Editor’s Corner—For VR, 4K, AI and voice control, it’s sink or swim time at IBC

Two attendees at IBC test out a virtual reality demo in the Future Zone.

AMSTERDAM—Through the drizzly and dreary weather engulfing IBC’s 50th annual show, virtual reality is taking another shot at shining through as the future of entertainment. But confidence around the technology continues to wane.

In the Future Zone, VR is still the dominant technology presence. Roughly half of the displays and demonstrations in that area involved strapping on VR goggles and flailing your arms for the mild amusement of onlookers. But around the conference, VR seemed to elicit less humorous responses.

During a panel Saturday discussing the “hot or not” status of various emerging technologies, speakers distanced themselves from VR.

"Still find it challenging on how we are going to ask people to put on headsets for the VR experience," said Adrian Drury, group technology strategy and insight director at Liberty Global, who reserved more cautious praise for augmented reality, saying that the technology had arrived but now the question was how would it be rolled out.

Brian Sullivan, president and COO of the digital consumer group at 21st Century Fox, sounded similarly cautious as he as discussed VR on Friday during his keynote address.

“We’re a big investor in VR, but I don’t think any of us know where it will go from a mass consumer experience standpoint,” said Sullivan, who admitted he was a bit gun shy about VR considering he had gone all in on 3D TV when he was CEO of Sky Deutscheland, and the industry saw how well 3D played out.

Sullivan was however much more optimistic about Ultra HD 4K. He said 4K actually feels like it’s coming now after being a stalled promise for about 10 years, and he said that the content side of the conversation is shifting toward heavier investment, particularly now that Apple has jumped in by announcing its upcoming 4K and HDR compatible Apple TV streaming device.

The increased activity around was reflected in Ultra HD Forum’s announcement that it was ramping up in the Asia Pacific region while planning interoperability trials demos this fall in China and prepping for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

“The Ultra HD Forum goes where the UHD action is, and China is the #1 country for UHD sets, while Korea has the first UHD terrestrial broadcasting deployment, using the ATSC 3.0 standard,” said Thierry Fautier, president of the Ultra HD Forum. “It is key for us to engage with regional organizations to understand operator needs from around the world.”

As 4K progresses and VR fizzles, artificial intelligence has emerged as the toast of IBC.

"AI is something that's transforming our business today," Drury said.

"..It will disrupt pretty much all areas of the market," said David Mowry, head of Product & Business Development for IBM Watson Media. “We’re just scratching the surface on how transformative AI will be.”

AI—or machine learning, as it’s called when you don’t want to terrify people with visions of Skynet—did surface in multiple announcements, applications and sessions throughout IBC. In describing the investments Fox has made to overhaul its TV Everywhere hub Fox Now, Sullivan said that his company had leaned heavily on machine learning to rev up its recommendations.

Conviva showed off its new Video AI Alerts, which have been in testing with major programmers like HBO, that use machine learning to help publishers automatically find and diagnose issues with streaming video assets. Adobe showed off updates to its Creative Cloud, like 360 video and motion graphics, that are benefitting from the Adobe Sensei machine learning platform.

According to a recent IABM survey of end-user organizations, about 5% of respondents said that they have already have deployed AI technology and 38% said that they are likely to over the next few years.

While AI has its moment, voice control is finally achieving a breakthrough with consumers. According to new research from TiVo, 60% of people who have a voice remote use it every day. Paul Stathacopoulos, vice president of strategy at TiVo, said that voice control is reaching an “inflection point.”

Panelists on Saturday echoed that sentiment.

"Voice control is a successful consumer technology," said Steve Plunkett, chief technology officer of broadcast and media services at Ericsson.

So for many emerging technologies, outlooks are promising. Meanwhile, voice control and 4K seem to have finally reached the mainstream after years of wheel spinning. But VR, for all its promise and impressive capabilities, has spent another IBC languishing as a technology still struggling to find much of a future.—Ben | @fiercebrdcstng