From IoT to virtual reality: A photo tour through CableLabs' research into the future of cable

By Mike Dano

LOUISVILLE, Colo.--I'm standing in the middle of what looks like the Arctic Ocean, watching wet, glistening chunks of ice float past. It's mostly silent, except for the wind. Then, with a swipe of my finder, I'm watching a family of elephants saunter past, the sun glaring down on the dusty grasslands of what looks like the Serengeti. Another swipe, and I'm at the foot of a gleaming, curving marble staircase, watching someone who looks a lot like Taylor Swift dance with a man in a tuxedo. Playing at full volume is a pop song I've heard before but can't remember the name of.

And then I'm back at CableLabs' newly refurbished headquarters here just northwest of downtown Denver, carefully removing a Samsung Gear VR virtual reality headset.

CableLabs' Eric Winkelman explains that the headset uses the accelerometer from Samsung's Note 4 smartphone to track the movements of my head but that the setup also requires a motion sensor in the headset itself in order to properly monitor my wandering gaze. Without the second motion-tracking sensor built into the headset, the system can't smoothly adjust to my movements--and I would probably get motion sick as a result, Winkelman said.

Those are the kinds of lessons that CableLabs is learning for its cable-provider customers.

CableLabs is a non-profit research and development consortium "that is dedicated to creating innovative ideas that significantly impact our cable operator members' business," the company's website states. Here on the ground in Louisville, that means CableLabs tests cool technology that eventually might make its way into some new product from a cable provider. As Winkelman explains, CableLabs' customers need to know whether technologies such as virtual reality have a place in the future of the cable business.

But virtual reality is just one of a handful of research projects CableLabs showed off during a recent open house. Below is my CableLabs tour:

My first stop on the tour was CableLabs' wireless lab.

The lab, cluttered with racks of access points and testing equipment, is intended to help CableLabs' customers better understand the Wi-Fi services they hope to provide to their customers. That testing is becoming more and more important as cable providers move beyond residential Wi-Fi and into public Wi-Fi--a move that could put them into direct competition with the nation's cellular carriers.

Moreover, wireless carriers are now testing technologies that could transmit LTE signals through the unlicensed spectrum that cable operators are currently using, making CableLabs' wireless lab that much more valuable.

CableLabs' Josh Redmore showed off some of his work in the lab, including a 3D model of the wireless signals he can track through the lab's testing equipment:

But the centerpiece of CableLabs' wireless lab is the company's RF testing room. The room, about the size of a large closet, is covered in material that blocks outside RF signals and allows the testing equipment to carefully record the performance of the signals in the room.

Redmore explained that the bulk of his work in the room is evaluating Wi-Fi access points from different vendors, though he said the room can test signals anywhere from 700 MHz to 60 GHz. He said CableLabs' cable customers need to know whether the Wi-Fi access points they're providing to customers function properly--whether they transmit signals reliably, consistently and at the proper power level. Research from the room can also help cable operators better troubleshoot users' common problems. For example, based on CableLabs research, cable operators can know how best to position a user's access point to improve their Wi-Fi signal.

"Very few of our members have these [testing] capabilities," Redmore said.

Interestingly, Redmore said he's also testing the performance of Wi-Fi access points in outdoor scenarios, though he said most of that testing is done via computer simulations (using a real, physical access point that's stored in a testing container).

The next stop on my tour was to check out CableLabs' encoding tests. The company's customers rely on CableLabs to test new encoding technologies to determine which ones provide the best-quality video stream, with a particular focus on encoding AVC. To conduct these tests, CableLabs sends raw video to vendors and has them encode the video using their technologies. The company then invites regular people to its offices to gauge their reactions to the videos, recording which ones they think look the best. These surveys enable CableLabs to report back to its customers which encoding vendors might provide the best results.

Of course, these subjective surveys are only part of the testing that CableLabs does. The company also runs its own computerized evaluations of the videos.

In the company's next demonstration, CableLabs showed off its research into the burgeoning Internet of Things space. Using UPnP connections, CableLabs showed how users' lights could automatically dim when they turn on their TV. Such technology could represent a boon to cable providers that are hoping to expand their reach in the smart-home market by tying their cable services to objects in users' homes.

Interestingly, CableLabs has already used IoT technologies in its new headquarters to enable workers to quickly and easily find empty conference rooms. The company's "huddle room" web application relies on motion sensors in conference rooms to determine whether they're occupied or empty. Occupied rooms show on the app as red, while empty ones are green--thereby enabling workers to quickly find a place to meet.

The final demonstration in CableLabs' open house was perhaps its most interesting. The company set up half a dozen giant TVs in a small conference room, with the goal of showing how much clearer TV broadcasts can be.

In the company's first demonstration, shown above playing Tom Cruise's "Oblivion" movie, the company placed two TVs side-by-side to show how changes to a TV's illumination technology can improve a viewer's experience. On the left is a standard big-screen TV. On the right is a prototype TV obtained by CableLabs that shows off display technology that highlights improvements that are possible to a TV's display "lumens." By making the darks on a TV darker and the brights brighter, TV manufacturers can improve the crispness and clarity of their devices--as long as cable providers support the display technology within their broadcasts.

In another example using different TV sets, CableLabs provided a prototype set that was able to display a wider and deeper color palette. Although the differences aren't captured well in the above picture, the TV on the left was able to display dramatically brighter and crisper colors. CableLabs' Daryl Malas explained that most TVs display the Rec709 color standard, which is a subset of all the colors visible to a human eye. Newer TVs support the Rec2020 standard, which displays a much larger subset of all the colors visible to the human eye.

The Rec2020 standard, combined with advanced image-processing capabilities and screens that are able to display the difference, result in TVs with colors almost more vivid than those in real life. However, cable operators must also support the standards in order for everything to work.

Importantly, Malas explained that virtually all of the TVs in CableLabs' demonstration support 4K technology. He said that 4K does denote increased pixels on a display but that it's just one of many, many factors that contributes to the quality of a TV display. Indeed, he said that most high-end TVs already display more pixels than the human eye can discern, and increasing the number of pixels and the pixel density doesn't necessarily result in better viewing experiences. Instead, improving the brightness and color representations on existing 4K TVs results in a more dynamic viewing experience.

An addendum to my tour occurred on the second floor of CableLabs' headquarters, in a standard-looking cubical farm off the main stairs. My guide through the company's open house, spokesman Phil Bender, casually pointed out that the nondescript area was actually CEO Phil McKinney's office. He said CableLabs' recent renovation was in part intended to create a more open and cooperative office environment--and that effort stretches all the way to the company's leadership. Instead of being walled off in corner offices, McKinney and much of the rest of the company's leadership work in cubes just like the rest of the company's employees.

In the below picture, the closer desk belongs to McKinney's assistant and, on the opposite side, against the window, is McKinney's desk.

From IoT to virtual reality: A photo tour through CableLabs' research into the future of cable