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What to Look for at NAB

While the broadcast industry is only one of several categories that has embraced streaming, it is arguably the most prominent: From major sporting events to top-rated television shows, broadcasters have figured out how to deliver content to a highly receptive audience that wants to watch content on a variety of devices, when and where they choose.

At the National Association of Broadcasters show, then—which kicks off this weekend and runs through the middle of next week in Las Vegas—there are several key trends to look for: automation, HD, metadata, and standards for mobile IP delivery.

The automation of transcoding streaming assets is the focus of today's podcast with Inlet Technologies, and NAB is an ideal place for a variety of vendors to showcase how their streaming solutions fit into the bigger broadcast workflow.

Some companies will focus on how their encoders fit within the live broadcast workflow, allowing simultaneous streams of content that we've seen grow in popularity in early 2009, starting with the Presidential inauguration and continuing up until last weekend's Masters PGA golf tournament.

Other companies will highlight the benefits of cloud computing for transcoding assets held by stations that are not able to implemented an in-house automation solution. The sharp rise of cloud computing options will make this year's NAB—and the upcoming Streaming Media East show in New York in May—a place for broadcasters to compare the similarities and differences between cloud transcoding options. Look for companies that have been in the space for many years, including On2 and Multicast Media, the latter featured in a recent Streaming Media Infocast, as well as several startups to use NAB as a launch point for new service options.

The move toward a unified view of what constitutes high-definition content on the web is still in flux. Dan Rayburn addressed this question a few weeks ago in his blog, positing on the various ways to measure HD content to see whether it actually is high definition. While there are many views of HD in the streaming world, at a show like NAB, however, HD is a very distinct set of parameters of screen size and delivery bandwidths.

NAB this year is epicenter for the HD discussion, as the United States is in the midst of its conversion to digital television (DTV). Congress has increased the amount of funds available for DTV to analog over the air (OTA) converter boxes, and the eligible boxes are not allowed to have component outputs, as a way to guarantee no HD signals can be passed from the OTA antenna to the television. In essence, HD content will have to be downconverted to standard-definition content to be viewed on an older analog TV, via a composite or s-video connector.

This leaves streaming broadcasts in an interesting position, as many consumers have computers that can receive and display 720p video streams, even if the do not have a newer television with a digital tuner capable of receiving 720p broadcast signals.

"This issue is still not resolved," said Andy Beach of Inlet Technologies, during yesterday's podcast, adding that NAB is one of the places where a public discussion can be carried out on the show floor as well as in the sessions.

As broadcasters look to encode, or transcode, archival assets, the prevalence of metadata continues to rise. While the streaming industry primarily views metadata as a way to generate playlists or to allow consumers to find the content they want to watch, accessibility to accurate metadata is one of the defining areas in broadcast automation, as broadcasters move toward tapeless acquisition to complement their disk-based broadcast servers as part of the upfitting of equipment during the DTV transition.

To that end, small companies like Pictron and large companies like Adobe have provided varying levels of automated metadata gathering and synchronization, ranging from facial recognition and speech-to-text up through the ability to seamlessly edit proxy content on the desktop before moving this "offline" content into the "online" editing suite. Use of this terminology, standard in the broadcast industry, may be a bit confusing to those in the streaming industry unfamiliar with broadcast terms, but watch carefully at NAB as broadcast metadata expands to cover the entire broadcast supply chain—from acquisition to syndication—at this critical transition point.

Some might wonder why mobile would even be a focus of a broadcasting show, especially given the Mobile World Congress show only occurred two months ago. While MWC is primarily a show focused on the wireless service providers, NAB is a show focused on providing content in a format that these wireless service providers can monetize in partnership with broadcasters and content owners.

One area to watch on the mobile front: with the advent of high-speed packet access (HSPA) wireless networks in the United States, capable of delivering 7.2Mbps, mobile acquisition is morphing from the need to roll a large broadcast truck to the ability to use the wireless data network to deliver a best-effort acquisition feed. Companies like Madrid-based Createcna are showing off mobile acquisition systems that span the gamut from a 64 kbps 3G mobile call up to the 7.2 Mpbs IP call transmitting an HD signal back to an SDI-capable receiver at the station that can then be integrated in to the master control for broadcast to air.

With systems like this, it's not a far cry to considering equal quality broadcasts on the web, and one of the companies best known for bringing web broadcasting down to a level of affordability for mere mortals is Newtek. This week I have been reviewing Newtek's TriCaster Pro 2.0 (and recently-released 2.5) software, which adds Flash streaming and the ability to record archival footage in an MPEG-2 transport stream format to Newtek's standard-definition line of video production switchers, which sets the stage for integrating traditional and web broadcasts, while providing a higher-quality archival format to be transcoded to a variety of on-demand formats. One area that is lacking in the NewTek lineup is an HD version of the TriCaster, and anticipation has been building to the possibility of this type of product being announced as early as the opening day of the show.

Another area to watch is mobile DVB broadcasts. Using over-the-air reception, are also gathering stream, meaning that broadcasters can leverage some of the workflow enhancements they have used to deliver streams to the desktop. DVB is more prominent in other parts of the world, but NAB attracts a significant number of international broadcasters, who want to see what technologies they can use in established and emerging markets, so watch for companies that provide DVB tools, as well as encoding and transcoding products from Envivio, Digital Rapids, Inlet, Viewcast and a few others. Digital Rapids and Viewcast, in particular, will both be showing portable field encoding systems that are capable of scaling from mobile to higher-definition content encoding (and possibly even up to true broadcast HD specs).

NAB runs from April 17-23, at the Las Vegas Convention Center and various other venues around Las Vegas.

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