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9 January 2020

Video advances at CES 2020 as China retreats

The Consumer Electronics Show has long been a big stage for the latest TV displays but in recent years, with the rise of OTT and mobile video, has become a significant platform as well for technologies across the ecosystem. This year, the increased presence of video and TV technology vendors helped make up for depleted numbers of Chinese exhibitors and also visitors as a result of fallout from the trade conflicts with the US.

It has not quite got to the stage where it is easier to count who is not there than who is, with many smaller platform vendors and a few larger ones like Harmonic still absent. Even so, the show has become a must-attend for many vendors closer to the consumer end of the ecosystem and also in the core areas for OTT of content security and monetization, with Verimatrix, Kudelski’s Nagra and Synamedia all present.

It is true that most vendors are still holding back major announcements for NAB or IBC, but CES is increasingly chosen to give full flight to products or services unveiled with rather less fanfare the previous year. This is the case for Synamedia with its Streaming Piracy Disruption service first announced four months earlier at IBC 2019, with the company ready to make a stronger push in the wake of several well publicized breaches and incidents late last year, as well as a rising tide of sports OTT deployments.

This meets the fast-growing requirements for coherent services, as opposed to point products, for combating illicit redistribution of live streams via set tops or connected devices that may themselves be legitimate authenticated recipients of the primary services. Live sports is the main target given that stream piracy has come to be seen as an existential threat not just to operators but also leagues and events themselves.

Synamedia has combined several elements here, firstly network forensic techniques including fingerprinting to identity streams that look like they are pirated copies. This would identify indicators such as a source constantly accessing a service 24 hours a day, which hardly any legitimate subscriber would be doing. Fingerprinting, where a snippet of the content is looked up against a database, then enables rights to be determined for that particular asset as a prelude to tracing the specific source.

Then forensic watermarking is invoked to trace individual streams back to their source, which then enables the fourth step – taking action. This could be just a warning message, or some take down action. The latter might require collaboration with the internet service provider to execute take down within minutes in the event of a live sports event where there is no time for any legal redress. Content providers can act directly to shut off supply to the infringing source without having to involve the ISP, when they have control over distribution.

Verimatrix and Nagra also offer similar packages but Synamedia at CES was trumpeting what it believes to be an advantage in integrating the piracy disruption service with its end to end video platform, while its rivals rely on partnerships for some of the components. It also claims an edge in continuous updating of the service in response to actions taken by pirates against the watermarking for example, although that does not automatically guarantee it is always a step ahead.

Synamedia also, through its global Operational Security (OpSec) team, allows operators to take action against whole pirate networks after they have been identified, to disrupt their streams repeatedly in order to make the viewing experience unpalatable, even in the absence of complete take down.

Nagra has also been touting its security wares at CES 2020 with the focus more on the need for an all-embracing approach combining traditional cybersecurity with specific content protection techniques, as well as a continued push on the IoT front. The firm emphasized how broadcasters have been increasingly subject to malware, ransomware and DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that threaten service provision and also in some cases security of content, requiring the same protections as Kudelski’s cybersecure clients in other sectors but integrated with the traditional revenue protection technologies around CA and DRM.

On the TV front, CES is accustomed to the big players attempting to steal the show, as LG succeeded in doing last year with the first demonstrations of its roll up OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens. This year, LG followed up with a larger 65-inch OLED TV that rolls down from the ceiling and again stole plaudits at the show. But, as with Samsung to an extent, gasps of admiration from the floor were rather a welcome relief from the travails being endured behind the scenes in the attempt to solve manufacturing problems with the new technology.

The story of high-end TV displays has been dominated recently by the battle between OLED, championed on big screens by LG, and QLED (Quantum LED) promoted by Samsung to boost quality at supposedly lower risk and investment.

QLED was initially dismissed as a fudge, little more than a tweak of existing LED technology, while OLED was certainly radically new. But QLED is still a significant achievement, having been developed as its own proprietary panel technology by Samsung in an attempt to match the color and contrast of OLED. It adds to LED a layer comprising minute semiconductor crystals just a few nanometers in size, containing anywhere in the region of 100 to 100,000 atoms. This is sufficiently small for quantum mechanical effects to come into play, hence the name quantum dots.

The key property for QLED is that when illuminated by UV light, a single electron in the quantum dot is excited to a higher energy state from which it will later return by releasing that gained energy as visible light. This property known as photoluminescence yields light whose color depends on the difference in energy between the electron’s ground and excited state, so by tuning that, QLED dots can deliver the desired hue and intensity.

However, while QLED yields brilliant whites and high brightness up to 2,000 nits, with capability to support multiple screen sizes up to at least 88 inches, it is too bright for many viewers, with less convincing blacks, a slower refresh rate and is not as slim because it requires the back lighting. It is not flexible either, so could never match LG’s roll up OLED TVs.

Samsung has had manufacturing problems of its own with QLED, largely relating to batch rejection rates and its path to market has been far from smooth. But LG has faced far greater problems which is not surprising as a pioneer of OLED for large screens, noting that other manufacturers including Samsung use the technology for small displays in mobile handsets, where batch rejection rates are much lower, while expectations over lifespan are also less.

OLED operates through tiny diodes made from organic carbon-containing compounds that emit light directly in response to an electric current and so do not need a backlight, which means they can be thinner and flexible, as well as displaying deeper black levels than any LED approach.

However, with larger screens, one fundamental problem was that blue OLED elements decayed twice as fast as red and green ones, and Samsung failed to find a sufficiently efficient remedy, eventually giving up. LG however discovered that the problem could by circumvented by combining white OLEDs with red, green and blue filters, avoiding blue OLED elements altogether.

The cost of LG’s OLED gamble has been high and could have been life threatening for its LG Display panel making subsidiary without the backing of the parent company. LG Display posted an operating loss of 937 billion won ($802 million) for the first nine months of 2019, squeezed between stiffening competition in its legacy LCD market from Chinese vendors and slower-than-hoped growth in OLED TV panels. Ironically, the problems in OLED manufacturing can also be traced to China and its panel manufacturing facility in Guangzhou, which has faced yield rate issues postponing start of production from sometime in 2019 to at least the end of Q1 2020.

To compound the problem, LG has actually lagged behind Samsung in the mobile OLED arena, where Apple is its main client amid hopes of gaining revenue rapidly to fund the TV panel side. It is also behind over the MicroLED technology, yet another iteration of LED which represents an attempt to reduce the handicap of the backlight by using ultra small elements so that the panel can be thinner.

Samsung made hay at CES 2020 with its MicroLED TV panel, dubbed The Wall, comprising micrometer sized elements, assembled in various sizes from constituent panels without bezels. Samsung conceded though that its ultimate destiny for LED is to eliminate backlighting altogether, using self-emissive quantum dots that produce the light directly in response to electrical signals, more like OLED.

With various hybrids in the offing, especially for smaller displays, we could witness some convergence between OLED and LED technologies, but meanwhile for LG it is imperative it sorts out its production problems and milks the window of opportunity it has as the world’s sole manufacturer of large OLED panels, even if some other CE makers such as Philips are taking these under license.

CES 2020 helped illuminate the technological directions and choices but did little to resolve which will win out and whether LG’s gamble will overcome Samsung’s pragmatism shrouded in marketing hype over the virtues of its interim QLED panels.