NAB 2019 in Review: The major trends and surprises from the big broadcast show in the desert
The 2019 NAB Show is in the books, and it was once again a whirlwind of activity and technological innovation. And the SVG editorial team was out in full force on the show floor, visiting hundreds of vendor booths and chatting up sports-production leaders throughout the week. Below is a recap of key trends that our writers identified: notably IP and virtualization, increased 4K and HDR, the rise of AI and automation. Contributing their insights are SVG’s Brandon Costa, Jason Dachman, Dan Daley, Kristian Hernandez, Ken Kerschbaumer, Karen Hogan Ketchum, Fergal Ringrose, and Will Strauss.
What were some of the key trends this year at NAB 2019?
KK: Across the board, it seems that NAB 2019 exhibitors are offering more-complete solutions and products than in the past few years. And that simply reflects the maturity of the technology and workflows (think IP, HDR, 4K) that have been incubating for some time.
FR: After several years of discussion (maybe more so on the U.S. side?), the ship of IP-based live production based on SMPTE 2011 has definitely sailed. We’re on the move — whether for all-IP or hybrid IP-SDI operation. The key step-up I perceived in conversations is a new focus on orchestration — definitely my top buzzword of the show. In IP-based operation, that layer of network control and monitoring becomes critical. And this is new territory for broadcast engineers who have spent a lifetime in baseband operation.
JD: Although 12G solutions were much more prevalent at the show than I had expected, the migration to IP seems to be in full swing. If you’re building a broadcast facility from scratch, it’s a no-brainer today, and even those with legacy infrastructure seem to be moving toward hybrid IP-SDI workflows at a much faster rate than last year. Much of the credit goes not only to the maturation of SMPTE ST 2110 but also to broadcast vendors’ finally shipping 2110-compliant products.
BC: This wasn’t the level of Mobile World Congress, but 5G certainly made its presence felt at this show — if not explicitly written out on booth displays but in almost every conversation I’ve had. We’re at that stage where it’s the magical unicorn of a future that will open up everything for us — once it gets here. There’s a duality between the hype and the desire for this industry to pump the breaks and sort out the real benefits for our business. This is more than just faster cellphones and more even than expediencies in sports venues like in the days when LTE first came out. For sports-production pros, 5G means significant advances in video contribution. It can further power the shift to at-home production. It makes the cloud even more significant in a live, real-time environment. Heck, even on the creative front, you can tap into things like user-generated content in venues and integrate that into your live production. Get ready to hear 5G hyped for many NAB Shows to come. When it will meet its full potential is yet to be seen.
JD/KH: ESPORTS! Nearly every single vendor cited esports as the biggest growth vertical in the industry right now. With countless more esports arenas and studios sure to launch in the next 24+ months, esports are likely to continue to be M&E’s biggest bull market.
WS: For me, it was all about the influence of AI and machine learning (ML). Everyone was injecting their products and services with AI — or pretending they were. Everyone. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that many of the caterers and bar staff were doing it, too. In direct relation to AI and ML was the subject of automation, though not as far as replacing people is concerned (although that is a factor). It was more about how automation can free up human beings to do other, less boring/onerous tasks. This was a general trend across lots of vendors.
KHK: The diversification of transmission offerings, especially from satellite companies. In addition to offering satellite, many are getting into other transmission options, such as IP, public internet, and bonded cellular.
DD: I definitely saw accelerated shifts to AoIP and immersive audio. Also, RF reallocation is finally behind us. Or is it?
KK: When it comes to the imaging side, 4K and HDR are the norm in cameras and lenses. And that means that (much as in the transition to HD when HD cameras became the norm) the industry is poised to embrace UHD and HDR. Still need to figure out how to get it to the homes.
JD/BC/KH: Traditional broadcast vendors showing how their gear can be used for at-home production. Sports broadcasters’ rapid shift to at-home-production for live coverage was driving nearly every single major technology trend on the floor, including IP, virtualization, and the cloud. There seems to be a complete faith and confidence in it now, whereas, in previous years, there were still a few issues technologically to work out. At-home, REMI, home run, whatever you call it, it’s the future of this business on a wide scale.
KK: Automated production systems are definitely on the rise, and those solutions will play a key part if sports broadcasters are expected to build a business around broadcasts of third- and fourth-tier events.
KHK/BC: IP workflows. In particular, KVM manufacturers (and similar vendors) showcased how their technology works in an IP workflow. On the point of IP, the battle over COTS-based switching is getting really juicy now. Also, in speaking with one vendor representative, one of the major challenges now, particularly in live sports production and operations, is finding engineering talent with a strong skillset in both broadcast and IT. The up-and-coming generation knows IT, the veterans of the business know broadcast, and neither is really all that excited to learn the other. An engineer with a blending of those skills is extremely valuable in the current economy.
WS: Another of the key discussion points was virtualization aligned tightly with one of my favorite acronyms, SaaS (Software as a Service). It is quite clear that very few people want blinking lights or black boxes anymore. And no one wants to own anything. Rent, hire, subscribe, yes. Own, no.
BC: We’ve been hearing about the cloud and virtualized workflows for many years. This is honestly the first NAB Show where I actually felt genuine confidence in it. There are major deployments worldwide, and even those broadcast entities that haven’t made the switch have elements of their infrastructure in the cloud, and their future looks to feature even more of it.
JD: On the media-storage side, after several years of hesitation, the sports-production industry seems to be finally opening up to a shift from file-based to object-based storage. As cloud-based workflows increase, object storage will become only more desirable for content creators. Esports organizations like Riot and Blizzard are helping lead the way here.
WS: Interoperability. It has been a discussion point since as far back as I can remember (circa IBC 1999), but, this year, I got the impression that IP interoperability is a potential cause for concern. Lots of vendors say their IP-based systems, applications, and services play nicely with other vendors’ IP-based systems, applications, and services, but very few can prove it.
KH: AR, VR, transport over IP, sports betting, esports, and at-home production were all big trends at the show as well.
KK: At every NAB I like to put myself into a mental time machine and think back to NAB five years ago and ask myself if the industry is now ahead of where I thought it would be. The answer is, clearly, yes. The quality of the imaging products, the incredible (too many?) choices of workflow options, the transformation to virtualized production and automated production systems. I know the industry has its challenges but there is NO ONE who can say that the engineering and product development teams across the ENTIRE industry have not exceeded expectations in terms of price performance.
In terms of trends, was there anything that surprised you or that you did not expect to see?
KHK: I was surprised to hear increased discussion on HDR in venues. Just a few years ago, it seemed that the majority of the industry believed in-venue HDR to be a nonstarter and that 4K would be the way to go for the main video displays. Now, according to systems integrators, HDR is the leading trend, and 4K is not as popular a choice — at least, for the center-hung and end-zone boards. 4K in suite areas will certainly continue to grow.
KK: I was surprised by the number of products that offered support for 12 Gbps. And it was a pleasant one as while many new facilities will see IP as the best solution there are plenty of sports professionals who would be happy to rely on 12 Gbps rather than needing to leap to a whole new way of working.
FR: In talking about that orchestration layer, what was surprising to me (again, from a number of conversations at the show) was that we find ourselves in a new area of confusion around NMOS — the AMWA Network Media Open Specifications — in building and management of SMPTE 2110 IP-based media facilities. NMOS compatibility is critical in ensuring that ease-of-use of all devices moves closer to the plug-and-play usability of SDI, but there is definitely work still to be done in this area.
BC: Not surprised but more disappointed that we’re still having the same conversations around latency in live streaming. The vendors say they can deliver with fractions-of-a-second latency. The end users say “Yeah, but what about at scale?” The feel I got from many conversations is that there is at least some confidence that the rise of sports gambling in the U.S. can help push that over the edge and get us closer to a synced-up world of live sports delivery to the home (or whatever device). In the very near future, when live data is tracked by AI and fed into an official stat feed used by a league to power a gaming experience with a casino partner, there can be no room for error with millions of gambled dollars on the line every single night. Fingers crossed!
JD: On the storage side, although the cloud was everywhere at NAB 2019, tape is bigger (and cheaper) than ever. It seems that media companies are beginning to understand which parts of their library/archive work better in the cloud vs. on-premises, rather than entertaining a full-tilt migration to the cloud. These types of hybrid workflows will mean a growing role not only for the cloud but also for tape, SSD, and on-prem infrastructure.
DD: How rapidly esports has become a thing, with millions of dollars going into dedicated esports venues (although I still wonder if, long term, it’s the athletics version of 3D).
WS: Sadly, no. Nothing surprises me these days. I long for the day when I stumble across something genuinely disruptive that will shake up both the industry and the otherwise terribly mundane tradeshow experience.
Were there any trends from previous years that you expected to see more of at the show but appeared to now be in retreat?
FR: VR. Apart from Dolby with immersive audio, I’m not sure I heard anyone else at the show mention virtual reality to me in terms of immersive visual experiences. Is VR, certainly within our sphere of live sports production, now in retreat? That would be the perception.
WS: I was fully expecting to see lots of virtual reality — both experiences and the technology that allows high-resolution VR streaming at low bandwidth. The latter is a game-changer for our market. Maybe it was there and I missed it. Or maybe VR is the new stereo 3D? I also expected to be bombarded with blockchain, but it never came up in conversation. Not once. Perhaps it is too early?
KK: VR and drones were two things that stuck out to me as missing from the floor and exhibits. The growth of both depend largely on forces outside industry control: VR is in need of headsets that have enough pixels to offer a truly HD (or 4K) experience, and drones need the help of the FAA.
BC: I’ll echo what has been said about VR. A handful of displays were still touting it, and a source of mine, who is a VR skeptic, says he was impressed by a demo at HP’s booth. I didn’t see it, so I’m just taking his word. I don’t believe VR is dead by any means, but vendors may be aware that they had better tinker with this technology more behind the scenes and make notable progress on resolution and scale before demoing products, because the slow, steady progress we’ve been seeing over the past few years has, frankly, become frustrating to attendees.
JD: After getting the sense at NAB 2018 that most live sports productions would migrate to 1080p HDR before making the leap to 4K, I have to say that 4K HDR seemed to jump ahead this year. Several sports end users on the floor told me they were readying full 4K HDR capabilities at their remote and fixed production facilities, and vendors were much more confident that 4K is officially on its way.
KHK: I didn’t hear a lot about 4K as a trend, although that may be due to the companies I met with. From those who did speak about 4K, it came across as something that they were expected to have, rather than as a groundbreaking new technology.
DD: When it comes to audio, 90% or more of the world still listens in stereo.
As you wandered the show and chatted with vendors, what was their take on the show this year?
KK: A couple of vendors said that traffic seemed light throughout the show, even on Monday afternoon (maybe people left early to watch Virginia play Texas Tech?). But, overall, they said deals were getting done, which isn’t always the case. And, of course, there was plenty of concern about the show starting on Sunday next year and a bit of anger over the fact that it won’t end at 2 p.m. on Wednesday (which means a much later night and the inability to catch a flight home). I know NAB is saying that “Sunday is the new Monday” next year but they also have to work hard to figure out how to make sure Wednesday is not the new Thursday. The only thing worse than a final day that is slow and ends early is a final day that is slow and ends late.
FR: Without exception, the take of vendors I talked to was the rude health of the market, certainly in relation to the sports-production and -operations sector. The most positive show I can remember in this regard.
JD: As the move toward software-based solutions, virtualization, and the cloud continues, I think there is some concern as to whether broadcast vendors can adapt beyond the “selling boxes” mentality and take on a more opex model. I heard this several times from both vendors and users alike. Much like the FAANG companies in big media right now, it seems like major cloud providers like AWS and Google Cloud Platform increasingly hold all the cards in the broadcast-technology industry. Traditional vendors must adapt and find ways to function within this new ecosystem or risk being left behind.
BC: Definite feel of high quality of attendees, even if the attendance number was down a bit. Overall, there’s generally positive feeling about the industry, although many are concerned about the current state of consolidation and how this is just the beginning of that trend. When the FAANGs become even more powerful in a cloud-based world and the largest mobile-service providers (Verizon, AT&T, Samsung, etc.) hold the cards in our 5G future, the industry could become very top-heavy and even harder for smaller companies to compete in. Innovation is going to have to happen at the application layer, not below the line, where most, if not all, of that market is positioned.
WS: I got the impression that most vendors felt that footfall was down slightly on last year (and two years ago) but that those people who were there were spending money — or at least looking to spend money. There was also a general thought that it was “more American” than in the last few years. The suggestion is either that the U.S. has awoken from some sort of slumber or that there were fewer international visitors. The stats back up the latter: international attendance fell for a second consecutive year. Two years ago, there were almost 3,000 more international visitors than there were this year.
KHK: Most seemed happy, and those who reflected on the lower attendance stated that there were “fewer tire-kickers” and more decision-makers.
KH: A lot of vendors felt that the show was less crowded than in previous years.
DD: Quality traffic at the show. They’re in a mood to spend, though cautiously. And people are concerned about jobs, in the wake of the AT&T/WarnerMedia and Disney/Fox mergers.