SVG Sit-Down: Harmonic’s Lattie on the New Electra X and the Importance of HEVC

It’s an exciting time for companies like Harmonic, one of the top developers of video-delivery infrastructures. With 4K/Ultra HD growing, the HEVC compression standard is increasingly important. Also, the open Internet offers opportunities for content creators to direct content to hyper-focused audiences.

In advance of next month’s NAB 2015, Harmonic aims to position itself to support both market segments. In February, the company launched the Electra X family of advanced media processors for broadcast and multiscreen content delivery and, just this week, introduced the ProView 7100, the first single-rack, multiformat, integrated receiver/decoder (IRD), transcoder, and MPEG stream processor to support the HEVC standard.

Recently, SVG caught up with VP, Market Development, Tom Lattie to discuss Harmonic’s NAB 2015 blueprint and how HEVC is the gateway to improved viewing experiences.

Harmonic VP, Market Development, Tom Lattie at the company’s San Jose, CA, offices

Harmonic VP, Market Development, Tom Lattie at the company’s San Jose, CA, offices

What are some of Harmonic’s latest developments, specifically in terms of 4K/Ultra HD?
We announced and have been showing for a while a product for real-time 4Kp60. The bare minimum for sport is 60 frames a second so you don’t get motion sickness watching the camera pans. I think there will be a lot of talk about 4K [at NAB 2015], and the TV manufacturers are ramping up. The real challenge is, there’s still a lot of debate around dynamic range and color space. I think you’ll see a lot of [4K] stuff this year, and I think the ecosystems are finally there. Set-top boxes are beginning to ship and be deployed; the TVs are now kind of at scale, so we’ll begin to see some more movement there.

Creating the content is still a challenge. We met with one operator who’s turning lemons into lemonade in the sense that they’ve built a bunch of 3D [master-control rooms]. They’re basically going to double the capacity of those 3D MCRs — [they] were kind of dual SDI — and that way they can do quad 3-gig workflows.

Electra X seems to be bringing a lot of pieces of the puzzle together. Could you elaborate on what the product is, what you’re looking to show off at NAB 2015, and whether you have early adopters or anyone that you helped work with it? Also, what relationships do you have with clients?
[In] the Harmonic portfolio, particularly with Spectrum [media servers], we have a number of pieces for playout with channel ports, some light MCR switching, graphics and branding capability. I often say that every playout environment [is followed by] a compression stage. Historically, they’ve been separate because there’s a bunch of boxes in between: an air server or even a production server and the encoder, audio stuff, audience measurement from Nielsen, graphics.

So the idea of Electra X was to take some of that graphics and branding, some of the live source switching, switching between live sources and file sources that you have in an air server, and combine that with an encoder.

I think there were two things that led us to do that. We have a lot of customers who use playout functionality for long-format insertion or [are] bringing through a live event and want to do promos and interstitials and bumpers; they have to build a whole playout-server workflow to achieve that when 99% of it is just passing through. They buy all this infrastructure for a little bit of functionality. Can you fold that into the encoder stage? In particular, I would say our DTH [direct-to-home] customers fall into that category. We have one very large DTH operator today that’s working on the deployment of Electra X for those kinds of workflows.

The other [thing] is actually very sports-related: we’ve talked to a handful of people who have sports rights and are getting more and more rights to Tier 2 and Tier 3 events. Historically, if you were to launch a channel or even broadcast something, you [have] to build the distribution — it’s either satellite or cable — and get distribution rights, and that’s expensive. So unless 2 million people are going to watch something, it economically doesn’t make sense. What’s happened with the Internet, of course, is, now you can target micro audiences, and so those economics are no longer an issue.

Now the problem is, building a production MCR chain is a multi-hundred-thousand–dollar exercise, and it kind of just blows up the whole idea. In talking to customers, one of the things that led us to focus on some of the functionality in Electra X is, how do you build, effectively, all that functionality from the sources coming in to an OTT delivery, with source switching, graphics and branding, and going to ad breaks?

How can you build something like that that costs less than $50,000, a tenth of what a big production facility [would cost]? And how do you make it intuitive enough that one operator can watch three or four games at a time and do the cross-promotion or go to an ad break if it’s the right time. It’s not high-end stuff, but, again, if you can wrap it up nicely, there’s an audience that they can monetize.

So there we did two things. We’ve done a lot of work on channel ports with a solution we call IMCR, which is integrating a lot of that functionality. [For] OTT focuses, Electra X is delivering that functionality. So, in a single platform, you can bring in live sources, you can have graphics and branding elements, you can have bumpers and interstitials and ads that you want to insert when appropriate, and the output of that device is a full OTT-compliant stream that you can deliver to the Internet. We think there’s a real opportunity to monetize a lot more content if you can change the economics of the infrastructure. And that’s what the function and integration of Electra X bring to bear.

To go back to 4K and Ultra HD, what are some of the most common obstacles that you’re helping specific clients — sports or not — overcome? You might have touched on a couple of them already, but what are some of the common problems that are holding 4K back at this point?
The ecosystem’s one of the biggest things holding [4K] back. Think about it: anyone who bought a 4K TV two years ago basically has a coffee table with nothing for it to do. They can turn it on, but they won’t be able to watch sport because those early TVs only support 30 frames; they won’t support 60 frames. They didn’t have the right HDMI spec (the industry is still evolving; I think we’re finally almost over that hump). At the same time, to be efficient in bandwidth, you need HEVC; again, I think we’re kind of just now over [that] hump. The chips that go into set-top boxes are starting to ship this year; more TVs have that native functionality. One of the biggest things we’ve been trying to help our customers [do] is build that delivery ecosystem.

Where do you think the industry is now with HEVC? Are you guys pleased with the position that HEVC is in?
I think, from a codec standpoint and a standard standpoint, it’s really exciting.

We think HEVC has two real benefits for consumers and our customers. One, of course, is 4K, and that’s kind of table stakes: I guess everyone assumes that. The other, though, is in streaming and delivering to mobile devices. Again, I think this has a sport angle. Our customers are struggling with how [to] get a signal across the Internet; even, say, ESPN3 is still going across the open Internet. This constant tradeoff is, how do I maintain a good viewing experience but also fit it in the bandwidth so I can get the most subscribers possible? Quite frankly, I think, with AVC, we’ve had to cut a lot of corners. Although we’re now getting up to 60 frames per second, for a long time, it was 30 frames a second in order to hit the quality and bitrate, which is not a good viewing experience for things like basketball and football. So what HEVC really can bring to the table is the ability to get to more people from a bandwidth standpoint and actually improve the viewing experience.

We did some demos over the last two years, saying here’s sport at 720p 30 fps and AVC and here’s the same thing at 720p 60fps at 20% less bits. It’s like, wow, it’s such an improved experience. So I think HEVC as a codec brings a lot to bear there.

The one thing that’s still uncertain is the audience for these over-the-top or adaptive-bitrate delivery systems and the consumption devices: the tablets, the smartphones, and, to some degree, the connected TVs. That’s where we haven’t seen a lot of movement. Apple has not come out, for example, and said we’re going to support HEVC for adaptive-bitrate viewing. At least in my mind, that [would be] a pivotal moment, and when that happens and how that happens could have huge impact on the adoption rate.

We’ve been showing demos using software decoding on things as old as an iPad 2, and it works and doesn’t kill the battery life. So what’s interesting will be if and when Apple officially supports HEVC. The iPhone 6 supports it for Facetime, but [Apple doesn’t have] it for consumption. So you can imagine two scenarios: if Apple says everything from two years ago, everything from an iPhone 5 and up, now supports HEVC as part of iOS 8.2, that [would be] huge, because, all of a sudden, there’s 200 million devices that support HEVC. That could flip the whole thing.

Now, if [Apple says], well, it’s the iPad Air 2 and the iPhone 6, that’s still a lot of devices, but it’s far less. We think that [would] have huge impact as to how fast HEVC [is supported] for adaptive-bitrate technologies.