As the virtual CES began, the Consumer Technology Association released its forecast, projecting $461 billion in overall tech revenue for the coming year. That’s a 4.3% increase over 2020 with streaming services, 5G connectivity and digital health devices leading the uplift thanks to stay at home orders.
The pandemic sent streaming through the roof too, with TVs consolidating their place as the centerpiece for entertainment. American households upgraded their television sets in a record-setting year for shipments in 2020, according to CTA figures. TV sales will hit 43 million units this year — the second-highest volume on record — with sets over 70 inches and/or those with 8K UHD in high demand (the latter is predicted to grow sales by 300%, albeit at just 1.7 million units).
Smart TV Battleground
Immersive experience attributes like HDR, 8K and Dolby Atmos are part of the arsenal of technologies that TV vendors are adding into their 2021 line-ups. Smart TV functionality is another key.
Futuresource Consulting says there are now more than one billion smart TVs installed worldwide, as consumers become ever more reliant on TV delivered over the internet.
“For vendors, having an installed base of TVs with built-in smart functionality is the new entertainment battleground,” says analyst Tristan Veale.
This is an arena currently being contested by LG with WebOS and Samsung with Tizen, as well as Android TV, which is being adopted by many brands as a low cost, high quality interface, with some degree of customization and personalization.
In the U.S., broadcasters are working to bring ATSC 3.0 to 62 markets across the country, which collectively would mean next-generation TV reception by more than 50% of all viewers by this summer and about 75% of viewers shortly thereafter.
Aside from giving broadcasters an immediate uplift in 4K delivery, the pitch for the IP-based television standard, marketed as Next-Gen TV, includes the ability to serve interactive content and targeted ads alongside traditional programming.
“The expectations of viewers have changed to involve interactivity and choice,” said Madeline Noland, President of the ATSC during a CES panel session. “What is exciting is the synergy between these consumer desires and today’s TVs which are bringing these features to life.”
South Korea has already trialed 8K delivery using the existing codecs in ATSC 3.0.
“It’s not a static TV system,” said Noland. “We designed it for 4K now, knowing we can upgrade to 8K any time.”
Broadcasters Can Get Interactive Too
Grace Nolan, VP Integrated Marketing, Samsung, predicted Next-Gen TV would see the merger of content creator communities with the traditional broadcast. A football game could be experienced with play-by-play calls from a friend alongside the professional announcements.
“Such non-traditional pairings will unlock the potential of my viewing experience,” she said.
Michael Davies, SVP of Field and Technical for Fox Sports suggested there was “no better killer app for interactivity than having a little money on it.”
The ATSC wouldn’t get drawn on live betting but Nolan agreed that “from a functional standpoint it could certainly make it work. “For those who engage in recreational betting it would be enjoyable,” said Noland. “It will likely start with free to play and some video gaming and then it will evolve and we’ll see where it goes.”
Dial Not Moving on 5G
“The future of streaming is the current reality of entertainment,” said Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg during his CEO keynote. “This shift is happening as the most powerful world changing tech is becoming available in more and places. 5G is an innovation platform that makes other innovations possible.”
Despite this well intentioned rhetoric, neither Verizon nor most anyone else at CES could demonstrate actual game changing 5G applications, at least not yet in the media space.
Verizon is busy equipping NFL stadia with 5G networks including Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla, which will host Super Bowl LV.
With no spectators in stadiums, however, no one will experience “how AR can transform the way we enjoy sports,” Vestberg said, “or the way we visit museums and interact with the world around us.”
Similarly, Verizon’s pact with Live Nation to outfit 15 venues — including the Fillmore in Miami and the Masonic Theater in SF — with 5G for the consumption of music fans will be temporarily blunted.
With everyone stuck at home, it will be next-gen Wifi 6 that will arguably have more impact in terms of connectivity than 5G, which is largely for applications in city centers and getting to city centers, which of course no one is doing just now.
With Mobile World Congress delayed, Samsung hijacked the last day of CES to unload its “Unpacked” event and officially launch the Galaxy S21 Android phones.
These are not only 5G-ready but come with Wi-Fi 6E wireless connectivity, allowing use of extra radio bandwidth with a compatible router. The handsets all shoot 8K video and carry ultra-wide and telephoto zooms. To encourage filming, there’s a Director’s View facility so you can film video while getting thumbnail previews superimposed on-screen of what it would look like if you switched to another lens. It’s all yours for $1,120 USD.
Warner Bros. Talks Theatrical Strategy
In 2020, theatrical TVOD (transactional on-demand) made its move. Nielsen believes studios will continue to take advantage of this even as theaters come back into play.
“We don’t think cinema will fade, but some first-run movies will be released onto studio apps first,” said Brian Fuhrer, SVP Product Strategy & Thought Leadership, Nielsen.
The studio making the boldest play is Warner Bros., which announced in December it would put its entire 2021 slate of new releases day-and-date with theaters on HBO Max.
In a CES keynote interview, Anne Sarnoff, Warner Bros. Chair and CEO, explained the decision-making. “It’s hard to spend the marketing when certain cities are opening and closing and you’re shooting a moving target about what is going to be open or not. Because so much of the market is closed in the U.S. and Europe, you can’t do it just by launching in theatres, so we decided to be in [TVOD] for the long game.”
She said that the $360 million global gross of Tenet, which released to cinemas last summer, “was a pretty good result,” although she was not asked to address director Christopher Nolan’s criticism of HBO Max as being “the worst streaming service,” nor that directors like him were given scant notice of future releases moving to the small screen.
If features relocate online and to DTC services, does the industry need to shake up the measurement it makes in terms of what constitutes success? Netflix doesn’t release much in the way of information about viewership, so will studios follow suit?
“The opening weekend at the box office was always a proxy for the success of a movie,” Sarnoff said. “There was formula you could apply to predict what the movie ultimately would do. Yet Joker opened to $60 million and went on to do a billion and no one called that early. The streaming world has a different set of criteria. Unless you are serving ads, the number of eyeballs are less relevant to factors such as the cost of acquiring a subscription, what you can do to reduce churn, the overall engagement. It’s a new set of metrics that the industry is not geared to measure.”
“My guess is that this will change because the talent will want to learn how they are doing,” she added.
Nielsen took the opportunity to announce the launch of its TVOD measurement service that would capture viewing of movie releases that are directly available to consumers to rent or purchase on demand through streaming platforms.
Sarnoff, who became the first woman to hold the chair of Warner Bros. in 2019, also said that she’d had to “hide certain aspects of herself” throughout her career at Viacom, Dow Jones and BBC Worldwide in order to progress in a male dominated industry.
She also said that her job on joining Warner Bros. was to break up its silos. “Since I joined, I’ve chaired weekly meetings about making the whole more than the parts,” she said. “My background is about building franchises and building bridges.”
MicroLED Virtual Sets and TVs
Sony has been demonstrating large Crystal LED video walls since 2012, but struggled to find a market for them. They have been turned into cinema screens, but the cost remains high. It would seem Sony has found the ideal home for them as digital background screens.
The modular panel can be built up into any size LED wall and has been certified for use by Sony Pictures. It includes an anti-reflection coating and can achieve 1,800 nits — far in excess of your average OLED’s 800 nits.
Sony plans to release the product this summer, and given pent-up demand for virtual production and the currently limited technical resources for it, Sony could open up the market if the price is right.
Crystal LED is Sony’s branding, but the illumination technology is MicroLED. This new technology remains expensive to manufacture but is considered superior to OLED. It uses tiny LEDs that can be assigned to individual pixels, therefore allowing true blacks to be displayed by switching any pixel off together with far more dynamic range.
At CES, LG introduced MicroLEDs into a new range of displays called QNED while Samsung paraded a 110-inch MicroLED TV that apparently costs in excess of $150,000.
Sony (Kind of) Launches AirPeak
Sony teased the launch of its new AirPeak drone development late last year and shared more information at CES but left more questions than answers.
“Today, we’re going to introduce a product that integrates AI and robotics, designed for adventurous creators,” said Sony chief Kenichiro Yoshida in a video.
We know the drone is designed to carry Sony’s Alpha series of mirrorless camera and that AirPeak is targeted at “professional photography and video production.” Sony says it will launch in the first half of 2021 and that this would be “the first phase of this project,” perhaps hinting that a consumer version will follow.
Some commentators seemed disappointed that this wasn’t the DJI-chasing UAV launch they’d hoped for. DJI is the market leader in consumer drones by some margin, but being a Chinese company it is suffering in the North American market.
Pricing was not revealed, nor any technical specifications of the drone which was only glimpsed in a promo video following a prototype Sony Vision-S concept car.
Lumix Gets Netflix Nod
Panasonic seemed pleased that its new Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cinema and live event camera has been certified for production for Netflix. The Lumix BGH1 box camera launched in November (priced $2,533 USD) and can record 4K 10-bit 60p or HD up to 240fps, plus it can handle anamorphic lenses. The camera has the ability to output over HDMI, SDI, and USB-C simultaneously. It can also be powered and controlled via Ethernet. Lacking an onboard monitor, you’ll need to attach one if you want to use it as a standalone cine-style camera. During CES, six of them were used to capture a live streamed broadcast of a performance from the band Cold War Kids live from the AREA15 complex in Las Vegas.
Canon Means Volumetric Video (and Photocopiers)
“If you think you know about Canon, you are in for a huge surprise,” announced Canon America President and CEO Kevin Ogawa. He was promoted to head the company last year, intent on shaking up the brand’s traditional conservativism.
“Canon is known for cameras and printers, but that’s just a small part of who we are,” he said.
The emphasis was on sexier applications, including high-resolution imaging satellites and live volumetric video capture.
The latter has a showcase at Kawasaki, Japan, where a studio supporting Free Viewpoint video production from more than 100 4K cameras has been installed. The data produces Free Viewpoint video suitable for a variety of uses, including sports replay and analysis, commercials and music promo, as well as 3D data that can be incorporated into xR and holograms.
Canon is targeting the technology at sports stadia where it will rival Intel’s True View system.
What Canon did not announce at CES, despite widely teasing it in the weeks before, was a modular 8K cinema camera. The company says it is “working to develop 8K solutions in anticipation of further advances in image expression” and that it has a compact, lightweight 8K camera using EF cinema lenses in development for 2021.
Similarly, Sony is tipped to be launching a new 8K-capable mirrorless camera, but failed to do so at CES. Badged Sony A9S, it reportedly houses an 50MP full-frame sensor and would effectively go head-to-head with the Canon EOS R5.
Crew in a Box
Proof that crisis breeds innovation was the invention in the first weeks of lockdown of a remote video production solution that contains everything you’d need to get talent who are at working from home on air.
Crew in a Box made its CES debut having already won the 2020 IABM BaM Create Award for being a “a product for our time and [one that] might change the way talking heads are shot in the future.”
The box — a fully disinfected military-grade case — contains a 6K cinema camera, expandable three-foot-wide LED light, direct address teleprompter, a second, detachable teleprompter monitor for off-axis eyelines, and two professional microphones. Each component works together in a fully integrated system that is completely remotely controlled.
The system automatically connects to the internet via cellular bonding without needing to connect to the user’s home Wi-Fi. Twelve networks including NBC, FOX, ViacomCBS and ABC have already used it.
Xsens Launches Cloud Mocap
The Netherlands-based 3D motion tracking developer Xsens has launched a cloud-based motion capture service. MotionCloud works in conjunction with Xsens mocap animation software and adds cloud storage, processing power, and reporting tools.
“For studios with remote setups, tracking precise motion data from actors has never been easier,” says Rob Löring, Business Director, 3D Body Motion at Xsens. “The high level of data processing possible with MotionCloud means users are no longer limited by the power of their on-premises hardware. Instead, MotionCloud produces detailed data analysis at a much faster rate than any desktop or laptop.”