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The September 2020 special edition of the SMPTE Journal offers a comprehensive and wide-ranging progress report on just about every important current trend, technology, or technical development in the motion-imaging universe. The difference with this year’s update, of course, is that all the developments it covers are taking place on a radically altered global landscape unlike any the industry—or the world—have ever experienced before, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That reality has certainly impacted just about every aspect of how the industry marches forward, but it has hardly halted the march. At least, that’s the view of industry veteran David Wood, a Geneva-based EBU technology and innovation consultant, recipient of the prestigious SMPTE Progress Medal Award, and a member of the SMPTE 2020 Progress Report committee.
“It’s certainly true that physical meetings have slowed down, but on the other hand, this situation has opened the door for a lot more virtual meetings,” Wood says. “So there was a big sudden shock to existing activities, and a lot of testing and interoperability sessions had to be canceled or postponed. But overall, things are still moving ahead. One reason for that is the fact that we are in the business of electronic media, and that is an area where there is higher demand than ever before during the pandemic. The public needs electronic media more than ever, and SMPTE and a lot of parallel activities are continuing as essential to that.”
Thus, a comprehensive look across what Wood calls “the waterfront of the movie and TV business, the end-to-end chain” can be particularly useful at a time like this. As such, the issue contains detailed reports from each of SMPTE’s Technology Committees and select industry papers from major technology entities across the broadcast and motion-picture landscape, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Technology Council (who provide, among other topics, an update on the ACES color management framework); the American Society of Cinematographers Motion Imaging Technology Council (highlighting the creative role of the cinematographer on a digital landscape, and offering new data on UHD imaging comparisons); the Advanced Television Systems Committee (an update on ATSC 3.0); the ITU-R Study Group (work on standards for program production and the use of the radio spectrum); the Digital Production Partnership (DPP) (the future of an efficient, stable, sustainable, and secure media industry); USC’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) (a report on educating young people on the future of media); and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (evolution of the IMSC accessibility captioning standard), among others. These are just a few of the highlighted topics examined in detail in the progress report.
“I am hoping that IMSC could become a worldwide common system for accessibility,” he says. “If everyone in the world used IMSC for captions and subtitles, and possibly audio descriptions, then maybe costs would go down and more people across the world could have accessibility options built into their equipment. IMSC allows some neat things to be done with closed captions. You can add pictures to them, different scripts, and so on. It brings the flexibility of HTML to the world of closed captions and sub-titles. Clearly, we must applaud the W3C for that work.”
Also included are papers from industry experts on display technologies, digital camera lens advances, next-generation audio, media packaging and interchange, file formats, targeted advertising, and much more. Wood says there are, with degrees of overlap, three longer papers on movie production, nine on television production, two on displays, three on video compression, and seven on content delivery. “In other words, it’s a balanced look at our industry as a whole,” he emphasizes.
In terms of an over-arching theme to be culled from the series of papers, Wood suggests “the future belongs to production tools that adhere to the four supporting pillars of the temple, so to speak—they have to have agility, flexibility, security, and increasingly, a virtual component. And, of course, as always, they have to strive for high quality at a low cost.”
However, Wood points out that almost all the advances discussed in such papers depend, one way or another, “on whether you have the capacity to deliver them to the public.” This means, he continues, “that what happens in terms of video compression has a major knock-on effect on the whole industry from back to front. So the issue of digital video compression impacts everything.”
As discussed in in the August 2020 Newswatch, a wide range of evolving codecs out of the MPEG group and other entities have played a crucial role in this arena. Much of that is also discussed in detail in a paper in the Journal issue about “New MPEG Codecs and Immersive Applications Standards for 2020."
Wood elaborates that the industry “is on the threshold of a new set of video compression algorithms, including quite a number of alternative systems.” But they are achieving this at the very time that MPEG’s management has changed with the recent departure of its founder Leonardo Chiariglione. New licensing and royalty debates now abound in the industry, and a range of new compression approaches are taking the field.
“We have had AVC [H.264] and HEVC [H.265], but now there is quite a list of coming alternatives, such as the new VVC [Versatile Video Coding] system,” he says. “In the past, there was a main MPEG standard for digital video compression, and now we have a new world of alternatives. How the industry will cope with all of these, and a possible tug-of-war between the groups who have the licenses and would like to decide what they should cost when they see what the market will take, and the people who would like to know up front what the licensing will cost, is something we don’t really understand just yet. So the question is, if there is much fragmentation of compression algorithms, what happens in the industry? It’s difficult to say how all this is going to play out, but the results could impact many different parts of the broadcast business.”
Meanwhile, among the emerging industry trends that Wood took note of was the paper on the “Worldwide 5G Broadcast/Multicast Trials.” That’s because the rise of 5G mobile networks has the potential to radically evolve the broadcast universe by offering a wideband wireless and low-network cost signal that could potentially serve and interact with every kind of consumer device.
“5G opens the door to very high bit rates,” Wood states. “It’s important because it will enable us to broadcast all the things we have been talking about—from 8K UHD television to virtual reality—while serving a TV, smart phone, or tablet. It’s a step along the way toward the universal delivery of media on any kind of receiver, which might be the shape of things to come.”
Wood points to the new 5G broadcasting consortium designed to pursue such possibilities—the 5G-MAG (Media Action Group) —and the ongoing 5G trials happening in Europe and Asia that could potentially lead to the 2022 Winter Olympics, Covid permitting, having elements broadcast globally using 5G networks.
Wood says the Journal’s progress report also contains coverage of how Cloud and IT technology can be used for production applications. One example is contained in a paper by engineer and color imaging scientist Joachim Zell detailing a live experiment conducted at the 2020 HPA Tech Retreat early this year to produce a short virtual movie from camera to post entirely in the Cloud in one day—a short called Lost Lederhosen.
“It was a fascinating exercise,” Wood states. “A group of filmmakers and craftsmen split themselves into groups to test how coordination would work between teams doing different parts of pre-production through post-production—how they would handle metadata and so on. They wrote about the different steps that will be part of virtual production in the digital world.”
Wood also found himself intrigued by several other new developments covered in the progress report. One of them involves the accelerating pursuit of common technical standards for virtual-reality applications through work being done by the Virtual Reality Industry Forum (VRIF). A paper offered by the VRIF presents a range of best practices and suggestions to make what the paper calls “Live VR services” more viable across the industry, along with suggestions for evolving the technology for wider mainstream adoption.
Wood says this work is important, because until now, “public acceptance of VR headsets has not been huge. If you are going to produce something that makes people think they are actually there, you have to supply an awful lot of definition to the pictures, and that means you need very high bandwidths.”
He adds that some of the recent work in this area revolves around new developments with work on what is known as Point Clouds, which Wood says “essentially let you create three-dimensional pictures from elements—sort of a 3D equivalent of a pixel.”
On the word-of-caution front, Wood took note of a paper from the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA), Video Services Forum (VSF), and the Join Taskforce on Networked Media (JT-NM) that examined cybersecurity testing. The paper reviewed a range of 2019 cybersecurity workflow tests across the industry to search for potential vulnerabilities. According to Wood, the paper reported 385 common vulnerabilities, with two percent of those classified as “highly critical” and 16 percent as “critical” by a team of security experts.
The report stated that “the top three vulnerability categories discerned by the experts were ‘encryption misconfiguration,’ which weakened inherent security features, ‘unnecessary features,’ and ‘default credentials’ set at a factory.” The report recommended that vendors publish security contact procedures, conduct regular security scans, and more vigorously adopt IT industry best practices for cybersecurity.
“Obviously, this is an area the industry needs to get deeply into,” Wood emphasizes.
And so, based on these reports and what he is hearing across the industry more generally, Wood foresees “the big change in the next 10 years of movie production is going to be the use of more production tools in the Cloud. But to enable all that, the industry will really have to concentrate on working out how to do security.”
“So greater use of the Cloud is one of the main messages, and we have to remember that equipment performance usually improves at the cost of equipment complexity, so there is always a tradeoff to be made.
“And then, another main message I took away was about the pressing need for licensing solutions, particularly in the video compression area. There is also the fact that the industry, particularly in the post-Covid era, may be moving even further toward broadband movie delivery and away from physical cinema delivery. But I guess that folks a lot cleverer than me are thinking about that.”
A recent report in TV Technology summarizes new data from the Digital TV Research firm, which indicates that the global streaming industry will cross the $100-billion-dollar revenue threshold by the year 2025. The article says that would mean essentially doubling that industry’s revenues that were generated last year. The report also emphasizes that while the United States is still the world’s streaming revenue leader, its total share of the global pie will fall modestly by 2025 because of streaming’s strength elsewhere, particularly in 16 specific countries that will each exceed $1-billion by 2025. Also notable, however, is the fact that the research suggests that by 2025, as much as half of all the world’s streaming subscriptions will be controlled by just three industry giants—Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime. The full report is available on the Digital TV Research website.
In late September, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) announced a timely campaign to celebrate the First Amendment and legal protections for free speech and the media. The campaign was launched to coincide with the 231st anniversary of Congress’ passage of the first 12 amendments to the US Constitution—10 of which, including the First Amendment, were eventually adopted in the form of the Bill of Rights. The campaign includes an interactive timeline of key First Amendment moments in history, a social-media filter, shareable videos, public-service announcements for radio and TV, and more. You can find the campaign hosted at this Website.
An interesting recent article in the MIT Technology Review examines the new and increasingly sophisticated data collection techniques being used by both sides during the 2020 election campaign to try and more successfully target voters. Some of the topics for gathering and manipulating data examined in the article include the issues of next-level micro-targeting of voters; how data exchanges work, allowing campaigns and PACs to share targeted data; AI data modeling, and much more. The article also mentions that the rise of such tools and techniques have led to the proposal of some bills in Congress to help safeguard voter data, including the Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act and the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data Act.