Ottawa firms pitch the future of TV at CES 2018

You.i and Espial on the shifts and opportunities in television tech
TV

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is known for its flashy tech: high-flying drones across the aisle from high-definition televisions.

This year, however, shifts in the media industry have put a sharper focus on the content playing on these screens and how audiences will watch in the coming years.

Disney, with its anticipated acquisition of 21st Century Fox studios and two streaming services set to launch in 2018, has put the industry on notice, while firms such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have each pushed their own video platforms.

Among these tech giants are two Ottawa companies with their own stakes in the fluctuating media industry. Though they’re not in the consumer-first business, You.i TV and Espial Group are both in Nevada suites and showrooms this week, following television trends and putting forth their own visions of the future of TV.

Ever-changing channels

“All that dynamism of the marketplace makes it fascinating to be in. There’s that constant change going on,” says Espial marketing director Kirk Edwardson.

Espial helps video-service providers deliver content on Smart TVs or set-top boxes such as Android or Apple TV. These new platforms are increasingly critical to Espial’s customers – television carriers – who Edwardson says are showing up to CES in bigger numbers.

At the expo, he says they’re able to show how their turnkey Elevate solution works with emerging technology such as Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

“We’re giving them the platform and the tools to compete in the face of all of those changes going on,” he says.

You.i TV, which develops video apps for clients such as the TBS or Cartoon Network, is also pitching potential customers on what they can do with on these platforms.

In Las Vegas, the Kanata firm is showing off how its code can work with popular open-source software React Native to put providers’ apps on every platform the company supports, including both Apple and Android.

Every tech firm wants to drop jaws, but the show is just as much about what everyone else is doing. Stuart Russell, chief technical officer and co-founder of You.i TV, says being at CES gives a front row seat to the trends the firm needs to watch.

“We get a chance to see all of these companies in one place and see, ‘Who are the leaders? Who are the innovators?’”

Ad space

Don’t think You.i TV isn’t sitting on the sidelines, though. Marketing vice-president Trisha Cooke says the firm’s suite has been “packed” with media executives all week.

One of the problems You.i TV is addressing is a big one: advertising. Russell points to the immense popularity of ad-blocker plug-ins as a sign that audiences are tired of banner ads and 30-second videos interrupting the viewing experience.

On the other hand, he says, modern viewing habits have opened up new opportunities for brands.

Russell gives an example: When you select a show on your Smart TV, the interface that pops up could offer a natural space for sponsors. Maybe the service-provider sells that space to Coca-Cola, and now the loading bar is a Coke bottle that pops its lid when it’s finished buffering. A promo code might even appear offering a free Coke.

You.i TV’s code already allows for that. Russell says this isn’t an interruption in the way of a traditional commercial. It’s a different “flavour” of branding, he says, that doesn’t ruin the experience.

“It’s something that’s completely and utterly abstract, but it allows users to get engaged.”

“It’s something that’s completely and utterly abstract, but it allows users to get engaged. It allows users to see products without having disruption in the content.”

Cooke says these approaches are changing the way companies think about screens and creating new space that’s attractive to brands.

“Every piece of glass on the interface side is new real estate for branding, which is actually blowing the sponsorship folks’ minds,” she says.

The big picture

In the next decade, both Russell and Edwardson expect the traditional TV experience will evolve beyond the screen.

Russell says the advent of augmented, virtual and mixed-reality technology will blur the lines between where video begins and ends. Once relegated to the household’s glowing box, visual media will begin to follow us around on special spectacles and transport us to alternate dimensions, he says.

“I don’t think TV as we view it, as television, is going to really be the same at all … It’s going to be a completely different environment.”

Edwardson expects Alexa and her fellow AI assistants will play a more proactive role in choosing what we watch, mastering our preferences to the point where recommendations are more accurate and enticing.

He also foresees a regression, of sorts. While today’s variety of streaming services has given consumers more freedom than ever before, he says the inability to watch what’s on Hulu because you only have Netflix and HBO GO subscriptions will inevitably frustrate users. He foresees a return to an aggregator-style, similar to the way traditional cable packages clustered channels.

How long the traditional glowing boxes stick around is anyone’s guess – in 2018, the aisles of CES remain lined with TV screens of higher and higher resolution. Whichever direction television and its producers head in the few decades, though, Las Vegas is likely to be a stop on the way.

“I think CES is a marquee show to catch a sense of all those changes coming, and it’s exciting for us to be right in the midst of that hurricane,” Edwardson says.