Grabbing the OTT lightning: traditional media drives the latest online video trends at NAB 2016

Samantha Bookman, FierceOnlineVideo

This year marked my third time covering the over-the-top goings-on at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, and the annual tradeshow, as usual, did not fail to catch the attention of the broadcast industry and the myriad vendors that support media and entertainment. Each year is different when it comes to the conversation around OTT and the technologies that are drawing the most focus and excitement, and 2016 was no exception.

Beyond the hovering drones in the central hall of the Vegas Convention Center, the clustered satellite dishes just outside, the era of IP video technologies had clearly arrived. Once just a small section of the show, over-the-top video was a central figure at almost every booth and both levels of the South Hall were filled with an array of video delivery vendors, cloud service providers like Microsoft Azure and IBM, and IP storage and cloud service giant Amazon Web Services.

Here are a few of the trends and chatter I noticed over the past few days at NAB 2016:

Vendors try to steal each other's thunder: Last week I toured Akamai's new Broadcast Operations Control Center in Cambridge, Mass., and got a preview of its live linear stream monitoring system, which includes a dashboard designed specifically for the BOCC that may eventually be broken out and sold as a standalone product. Here at the show at least one other company, NeuLion, jumped onto the OTT monitoring bandwagon with their own dashboard product.

Now, dashboards themselves aren't a new thing -- we see them in analytics software and media workflow product packages regularly -- but their target market is new: namely, traditional broadcasters who now have, or plan to have, a simultaneous live streaming component. Some of the key things about live stream monitoring dashboards are the capability to monitor multiple channels end to end, and the ability to be proactive when a problem occurs -- "we call the customer, rather than the customer having to call us," as Matt Azzarto of Akamai put it.

Virtual reality generates excitement and skepticism: Virtual reality is either the future of entertainment, or it's going to be about as short-lived as the last 3D TV push. There was no middle ground for opinions about VR technology at the show. Of course, the greatest enthusiasm for VR comes from anyone selling VR devices or providing the means to stream 360-degree video. The greatest skepticism was shared by many of those who've been following NAB-featured technologies for years, even decades. They've seen it all, and the consensus was similar: as long as VR requires a specific device, in this case bulky and expensive viewers, to work well, it won't catch on.

Providers try to find a new live streaming "gimmick": YouTube's announcing the launch of live-streamed 360-degree video was the most prominent example of a provider trying to catch the lightning, so to speak, of the popular live streaming trend. But other companies also tried to cash in on the excitement around live streaming by differentiating themselves as much as possible – whether that differentiation really matters or not.

Low latency solutions landed, but their effectiveness is in question: Getting an IP video from "glass to glass" takes time – about 40-45 seconds at its fastest rate. And while that's not a big problem for video on demand, it could be a killer for live-streamed or linear online video, particularly for sports and online gaming (including the emerging esports genre). NAB saw some significant products highlighted that claimed to reduce or even resolve this lag between the event and the viewer's device, including from Akamai, Net Insight and V-Nova.

But how well do these low-latency solutions really work? Within the environment of the NAB Show floor – even though some vendors said they were demonstrating solutions using the undoubtedly spotty floor-level Wi-Fi – the real proof of concept for all of these solutions for lag and buffering has to take place at scale in a real-world environment, delivering video to end users.

Quality is the next real hurdle for OTT:  The attention given to quality of service and quality of experience -- as well as the continued chatter about that Holy Grail of online video, the truly unified content guide -- signal that the OTT industry has entered a new phase. Consider it "young adulthood" for online video: now that the newness and excitement around OTT has worn off somewhat, a couple of dominant business models have emerged, and consumers are signed up for a service, there's increasing demand for quality and reliability. Monitoring services were evident throughout the show, promising real-time tracking of how well an OTT stream is delivered across networks to viewers.

Providers look more critically at cloud services: It's no longer enough to talk cryptically about leveraging "the cloud" to improve one's OTT services to viewers. Providers need to look in-depth at the technologies being employed by cloud providers and ask two key questions: is this service going to deliver my OTT video quickly and cost-effectively today? And is it going to be a viable service in the future? As new technologies like SDN and NFV, changing video standards, and incoming concepts like 5G approach, video companies need to future-proof their managed services. Knowledge is key. -- Sam