch?

Robot Director

Did you know there was an established ‘grammar’ for cinematography? Nor did I until yesterday. But like the ‘golden ratio’ seems to define aesthetically pleasing shapes, the grammar of cinematography gives us a set of rules for deciding whether to pan or cut, when, and how fast. Joanneum Research has taken these rules and applied them to the vast amount of data coming in from the cameras, and given a system intelligence to identify people and events on the screen.

The result is essentially a fully, or semi-automated director, able to process vast amounts of data into a watchable programme, with or without the input of human directors either in the studio or in the home.

The Client

Robot director or not, none of this clever technology is going to be of any value without an engaging user experience. And the demo we saw yesterday seems to have that. Via tablet, smartphone or TV the ability to pan around the performance space where students from Salford were performing a series of dance pieces was slick and seamless (barring a temporary loss of sound — no demonstration is ever going to be perfect). Swiping your finger across the tablet resulted in the video panning smoothly and responsively. Admittedly the performance was only in the next room, but the way the system is designed, network latency shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Where it got really exciting was with the gesture-based interface. You can pan and zoom just by waving your hands in the air. Increase the volume by cupping your hand to your ear, lower it with a finger to your lips.

Imagine coupling the display to an immersive headset and having the video pan with your head movements. That would be an incredible way to remotely experience a gig or event.

Timeline

According to one BBC member of the project, they are considering using some of this technology for events in 2014. Certainly it didn’t seem far from consumer-ready as a technology suite, not withstanding the usual levels of rigorous testing required for broadcast equipment. My guess is that it will be small scale tests next year before wider roll-out the following year. But you can easily see the relevant technology being added to the iPlayer client to support this sort of broadcast.

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Where Does ‘The Cloud’ Begin?

‘The Cloud’ is a suitably nebulous term for a loose and ambiguous concept. It’s used to mean that things, be they applications or content, are stored somewhere out there in the ether, available to us on demand.

Somewhere though the ether becomes hard physicality: one or more computers, usually in a data centre, a giant air-conditioned hotel packed with machines. Here your digital stuff — applications, music, photos, contacts — sits on a disk ready to be served up to you whenever you want them.

But do these computers really need to be so remote from us, and is this even desirable? Why can’t ‘The Cloud’ encompass the home?

The Cloud Begins at Home

There are certainly some good arguments for maintaining your own little piece of the cloud (dropping the inverted commas and capitalisation from here on). They were most recently put to me by QNAP, the Taiwanese storage appliance vendor whose equipment has become a fixture in my own home network. I met with the company’s Brian Pan and Alfred Liang recently when they were in the UK to introduce the latest firmware for its range of consumer devices.

The first argument for hosting your own piece of the cloud is cost. These days we all produce a vast amount of digital data. Storing and serving it remotely is expensive. Take my music collection. I have just over 40 gigabytes of music ripped from CDs and purchased from iTunes and elsewhere. The basic plan from Dropbox, one of the popular cloud hosting services would cost me about £6.56 a month ($9.99) or £65 a year if I paid up front. This gets me 100GB. Add in my photos (115GB), and videos (358GB), and I’d be outside the range of prices they publish online. But for comparison a terabyte (1000ish Gigabytes) of storage with JustCloud would be £79.70 a month.

Compare this to the cost of hardware. A basic QNAP Network Attached Storage (NAS) box will cost you under £200 when supplied with a 1TB hard disk. This device plugs into your broadband router at home and with the latest firmware will allow you access your files from anywhere. Performance will depend on your home broadband connection, but then you’re paying just two and a half months of the cost of renting that storage for something that will last years.

What won’t last is that terabyte. With multi-megapixel cameras, 3D camcorders and hi definition everything, one terabyte will soon seem like a small amount of storage. So you’ll want to upgrade: buy a two, four, or even six bay NAS and you can just slot in a new hard disk. Clearly this will cost a lot more — £250 for the entry-level 4 bay unit, without disks — but even at that price the economics rapidly make sense for large scale storage.

The Limitations of the Home Cloud

That’s not to say I want to store everything only on my home NAS. Does it really matter that I can’t access my music when I’m out and about? No — I can cope if my home broadband goes down and cuts me off. But my documents? I can’t afford for those to be unavailable. And good as my home broadband is these days, I wouldn’t trust it to be as available as Google’s services.

This leads to a bit of a policy split: some things I’m happy to leave stored at home. Some things I want synced up to a hosted storage service like Google Drive. Which is exactly what I do.

But that leads to another consideration: privacy. Appropriately secured I have absolute control of who accesses my home cloud. I may not always be confident that the same is true of data stored out in the ether where I have no physical oversight, on platforms designed for sharing. Whether they be sensitive business documents or just family photos, it may be that I my policy defines that other things stay local, as well as those that are just too large or insufficiently important to store remotely.

The Shared Cloud

One of the things I liked about talking to Brian and Alfred from QNAP was their pragmatism. They’re in a market that is growing around 14% year on year, and is forecast to be worth over $3bn by next year, so perhaps they can afford to be pragmatic. But the lack of spin is refreshing all the same.

Brian and Alfred acknowledge that home storage devices like their own haven’t always been the most easy to use devices. NAS boxes evolved out of the business market and it has taken a while for the rough edges — no problem for an experienced IT technician — to be smoothed off to consumer standards. That said, QNAP’s latest software looks like a step in the right direction, with its smooth Apple-influenced styling and apps for easy syncing to mobile devices. I’ve not tested them for myself yet so can’t give a true opinion, but will be doing so in the coming weeks.

They also know that they are not going to replace the bigger cloud with these home devices. The reality is that people are probably going to use both and most of the attention will be focused on the internet-based services. But today and for the medium term, they know they can offer a more cost effective, and arguably more feature-rich option to consumers looking to store and serve up lots of digital files.

Features for the Home

As well as a more user-friendly interface, QNAP is incorporating other nice features for the consumer into its devices. There’s already an HDMI port on the back of many boxes, allowing you to plug straight into a TV and play back high definition video. The new software includes XBMC, a very slick media player interface designed for control from a remote rather than a keyboard. The software also incorporates transcoding — allowing you to reprocess videos for different devices, such as your smartphone or tablet, without needing a PC. Very neat.

Of course all of these things could be accomplished with a PC, or a laptop plugged into a TV as many people do. But these aren’t particularly neat solutions and a dedicated PC can be both noisier and more power hungry than a dedicated storage device, as well as being more complicated to configure to achieve the same functions.

All this leaves me pretty convinced that the forecasts for growth in this market are reasonable. In the long term we may well choose to store and stream all of our content from the ‘out there’ cloud rather than the one at home. But for now if you want a secure place to put all your digital stuff, extending the cloud into your home makes a great deal of sense.

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The Future of Retail: What the High Street Has to Fear from Social Selling

The high street casualties to date have largely been killed off by eCommerce. How could HMV with 4300 staff and all the costs associated with shops and distribution, compete with iTunes? iTunes has 15 staff in Europe, delivers digitally and yet turns over significantly more than HMV did when it went under.

eCommerce is clearly lethal to some businesses. But technology has presented the high street with another threat: the social seller. People who adopt retail as a way of life, selling things they know and love, and use the internet to amplify what used to be a purely offline, geographically-limited model.

Let me give you an example.

Karen Makin had a real grounding in high street retail. Like many successful people I’ve met, she started on the management training programme at M&S. She learned the ropes before moving into management at age 22. At a brand new Savastore she became duty manager then assistant store manager, controlling 800 staff.

In the 80s Karen took advantage of the boom with a jump into estate agency, before meeting her husband, moving to Bolton and settling down to raise two kids. She was out of retail for 14 years. Until recently.

With another recession slowing down her husband’s architecture business, Karen decided to get back into retail. She didn’t want to be back on the shop floor so she needed something a bit different.

A friend introduced her to a wholesale supplier of jewellery and accessories, and offered to front her the capital to buy some stock. Her friend was selling the stock through house parties, organising events at people’s homes. Initially sceptical, Karen was sold after the first event when it became clear that these weren’t awkward old Tupperware parties: people really appreciated having the goods (at a reasonable price) brought to them.

Karen started operating on the same model, under the name Antonia’s Recession Busting Glitz & Glamour. She used her contacts through school and gym to organise parties. And 20 years ago this is where the story would end: a small, simple lifestyle business that involved endless (face to face) networking, constantly looking for new relationships with potential party hosts.

But where Karen’s business really took off, and where technology adds the element of scale, was when she got a Facebook page.

Karen confesses that she was not technology literate. It was not so much that she was scared of technology, she just didn’t see the point of the computer. Over time though she was introduced by her husband and kids to email and Facebook and liked that she could keep in touch with people remotely. Then one day someone suggested a Facebook page for her business and her son helped her to set it up.

“That’s when it went crazy,” says Karen.

Karen’s still running the events but now people find her online. She ships around the UK. She uses the Mac in her kitchen and her mobile to respond to people. “Last night I sold three scarves, while sat in front of the TV,” says Karen.

Social Selling: Love the Product, Low Capital Investment, Round the Clock Engagement

Let’s recap here. Karen invested nothing in a website or eCommerce presence. She does not have a website other than her Facebook page. Her total capital investment, including stock and display hardware was less than £2k — much of it from her angel friend who got her into the business in the first place. That capital has been repaid in just 9 months. Karen is buying from a wholesaler rather than direct. Yet she can comfortably undercut the high street AND offer customers the benefit of bringing the stock to them at home or in the office. Whereas in the past her business would have been geographically limited, now she can sell across the UK and she’s looking to expand into Ireland.

This is still a microbusiness and probably always will be. But the threat to the high street is not Karen expanding to become the next Debenhams. It is the prospect of 10,000, 100,000 or even 1 million Karens.

In a recent piece I did for the Institute of Chartered Accountants on the future of work, I came to the conclusion that many more of us will be self-employed in the future. Most self-employed people that I know do more than one thing. I’d expect that a fair few of us will be retailers — as many are today via eBay, Etsy and more. We all have our specialisms that we could turn into shops — many of us selling things that we really enjoy working with, as Karen does with accessories.

Working like this has its challenges, as Karen acknowledges: it’s hard to switch off sometimes when your work is connected to your social profile and always accessible online. But it also has great upsides in its flexibility.

People have always run microbusinesses like this from home, be they self-started or franchise. But the ubiquity of the Internet and social networking particularly has created the opportunity for these microbusinesses to operate more efficiently and scale to a much greater audience very rapidly.

Look out high street: it may not be eCommerce that kills you, it could be your customers.

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The Future of Facebook

Facebook is like the Beatles.

They weren’t the first rock and roll band*. But they popularised rock and roll and changed culture in the process. They were huge in their day. But they were never going to dominate the charts forever.

Facebook will not be on top forever. Possibly not even as long as the decade the Beatles managed.

Facebook’s business is inherently trend-based. It very quickly loses its appeal once the people in your circle begin to abandon it. And in some markets people are clearly leaving Facebook. Three different analyses in recent weeks show the active user base falling by millions in the UK and US.

Facebook is still gaining users overall but only because new users in developing markets are offsetting the losses elsewhere. This may go some way to explain the declining revenue per user — down 12% quarter on quarter even though the proportion of mobile users has climbed. Developing market users may be numerous but they are worth less individually in advertising revenue.

The question about Facebook was never if it was going to be superseded but when. Two years ago I said we had seen the beginning of the beginning of the end. Now I’d say we have seen the beginning of the end.

It will be slow at first but I believe the decline and fall of Facebook has begun.

*If you heard 5live this morning, yes I do count the beatles as rock and roll, no matter what Nicky Campbell might say.

Tom Cheesewright