What we learned from IBC 2017
Reporting back from the International Broadcasting Convention, Raymond Snoddy examines the latest trends - from VR and Voice UI, to the meteoric growth of mobile video and the rise of e-sports
At this year’s IBC Leader’s Summit in Amsterdam futurologist and technology entrepreneur Nicklas Bergman showed a picture of a chicken wearing a set of virtual reality glasses.
Bergman explained to his audience that VR would mean that the chicken could be confined in its battery cage while thinking it was out in the open fields with the rest of the flock happily pecking away and a content chicken would mean more eggs.
The slide was undoubtedly a joke but perhaps also a metaphor for humans donning the latest goggles.
In the IBC Future Zone there were many ways of enjoying VR - including new takes on the night sky and roller coaster rides, or immersing yourself in a football match.
There were also non-stop lectures on the special production techniques needed to turn VR into reality - so to speak.
Big bets are being placed and VR could be the future of everything from entertainment and training - couldn’t it?
It could of course, but the arguments for the technology are eerily reminiscent of the enthusiasm for 3D TV nearly a decade ago.
In 2008 IBC delivered, to great acclaim, what it said was the first Transatlantic high definition stereoscopic 3D broadcast. In it DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted 3D entertainment was the future because, after all, the world was in 3D. It was as simple as that and we would all come to love our special glasses.
We all know now that it was the glasses that were the problem, and sometimes dizziness and headaches.
Many hundreds of millions must have been squandered worldwide on a misplaced bet that ignored how consumers would actually behave and react when confronted with a new technology.
The warnings are already there - the goggles are a lot more clunky than 3D glasses ever were and the sense of isolation produced, even more intense.
There might even be those who argue that mere reality is quite splendid enough without much need for the virtual or enhanced version.
A senior IBM strategist was heard to mutter privately over dinner that VR was going nowhere - except perhaps for gaming. And porn.
Gaming, with or without VR, is certainly going to be increasingly huge, as is e-sports, the strange business of watching other people play video games competitively.
The Scandinavian broadcaster, the Modern Times Group (MTG), has placed an enormous bet on the future by buying up e-sports channels and associated businesses [Sky and ITV have also invested in e-sports - Ed].
Forecasts suggest that e-sports will be a $700 million business this year, already attracting mainstream advertisers.
And many a delegate was startled to hear that no less than 173,000 people recently travelled to the Polish industrial city of Katowice and paid to watch other people playing video games.
MTG executive Kim Poder brushed aside the surprise and claimed it was no different from those who went to watch others playing football.
But if not VR, what are the hottest technology and entertainment business trends?
The hottest technology trend by far, according to IBC experts, is Voice UI - or voice activated interface - especially when combined with artificial intelligence (AI).
Ericsson technologist Steve Plunkett hailed Amazon's Alexa device as an unexpected hit and predicted that voice would become the most pervasive, ordinary interactive technology. Broadcasters saw it as a new way for viewers to access their content.
Some traditional public service broadcasters are already making significant structural changes to how they operate to reflect the changing trends
As if to underline the point, the goodie bags for Leader’s Summit delegates contained Alexa devices.
Another clear trend is the move into video by social media giants such as Facebook. Facebook executive Dan Danker said that video now makes up 50 per cent of the group’s mobile data traffic and he expects that to grow to 75 per cent over the next five years.
Earlier this month Facebook launched its Watch service in the US complete with specially seeded modest, original content - very modest at the moment.
But the industry will have to keep its eye on Facebook Watch if only because an international expansion is planned and because Danker is looking to move into programme genres such as reality TV, live sports and comedy.
The biggest accelerating trend, which is already a reality, is mobile video, particularly in the developing world.
A survey by IBM for the Leader’s Summit involving nearly 21,000 consumers in 42 countries found that more and more consumers are turning to smartphones, tablets and other mobile and inter-connected devices for video.
While traditional TV, IBM says, is still the primary screen that many turn to in traditional markets, in less-developed markets 55 per cent of surveyed consumers said they watch mobile video daily.
It is also true for the under 25s in mature markets. In the US 49 per cent say they watch video on their phones daily compared with 37 per cent for linear TV.
IBM believes the trend to mobile video will continue over the next three years with a decline in those watching scheduled, linear TV. The consultants believes the decline in linear viewing will be 2 per cent in Germany, 7 per cent in Canada and 12 per cent in China.
The trend towards mobile and, in effect, more personalised video “channels” will place a great strain on existing capacity and will require, according to IBM, a complete infrastructure revamp. Management of such systems will also have to become a lot smarter.
Customer expectations are already running ahead of delivery and somehow broadcasters will have to find a way of providing what is now demanded - “the best individual experience to every consumer in context, in the moment and all the time.”
On a more practical, less theoretical level, even some traditional public service broadcasters are already making significant structural changes to how they operate to reflect the changing trends.
The Canadian broadcaster CBC explained how they have already upended their news hierarchy to ensure that every story is covered first on mobile - in appropriate style - followed by online, then radio and finally television.
CBC no longer has cameramen per se but video operators who can shoot and tell stories across the various methods of communication.
Heather Conway, head of CBC’s English language output says simply: “Virtually every decision we make today has to answer the question: how does it advance the digital CBC that will one day replace the linear CBC?”
That day may still be some way off but only a foolish person will play chicken too cavalierly with future trends.