Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Television Zombies Are...Turning! (to Digital Distribution)

Don't look now, but you'll soon be surrounded by zombies!!!

Let me back up...

Over the past few years, I've worked with content owners, cable providers, and television networks who have realized that their existing distribution channels are someday going to become far less relevant.  Creating engaging digital distribution channels is a key priority for these organizations, who realize that while the traditional broadcast systems still bring in more "analog dollars" than the "digital pennies" seen by online media, the numbers move further in the digital direction every day.  As the world divides into more and more deep niches, digital advertising is bringing in higher CPM than broadcast advertising at the same time that widespread capability for broadcast in HD is reaching every device you own short of your toaster.  Once the numbers hit a critical mass, things will move very quickly.

Very soon, all of the comfortable, familiar TV shows, big sports events, and content you're used to will be organized and distributed by the best digital platforms, not the biggest legacy networks.  The smart networks are doing everything they can to get ahead of this trend now, but it's already too late!  The first zombie has turned, and the infection will be widespread very shortly...

And that first zombie is..."Zombieland"!  

You may know that the movie Zombieland was originally conceived as a TV series, and it was recently announced that is, for the first time ever, going to take that TV series and skip a planned TV-based broadcast entirely, heading straight to digital distribution via its Amazon Instant Video Offering.  Looking back 10 years from now, perhaps no one event in the history of this massive shift to digital distribution will be more significant.

Of course, Netflix has already announced they'll be producing a revived Season 4 of Arrested Development, but now we're seeing this happen at the beginning of a new original TV series originally designed for broadcast television.

Amazon certainly has the reach to make this show a hit 100% online, with Instant Video available on iOS, Android, the web, all 3 major game consoles, and a collection of smart TVs and other devices:

Now that the first zombie has turned, it won't be long before it infects others.  Is your zombie preparedness kit ready?  No, not the one they sell on Amazon - your digital zombie preparedness kit!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

UPDATED! 4K Resolution: Will it Ever Matter for Online Video?

CES 2013 is going on this week, and we have a few representatives from Vertigo in attendance.  While we're used to seeing 3D technology hyped and over-hyped at CES, the word on everyone's lips this year seems to be "4K".  

4K televisions are being displayed by multiple manufacturers, and are being touted as the last HD resolution you'll ever need in your home.  The $17,000 LG 84LM9600 will be the largest LCD on the market, and the first with 4K resolution:

4K is the next frontier in High Definition video resolution: it refers to 4096x2304 pixels, four times the definition of 1080p.  Another similar consumer-targeted resolution of 3840x2160 is being marketed as "Ultra HD" - the technical standard being named "Quad HD".  

How big does 4K "feel"?  Take a look at this image, keeping in mind that MOST content that you watch on your HDTV via cable or satellite is 720p, and Blu-Ray discs are 1080p:

That's a pretty impressive increase in pixels.  Both 4K and 2K come to us from the world of cinema.  George Lucas pioneered shooting digitally to avoid the cost of film stock, and originally shot "Attack of the Clones" in full 1080p HD.  Digital Cinema Initiatives was formed in 2002 to determine global standards for digital cinema, and devised two standards: 2K (slightly larger than 1080p HD) and 4K.

So, what does all of this mean for online video?  In short, we won't be seeing it for a long time, for 2 key reasons:

1) You don't need it:
Geoffrey Morrison's CNET article entitled "Why 4K TVs are stupid" goes into a good level of mathematical detail about why 1080p is really more resolution than the human eye can see anyway unless you're closer than 6 feet to your TV.  The human eye with 20/20 vision can resolve 1 arcminute, or 1/60th of a degree.  Doing some trigonometry based on your distance from your TV and its screen size can tell you whether a resolution greater than 1920x1080 even matters.

Other sources indicate a small sliver of distance/size where Ultra HD/4K may make a difference for you.

Of course, we're talking about online video, and TVs aren't the only display in town.  What about Macs, PCs, tablets, and mobile devices?  Panasonic has demonstrated an Ultra HD tablet intended for architects and other workers who may need super high resolution in a tablet form factor:

This could eventually lead to 4K screen technology in the home, but the bottom line is still that the price will have to reduce dramatically before the dubious value proposition to most consumers is anywhere near worth it.

2) You can't stream it:
Those of us with high-speed internet at home typically see speeds around 10Mbps.  This can fluctuate, and while streaming 720p content is usually a pretty consistent experience these days, streaming 1080p content is often a buffer-fest. 

1080p content (1920x1080 pixels) has 2.25 more pixels per frame than 720p content (1280x720), and consequently takes about 2.25 times greater bandwidth to download.

4K content (4096x2304 pixels) has 10.24 more pixels per frame than 720p content.  Roughly, this means you'd need a connection providing around 45Mbps in order to stream 4K content. 

In a world where home internet providers are moving towards monthly usage caps, the massive size of the video being downloaded is perhaps more of a challenge than even the daunting speed requirements.

One factor that could help here is the upcoming H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding standard. With claims of double the efficiency of H.264, 4K content comes a bit closer to the reach of users at home.

Do you think 4K will be relevant to our work in online video in the next few years?

My expert video compressionist friend Alex Zambelli did a lengthy analysis describing why H.265 will actually get us very close to being able to stream 4K some time soon.  Check out his post here.  The key exerpt (below) is that you cannot take current bandwidth requirements for 720p/1080p and do simple multiplication based on the number of pixels - the relationship is non-linear:

I believe that the relationship between bit rate and picture size is not linear, but closer to a power function...
In other words, I believe that as the pixel count gets higher a DCT-based video codec requires fewer bits to maintain the same level of visual quality.

Thanks for the detailed analysis, Alex!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Gamify your Online Media Experience!

Your online video audience is about to get up and leave you.  

It's not that your content isn't interesting or relevant.  It's not that your delivery pipeline is unreliable.  It isn't even that you've monetized too aggressively with too many ads.  So what's the problem?

The experience of consuming your content isn't fun enough or social enough in itself.  Let me be clear - I don't mean that your content itself isn't fun.  That cat sail video was hilarious, as was the landord one.  I'm referring to the enjoyment users get from the actual process of navigating and consuming your content.

Welcome to the world of gamification.

Working in the media world, I often tell my clients "Content is King" when discussing design approach.  However, in a world increasingly full of consumers who list video games as their primary source of entertainment, simply having the best content is no longer good enough.  This new generation of younger people is often derided as having zero attention span, but they're not the problem - the rest of the world just moves too slow for them.  As content providers and media developers, we need to catch up to their speed!

Gamification Makes Content Fun and Social (and changes our brains!)  

Studies of gamified learning environments show that classrooms of students whose curricula include gamification perform far more effectively due to the inclusion of those game mechanics.  These students cite as the leading drivers of their increased engagement the fun and multiplayer nature of the new approach.

Why is gamified content exploration so rewarding?  Playing games actually changes your brain.    It's widely known that the cycle of reward that games offer releases dopamine in the brain, but beyond that addictive effect, studies are increasingly showing that gaming increases the fluid IQ of the gamer and builds neural pathways related to creative problem solving.  

There is a school of thought that gaming is one contributor to the Flynn Effect, the sustained increase in intelligence test scores since the 1930s (about 0.36 points/year in the U.S.).  The additional stimulation, challenge, and creativity that come about from gaming may actually make us smarter.

Who else is gamifying their content?

Gamification is taking over the business world.  The Gartner Group's analysts predict that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.  The New York Times recently ran an article on gamification in business that was itself gamified. 

Ford's Fusion hybrid displays its MPG-meter not as a gauge with numbers, but as a tree that drivers can grow or decay based on their driving habits:

Real money can be at stake in these games as well.  Kevin Richardson won a contest that sought to reduce speeding.  He created a "Speed Camera Lottery", whereby motorists were rewarded with a cash payout for driving slower than the speed limit when captured by automated speed cameras.  The payout?  The fines levied against the speeders caught by the same camera.

Ideas to Gamify your online media experience

So, how do you prevent your online audience from leaving you by gamifying your content?  Here are two of my ideas:

1) People Living in Competition

One of the key elements in gamification is the social aspect (think Foursquare checkins, social games like Zynga's Farmville, etc.)  Imagine 4 groups of video consumers:
  • A classroom of 20 students for an online university
  • Attendees at a virtual online conference
  • Netflix subscribers watching videos on Xbox consoles with their friends
  • Ad-supported audiences watching the Super Bowl on NBC via tablets
Any of these audiences are prime candidates to compete with their peer viewers.  Online video is unique in that it allows the kind of direct audience interaction that allows viewers to observe the activity of other users - why not make it a competition?  Rewards for most videos watched, most sharing with others, etc. can motivate much higher dwell times.  This actually leads into the dopamine-generating cycle of fun that makes video games addictive.

2) Show me the Money

As mentioned above in the Speed Camera Lottery, real monetary rewards are becoming more commonplace in gamification.  Video game players are seeing their game playing as more and more of a money-making sport, and the same expectation extends to gamification of video.  That group of students might win a homework holiday for watching the most independent physics videos.  The Netflix subscribers might win a free month of service.  The possibilities are endless.