If you have bought a new television lately, the chances are it is a lot smarter than your old one. Smart TVs, also known as connected or hybrid televisions, featuring integrated internet connectivity, currently account for around a third of TV sales in Europe. They are the end point in a huge and rapidly expanding value chain driven by the intensifying convergence of television and the internet.
Just as accessing the internet solely from a desktop PC is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, so too is broadcast TV in the traditional sense -- along with the complaint that 'there's nothing on television!' With connected TVs, channels become interactive, content can be shared, rated and commented among friends, videos can be streamed and watched at will, and a favourite programme will never be missed.
'Connected TV', in the words of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, gives consumers, 'the potential to combine the best of what they get from existing media, with the best of what they can get from the new. To combine their favourite TV shows with their favourite games and social networks; material on demand, not on schedule, from the comfort of your sofa.'
And it is not just about the TV set in your living room. Increasingly both traditional broadcast TV and new multimedia content is accessible across a range of devices -- you can start watching a programme at home over coffee in the morning and seamlessly continue watching it on your smartphone on the commute to work.
For consumers it sounds like entertainment heaven, but making it happen is both a major opportunity and challenge for network operators, system developers and integrators, content providers and creators. Several EU-funded projects are addressing the challenges, from finding the best methods to deliver content to ensuring a seamless integration of all media for end users.
Bandwidth hunger: from HD to 3D
The Optiband (1) project, for example, is focusing on the delivery of high-definition (HD) and Video-on-Demand (VoD) via 'internet-protocol television' (IPTV) networks, which today typically use high-speed 'Digital subscriber line' (DSL) to deliver media content from the internet to end-users alongside more traditional voice and data services. By applying innovative algorithms to efficiently distribute content while preserving video quality, the Optiband researchers have been able to demonstrate the delivery of three HD video streams over a single 15Mbps DSL connection, allowing, in effect, three users to share one connection to watch different HD content with no loss in quality -- a big improvement on the current state of the art.
Optimising delivery methods is perhaps the most crucial factor for the widespread rollout of connected TV services today. Video content is bandwidth hungry: it already accounts for more than half of all data traversing the internet. And as HD content becomes more widespread, network saturation becomes a very real -- and alarming -- possibility. By 2016, it would take one person six million years to watch all the video content that will cross networks worldwide in a single month, according to some estimates. That requires a lot of bandwidth, but perhaps not as much as feared.
'The golden rule to remember is that all bandwidth available will be consumed,' says Jari Ahola, a project coordinator at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. 'Just as bandwidth increases, the ways to consume it are increasing too: high-definition video is one example.'
So adding more bandwidth -- essentially laying more cables and other network infrastructure -- is not the only way to address the problem. Changing the way video is distributed would also help.
Instead of using the traditional unicast model, based on servers sending data to each client, Mr Ahola and a team of researchers working in the P2P-Next (2) project have shown that content can be distributed much more efficiently over a peer-to-peer (P2P) network in which data hops from one user to the next. By deploying a modified version of the P2P technology used for illegal file sharing, the P2P-Next team demonstrated a system for delivering video that uses at least 65 % less bandwidth compared to the unicast streaming approach.
'For network operators, P2P offers a big advantage in terms of bandwidth demands and cost,' the P2P-Next coordinator says.
More efficient delivery methods are important not just to keep pace with current trends, such as the more widespread distribution of HD content, but also future ones that are likely to be even more bandwidth intensive. After HD, 3D is set to become the new viewing revolution, and researchers working in the Romeo (3) project are attempting to ensure it gets to users with sufficient quality. Their approach is to combine a quality-aware P2P system with Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) technology and innovative real-time compression methods to deliver 3D video content and spatial audio -- including live streams -- to multiple users on both fixed-line and mobile networks.
Still, network operators worry that, even with content optimisation and more efficient P2P delivery methods, user demands will lead to uncontrollable increases in traffic over time. The issue is being dealt with in the Napa-Wine (4) initiative, in which researchers in France, Italy, Hungary, Poland and the UK are carrying out an in-depth analysis of the impact a large deployment of P2P-TV services would have on the internet. Based on their work, they plan to provide recommendations for P2P-TV developers for best-in-class design of systems that minimise network load; also demonstrating low-cost changes that network operators can make to better exploit the available bandwidth for P2P traffic.
For service providers and network operators, understanding what is going on over the network is crucial to ensure quality of service. Equally, content providers and creators want to know how their content is being received by their audience.
Because linked TV can be interactive and data is able to travel both ways there is a huge opportunity to mine viewer information, enabling more accurate market research for providers -- compared to relying on viewer feedback surveys -- and the possibility of much more personalised viewing experiences for end-users.
The recently launched Vista-TV (5) project is developing a system to extract, mine and analyse anonymised viewing data from connected TV users. The end result, the project team hopes, will be the creation of an entirely new SME-driven market in TV viewing-behaviour information.
'This is a revolutionary approach. Until now, the only measurements are taken by national organisations, and only a few thousand users at a time,' says Professor Abraham Bernstein, the project coordinator at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
For end-users, however, the most revolutionary aspect of connected TV is the fact that it effectively puts them in control. You want more information on the subject of a documentary? A couple of clicks and it is on your screen, along with a list of other programmes you might be interested in watching via a video-on-demand service. You want to watch the football with your friends but don't feel like going out? Watch together, comment and interact via a social network. Just returned from holiday and want to share your photos and videos with family and friends? Upload them and create your own private channel from the comfort of your sofa.
A range of projects are working on the underlying technologies to make this integration of different media, delivery methods and viewing devices as seamless and transparent to the end user as possible.
In the HBB-Next (6) initiative, researchers are developing user-centric technologies for enriching the TV-viewing experience with social networking, multiple device access and group-tailored content recommendations, as well as the seamless mixing of broadcast content, complementary internet content and user-generated content. In NoTube (7), a team from nine countries has focused on using semantic technologies to annotate content so computers can understand the meaning of what someone is watching, which, combined with data on viewing habits and social networking activities, enables highly personalised, intelligent services. And in Comet (8), researchers are focusing primarily on user-generated content, developing an architecture for content-aware networks to make it much easier to locate, access and distribute videos.
Meanwhile, in LinkedTV (9), a team from eight European countries are going one step further, putting cloud computing firmly at the centre of the TV-internet convergence mix. By weaving content together to deliver a single, integrated and interactive experience, the researchers are building an online cloud of networked audio-visual content that will be accessible regardless of place, device or source. Their goal is to provide an interactive, user-controlled TV-like experience -- whether the content is being watched on a TV set, smartphone, tablet or personal computing device.
'Browsing TV and web content should be so smooth and interrelated that in the end even "surfing the web" or "watching TV" will become a meaningless distinction,' the LinkedTV team says.
The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.
(1) Optiband: Optimization of Bandwidth for IPTV video streaming (2) P2P-Next: Next generation peer-to-peer content delivery platform (3) Romeo: Remote Collaborative Real-Time Multimedia Experience over the Future Internet (4) Napa-Wine: Network-Aware P2P-TV Application over Wise Networks (5) Vista-TV: Linked Open Data, Statistics and Recommendations for Live TV (6) HBB-Next: Next Generation Hybrid Media (7) NoTube: Networks and Ontologies for the Transformation and Unification of Broadcasting and the Internet (8) Comet: COntent Mediator architecture for content-aware nETworks (9) LinkedTV: Television linked to the Web
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