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Dutch Treats At IBC

The U.S. broadcast world will get a peek at what the rest of the television universe is up to, as 40,000 attendees and more than 1,000 exhibitors descend on Amsterdam for the annual International Broadcasting Convention Sept. 8-13. The IBC has grown from a Eurocentric gear show to a global gala featuring the latest in broadcast, post-production and even digital cinema for the world's broadcasters.

The sneak peeks will include telcos' television delivery, interactive-TV services and mobile-TV applications—technologies that are quickly growing across the pond.

The increasing speed with which new consumer services hit the market, whether it's via broadband, VOD or HDTV, has made the IBC a must-see for the industry's decision makers, sources say. “The speed with which technology is developing means the industry has two opportunities [IBC and NAB] to showcase how those technologies impact the industry,” says Grass Valley CTO Ray Baldock. “IBC is no longer a place to retread announcements made at NAB.”

Information technology will be perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the show. One much anticipated product in that category is server supplier Omneon's ProBrowse system, which monitors content directories within an Omneon Spectrum server and automatically generates low-resolution versions of all material. The proxies are immediately available for viewing by any networked PC using an MPEG-1–based viewer, such as Windows Media Player and QuickTime Player. The files can also be sent to newsroom systems.

High-definition TV will also be a focus, particularly since HD will soon be widely available in France, the U.K. and Germany. Graphics-gear manufacturer Vizrt will roll out an interactive touchscreen that lets on-air talent control HD graphics and virtual sets with the touch of a finger. One pressing high-def issue is which format to use: 720-line progressive, 1080-line interlace or 1080-line progressive. The European Broadcasting Union has been wrangling with the different formats—all of which will be on display—and currently supports 720p at 50 frames per second because it requires less bandwidth, a crucial factor for a continent fighting to find space on the airwaves.

But the more progressive European broadcasters are eyeing 1080p, thanks to the developments related to two MPEG-4 formats to be displayed: Advanced Video Codec (AVC) Part 10 H.264 and Microsoft's VC-1, both of which compress the high-def signal and free up bandwidth. Both are twice as efficient as MPEG-2, making it possible to transmit HD in as little as 5 megabits per second (Mbps). Microsoft, Harmonic, Tandberg and Modulus Video are expected to demonstrate the latest MPEG-4 encoding and decoding gear that is vital to content storage, internal delivery and even delivery to consumers.

“We'll be showing an end-to-end, multichannel system that includes AVC HD,” says Matthew Goldman, Tandberg Television VP of technology and compression systems. The system also has statistical multiplexing so users can make sure channels get the right amount of bandwidth to send a high-quality image and audio.

Even as Europeans are sorting out the formatting issues, they're moving full-speed ahead with high-def. The BBC has embraced HD cameras and recording for many of its programs, while Germany will unveil the technology next summer as it broadcasts the soccer World Cup in high-definition. Interest in HD production has low-cost HDV-based cameras and decks from Sony and JVC on many broadcasters' radar screens. Expect to see HDV incorporated into many servers and editing systems in the near future.

“It's part of strengthening our position of HD in any format,” says Geoff Stedman, Omneon VP, worldwide marketing.

Mobile-phone technology is expected to garner lots of buzz in Amsterdam as well. A number of formats will vie for attention, including the European DVB-T standard and developing formats like Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), the new European Telecommunications Standards Institute standard. Factum will demonstrate the latter with live signals coming in from Italian TV station RTL 102.5 via satellite. And NDS, which provides the interactive technology for BSkyB (and will soon be closely involved with DirecTV's digital-video-recorder products), will have a car at its booth to demonstrate mobile-video applications, such as dashboard video feeds.

The NDS booth will be a microcosm of the industry's move to next-generation digital technologies. “We'll be offering digital technologies that are suited for smaller [satellite, telco and cable] operators with more-restricted budgets,” says David Nabozny, NDS Europe VP/general manager. And for those already offering digital, he adds, the company's interactive-TV products (such as XStream Play) and targeted advertising can enhance those services.

Mobile video will come in all shapes and sizes at the show. Pace Micro will display working models of its PVR To Go, a portable media player with 5-inch screen and 40-GB hard drive. Users can hook the device up to their cable set-top boxes and download content to the mobile unit (it takes about three minutes to download a two-minute film via USB2 connection). PVR To Go should be on the market early next year, carrying a price tag below $350.

“The device maintains conditional access and security for pay-TV content and also has the cable operator's middleware on it, so it maintains the look and feel of the regular set-top box,” says Peter Simpson, Pace Micro chief technologist, mobile devices.

For now, much of the new technology is limited to the IBC's expansive halls. But by next year, it could be found on the streets and in the cafes and living rooms of Amsterdam—and those in the U.S. as well.