After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Digital TV too annoying to watch?

IP poised to overtake current TV and radio options

Compiled on the Ipswich to London train and dispatched to silicon.com from the Institute of Directors via a free wi-fi service an hour later.

Many countries are migrating to digital broadcast services, with most in 'partial transition' toward completion dates spanning from 2009 to 2015 (and later).

The UK is making rapid progress and the sale of digital TV sets is progressing well. However, digital radio sales remain sluggish and are overshadowed by the numbers migrating to IP alternatives.

The obvious advantages of going digital have been sold hard but there are few mentions of the subtleties of digital failures. Unlike analogue systems, digital has 'cliff-like' failure characteristics. These manifest themselves in bit and block errors in the bit stream, which show up as sudden audio glitches and pixilation errors in video.

You can see an example of pixilation problems with a US digital TV service in this video clip on YouTube.

Then there are the more interesting artifacts such a frame freezes and lip-synch slippage - these can be really annoying.

There you are watching a football match and a player is working his way to the goal, when suddenly the picture freezes whilst the audio continues. The crowd cheers wildly and picture movement is restored as the goalkeeper is retrieving the ball from the back of the net. You missed those vital frames!

With lip-sync slippage, the lips move and the words come out but there is a delay between movement and the correct words of one second or more - that is quite noticeable. This I find nearly as irritating and inexcusable as the length of time it takes to switch channels whilst waiting for that 'loading interactive services' message to go away.

Where do all these annoyances come from? Some are natural and unavoidable within the system-design specification and the laws of physics, but for sure, many are down to poor software and ill-conceived architectures that will be with us for a very long time.

So are there alternatives and potential threats to digital radio and TV? After all digital broadcasting is the same old analogue stuff served up with a few extra 'bells and whistles' - each of which comes with increasing complexity and annoyance potential. Most likely IPTV and radio, plus new content formats, will change everything in this old arena.

In the IP medium, if you don't like something you just move on until you find an alternative that meets your needs. The technology, content and use is fast-paced and follows the user's needs. This means standards evolve rapidly, as do user interfaces.

Judging by the falling audience numbers and nose-diving advertising revenues, I reckon the clock might just be ticking for the old broadcast paradigm.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.