The BBC Blue Room returned to the IFA (Europe’s largest Consumer Electronics Trade Show) at the start of September, tasked with investigating the latest technology trends, and deducing what the potential impact the latest innovations will have on both broadcasters and audiences.
This report is by Colin Warhurst & Ahmed Razek. The views expressed in this report are the personal views of the authors and should not be taken as the views or policies of the BBC.
The BBC Blue Room’s Colin Warhurst (that’s me) and Ahmed Razek attended the 2016 IFA Electronics Trade Show in Berlin. For those short on time, this video shows our highlight of the top tech trends and themes that we felt underpinned this year’s event. Though we would encourage you to read our full report after the video!
IFA — Official Partner of The Future
Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin is Europe’s largest trade show for Consumer Electronics and Home Appliances. Taking place at the huge Messe Berlin site, IFA was estimated to have over 240,000 visitors over the week, and over 4.5 Billion Euros worth of orders were expected to have been made. We discovered so much at IFA, and this report covers what we think are the major highlights and trends.
Rise of the Audiophile
We saw High Resolution Audio as a feature on most of the big audio stands. But ,what is High-Res Audio?
Broadly speaking, HRA means audio files that are less compressed (squashed) in comparison to an MP3. So you get more quality sound in your HRA audio file, but at the cost of more storage. There were enough HRA devices on display though, to indicate that storage is now cost effective enough to make storing larger and better sounding files such as FLAC a feasible alternative to MP3s.
As such, the HRA equipment on show appealed to audiophiles, who are always seeking the perfect recreation of sound. Of course, if you go to all the trouble with High-Res Audio, then you want to shout about it. Though earbuds and lightweight sport headphones were on show, the overwhelming trend at IFA was with larger headphones — size matters!
Large headphones are the best way to advertise yourself as being an audiophile it seems. Also, wireless Bluetooth headphones were everywhere; the technology has reached a point where some think ditching the cable is acceptable! Apple obviously agree with this trend, having released the new iPhone 7 without a headphone socket.
TV — Acronyms Everywhere
UHD, HDR, HFR, HLG, WCG… It is fair to say we’ve had our fill of acronyms this IFA. The next generation of TV’s will have more pixels (4K/UHD), show greater contrast than ever before (HDR), display a wider range of colours (WCG) and enable faster moving images to move smoothly across the screen (HFR). Simple, right?
4K was in virtually every TV set we saw, but most importantly, it was almost always bundled with High Dynamic Range. So if TVs are now capable of HDR, where is all the content? Some television broadcasters seem hesitant to engage with UHD or HDR. Almost all of the content we saw came from online only platforms or via Hollywood (on UHD BluRay discs).
Standards are now in place so that the various manufacturers can all build their UHD-HDR TVs to work the same way. But of course, this just means they need to find new ways to make themselves different from the competition. Different, it seems, is out doing each other with more and more pseudo-scientific buzzwords.
In the next few years “UHD-HDR” will become a common term — part of the pitch to the consumer. As TV prices tumble, and consumers become comfortable with the terminology, the demand for content that uses these new features will passed onto the Broadcasters. Each Broadcaster needs to decide how they will keep up with consumer’s expectations, and how to keep up with their online competitors. The ‘Hybrid Log Gamma’ (HLG) format of HDR came about from a BBC R&D and NHK collaboration in order to facilitate HDR in Broadcast TV. HLG isn’t the only standard though. HDR10 and Dolby HDR are also being used by DVD suppliers and TV manufacturers.
Online Creatives have access to Power Tools
Broadcasters have certain technical restrictions when it comes to camera choices, and with good reasons. Broadcast systems must be fed high quality material in order for the television pictures to be deemed acceptable at the receiving end. However, online Creatives have fewer restrictions when it comes to codecs, sensor size and pixel resolution; especially if the content is being viewed on mobile. Television Broadcasters do not have the same freedom as online-only creators when it comes to accessing and using some of these creative power tools.
“Any broadcaster thinking that online creators are somehow beneath them, separated by quality or prominence, needs to pay attention…”
The kit on display at IFA that you would normally classify as Consumer or Prosumer, can now achieve the same quality as, or sometimes even go beyond, the tools that Broadcasters are using. What does this mean?
Consumers who felt underserved in certain genres (e.g. Gaming) would search for this content online instead, but would generally always return to a Broadcaster for programmes made to a higher technical quality.
However, the standard these tools can now operate at means that technical quality is no longer a USP that broadcasters can rely on in order to retain their audience share. The result will be more fragmentation of audiences.
Every Surface a Screen!
Manufacturers are making a grab for almost every surface in your home. We saw screens that were built into Mirrors and Refrigerators. Where a screen could not be added, it was projected instead.
Projectors ranged from small portable units built into smartphones and tablets, projectors built into lampshades, and units that boasted 4K HDR or Laser powered beams. What stood out was the trend in making us think of the projector as something other than a home cinema. The most compelling arguments for turning various surfaces into screens were made when family lifestyle had been taken into account. Designing features that are time-saving, home-enhancing, or that make use of the emotional bond around the family unit.
“We saw multiple projectors working in unison for various screen sharing features, including the ability to instantly ‘desktop theme’ the entire home.”
The scramble for surfaces in your home will mean that Projectors will continue to evolve; becoming smaller, brighter and more interactive in an attempt to become useful integrations into our hectic lives.
“All of this means more competition for what goes up on those screens…”
Fridge as Family Hub
The first battle in the ‘Surface War’ will be fought in the kitchen. Most of the major vendors were offering an evolved form of Smart Fridge, with units that featured full sized interactive tablets built into them. This may not be a new idea, but where apps were designed around family-orientated needs, the offer was compelling. The idea was less convincing when a tablet had simply been built into a fridge door (even if the semi-transparent screens looked good) without thinking of what apps would be of benefit in that space.
“Lifestyle design and well thought through family integration was the key to separating useful from useless.”
Content makers who focus on news, notifications, audio and (of course) food, should pay special attention; if they too can excise the power and appeal of a family orientated hub, they could take advantage of what could become the next big screen in our homes.
More Than Meets The Eye
Stylish and well designed tech is one thing, but we also saw numerous examples of manufacturers making deliberate attempts to actually go one step further, trying to make the tech as invisible as possible.
We could also have dubbed this section ‘Hybrids’, as we saw many examples of one piece of tech hiding inside of another. Some of these are not necessarily new ideas, but the reason these items get a mention is that they seem to work well. It has taken decades for product design and functionality to catch up to the hype.
Sensors Will Save You
Now that sensors are so small and so cheap, they are being put into everything. Again though, we have to use Lifestyle as a benchmark when we ask if a device is useful, or pointless?
“Are these sensors measuring something useful that we could not detect before, or are they actually giving us more to worry about?”
There is no doubt that for people with genuine medical needs or concerns, some of this technology may bring about positive change. Individual consumers will have to decide for themselves, what they want to measure about their lives and their health, deciding what is useful versus what may actually cause more worry, rather than alleviate it.
Smart Homes, Confused Customers
You could not get around IFA without bumping into a Smart Home every few minutes. They were everywhere!
“For every individual smart device or manufacturer, it also means having an individual control app.”
Herein lies the issue with the Smart Home as it is being pitched. Consumers are being sold on the idea that their smartphone is the one-remote that will control everything. This is only true if you define the remote as physical, and not if you consider an app as the real control. Currently, having a Smart Home means that your phone will become bloated with far too many apps to comprehend.
Smart Home vendors are trying to use open standards to make their kit slightly more compatible with each other; but the majority were not actually shouting about this. Is this because a vendor obviously wants you to buy an entire Smart Home kit from them alone? Another reason may be that once the control is aggregated and merged into a different app, the vendor may lose some of the access to the data they would have been able to gather about you.
“However, whether Vendors like it or not, consumers will want the choice, but without the confusion.”
Consumers will demand a simpler less confusing experience, and will expect an integrated solution. Realistically, without collaborating with each other (which we saw no overt signs of) this leaves space for someone like Amazon or Apple to do it for them.
Mass VR Gaming is Here
There has understandably been lots of interest in VR. It seems every company in the world wants to know about it, and thinks about dabbling in it, even if it is not their primary line of business…
We found VR oddly lacking at IFA, with only two vendors bringing a significant VR presence. The first was VR on a Phone with Samsung’s Gear VR. The second was on a games console, with Sony’s PlayStation VR.
“Despite previous excitement at other trade shows for PC-based VR systems, we did not see many of these systems in use at IFA. Where we did, it was mostly for a Vendor to sell their own non-VR related products.”
Make no mistake — the sheer number of existing PS4 units sold already means that potential uptake for PS VR is huge. Sony’s flavour of VR could quickly become what most people think of as Virtual Reality. Sony have always stated that the PlayStation is a Games machine first, with the Home Entertainment features as a secondary benefit. It will be interesting to see if this ethos means VR Experiences will be pushed to the sidelines in favour of pure VR gaming.
Things are about to change for anyone committing to the creation of VR Experiences. You will either set the trend and create a compelling sector, or you will become marginalised as the manufacturers focus on developments that support VR-Gaming.
No Technology show is complete without the inclusion of Dancing Robots!
- Digital Audio has an alternative to super-compressed MP3s, with more and more kit now supporting High-Res Audio.
- 4K with HDR displays were everywhere… but we are waiting on more content to arrive Powertools used by digital creators have narrowed the quality distinction gap between Online and Broadcast.
- Screen manufacturers are thinking beyond the living room, Projectors are on the rise and the ‘War for Surfaces’ is coming.
- Virtual Reality gaming is about to go mainstream with PlayStation VR arriving in October2016.
- The Internet of things has coalesced around the Smart Home, but until the issue of separate device control is made simple, consumers will remain hesitant.
This was our highlight report, we hope you enjoyed it and gained an insight into where technology trends are taking us. Thanks for reading!
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