NDS Surfaces: the Next Revolution in TV

NDS provided the ‘blow you away’ demonstration for IBC2011 with its Surfaces concept, which takes the best of the big screen and companion screen experiences and throws them onto a single wall-sized display (or multiple walls) to create a feast of visual and interactive entertainment that still manages to maintain the lean-back characteristics of TV.

Surfaces is designed to exploit revolutionary advances in video display technology. NDS believes that wall-sized video displays, including video-capable ‘wallpaper’, will be available at reasonable prices within five years and has decided that there is no longer any reason to limit the TV experience to a 50 inch rectangular box. Surfaces will give platform operators the display real-estate to provide more immersive TV experiences when we want to fully relax, or a combination of entertainment, diaries, information, social media and connected home applications in a television-centric user interface at other times in the day.

In the demonstration, we were greeted by an ‘ambient’ display on the wall-sized screen showing large framed photos of family members and Facebook ‘speech bubbles’ with our latest social interactions. The first person to come down to breakfast is Mum, and as she is alone she selects ‘Mum’ on the controlling tablet and the display reorganises itself so that the equivalent of the BBC Radio 2 website appears in the centre of the wall, with music and details about the current show and the music playlist. To the right is a clock, the latest weather and diary items for the day. To the left are newspaper headlines that can be pursued for more information via the tablet.

Mum decides that she wants to watch the breakfast TV news so the screen reorganises itself so that the news bulletin appears in a 50 inch widescreen format at the centre-top of the wall. Radio 2 moves to the left and is muted as the audio switches to TV. But the radio playlist is displayed so Mum can switch back to a song she likes at any moment. Under the news are headline links, which can be clicked via the companion to learn more about the news stories. After the national news comes the regional news and the headline links change to local stories.

Then we return to the TV in the evening for some family entertainment. We choose the family profile on the tablet and The X Factor appears as an 80 inch widescreen TV display. Down the left-hand side are Twitter feeds relating to the show and below this is a live voting app where you can see viewer predictions about how each judge will vote, and you can cast your own vote via the tablet. The app is updated live so that as each judge makes their decision, a red cross or a green tick appears next to their photo.

For the purposes of the demo, NDS provides an ‘Immersive’ bar on the tablet that you manually adjust depending on how immersive you want your TV experience to be. At this point, we are watching X Factor at about half way on the immersive gauge, so we still have the social interaction on the left and on the right there are promotions for Amazon where you can buy the song that is being sung currently on the show. By sliding the immersive scale higher, these interactive and social elements disappear from the screen and the video content alone fills the entire wall. For good measure, the lights also dim to create a cinema ambience.

NDS then demonstrated what a 4k (ultra high-definition) movie looks like to confirm how the wall-sized screen can also act as your home cinema. Before we could relax too much, a video feed appeared as a picture-in-picture showing a baby crying in its cot upstairs, reminding us that not everyone gets to watch a movie uninterrupted! Mum and Dad can decide whether to keep an eye on that situation (the picture-in-picture can be reduced into the corner) or dismiss the babycam feed as one of them goes to settle the youngster. The demo clearly illustrates how the TV service provider can provide connected home applications in a way that make them much more useful and compelling.

Surfaces illustrates some exciting concepts. First, it expands the boundaries of TV in anticipation of advanced screen technologies that a few years ago seemed like science-fiction. Just as the television experience has already spilled out of the 40 inch widescreen and onto tablets and smartphones, it can now encompass an entire wall. Surfaces shows how you can make use of that real-estate to completely revolutionise the user experience and potentially introduce new services, from newspaper apps to home automation and videoconferencing, that will have additional value as part of an aggregated service provider user interface.

Surfaces takes all the richness of the convergence experience, like content and contextual apps and information, and gives viewers the option to have all that in one place without overlaying anything on the video itself. Then it allows consumers to decide how immersed they want to be in the video entertainment, so they can have less or more contextual apps and information to suit their mood and the time of day.

This is a stunning demo; the best I have seen personally in my 13 trips to IBC. Surfaces is revolutionary because if NDS is right, there will be no physical boundary to the television service in future. It was pointed out that you do not even have to produce TV for a rectangular display in this new world, so producers could experiment with new shapes and effects. And subtitles do not have to be contained within the screen frame, for example. The surfaces concept represents a fabulous opportunity for Pay TV operators to cement their position as the gateway to the home, building on what they are already doing in multi-screen and companion screen offers.

The implications for a Surfaces-enabled world (and of course we will expect other middleware/UI companies to embrace this concept) are dramatic. This looks like the easiest ‘sell’ to consumers of any TV innovation since colour. The public will be blown away by it and it will require little or no explanation. It will be an early adopter must-have with great ‘wow’ factor to impress neighbours and friends. This looks like something every service provider will end up offering once the technologies are priced for the mass-market.

This could also be the market-maker for ultra high-definition. When Steve Jobs introduced the Apple iPhone he gave us the reason to need mobile broadband. This will be the reason why millions of homes, rather than just a few palaces, will want ultra high-definition TV. It is worth noting that NDS upscaled HD automatically as the viewer slid the immersion scale upwards, and this still looked good across a 3.5 metre (approx) screen. And the company stresses that you can still use standard-definition TV too, since sometimes you will be viewing content in a 32 inch or 40 inch frame size. Nonetheless, cinema style displays, which is what you get when you slide the immersion scale to ‘full’, deserve more.

There will be homes that struggle to find a wall large enough, and without obstructions, to make this work. And as many of us eat breakfast in one room (e.g. the kitchen/diner) and relax in another (e.g. the living room) the full potential of Surfaces relies on screens being affordable enough to be present in more than one room. But this is so compelling you can imagine people wanting a wall display of some kind, however their home is configured, and this could also prompt a revolution in interior design so that rooms have one clear end for the screen. What does seem certain is that this UI will probably make traditional remote controls obsolete, as this is an experience that needs and deserves full tablet control.

Simon Parnall, UK Vice President of technology at NDS, said during the demo: "I have a 46 inch screen in the corner of my home and normally it is black. And whether it is news, sports or movies, I see all content in 46 inches. It is our fundamental belief that actually, the size of the image needs to change according to the kind of content I am watching to match my attitude towards the content and my degree of interest, or what we are calling my level of immersion, in it."

Nigel Smith, VP and Chief Marketing Officer at NDS, believes the rate of innovation in display technology means this will be realistic within five years, with pricing of $2,000 or less for full-wall displays that might even be a plastic film that can display video. He noted that husbands often want bigger screens today and are limited by what their wife will tolerate! With Surfaces, there is no screen to sit in the room as furniture, so this problem is removed.

NDS has based the Surfaces concept demo on its existing unified multi-screen headend (which provides common intelligence in the backoffice for video management and delivery) and its Service Delivery Platform, which provides an open API that acts as an interface between apps on devices, a TV platform and social networks or other Internet content, and opens the way to third-party development work in multi-screen and companion screen services. These are the foundation technologies for Surfaces.

As Smith points out: "We are not waiting for the screen technology to become available. We are working on getting the technology ready prior to what we think will happen anyway. We are waiting for the hardware technologies to catch up with the software." He adds that the CE vendors are looking beyond 3DTV for what will sell screens next and points out that 3D uptake has been slowed by lack of content. "We are helping them out because as soon as they launch these new screens, this will work."

Smith adds that everyone who saw the demo said they wanted this solution at home. We are not surprised. Like the screens they will harness, Surfaces and concepts like it will be the next big thing in TV.

By John Moulding, Videonet