Category: Current and Future Trends

Companies now to support multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Harman now has smart speakers for Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant | Engadget

The Sonos smart speaker with microphone hits the FCC | The Verge

Sonos to announce new smart speaker on October 4th | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Harman

WHEN VOICE MEETS SOUND (Press Release)

Introducing JBL® LINK Series: Immersive JBL Sound Now Available with the Google Assistant (Press Release)

HARMAN introduces Harman Kardon Allure with Amazon Alexa to the Voice Activated Speaker Family (Press Release)

My Comments

Harman Allure smart speaker press image courtesy of Harman

Harman Allure smart speaker powered by Amazon Alexa

The Internationaler Funkaustellung trade show has been and gone but this time more manufacturers were premiering smart-speaker products based on either the Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant platforms.

One of these is the Sony LF-S50G speaker that looks like Apple’s Siri-based HomePod smart speaker but has an integrated display while Panasonic were also launching the GA10 which is a box-like smart speaker. Both of these speakers work with Google Assistant.

But a few companies have put their feet in multiple ponds by supporting two or more platforms. One way is to offer different models or product ranges that are based on different platforms. The other is to attempt to have the one smart speaker able to be set up to work on one of many platforms that the user chooses.

JBL Link smart speaker range press picture courtesy of Harman

JBL Link smart speaker range powered by Google Assistant

The former approach has been taken by Harman who have multiple names of respect in the hi-fi, sound-recording, PA and allied industries under their wings. Initially, they offered the Invoke smart speaker that is based on the Microsoft Cortana platform. Now the premiered the JBL Link range of smart speakers that work on the Google Assistant platform as well as offering the Harman-Kardon Allure smart speaker that is based on the Amazon Alexa platform.

Pioneer and Onkyo recently underwent a “Renault-Nissan” merger of their home audio and AV businesses and offered a few smart speaker models based on the different platforms. Here, Pioneer premiered the Smart Speaker F4 which is based on the Amazon Alexa platform while Onkyo launched the Smart Speaker G3 based on the Google Assistant platform while maintaining the Alexa-based VC-FLX1 smart speaker that was launched at CES 2017.

The latter approach has been taken by Sonos with their S13 prototype smart speaker that is intended to be released on October 4. Here, they put forward the idea of having the user to have this speaker work with Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant rather than being stuck with one platform. It is seen as a premium-level attack at the Apple HomePod which will be based on Siri.

The approach of a manufacturer supporting different voice-driven-assistant platforms like Alexa or Google Assistant in different product ranges may appeal to companies who see one of the platforms offer a particular premium-level cachet which can tie in with their premium product ranges. This is while a popular platform like Alexa or Google Assistant could end up being focused on to popularly-targeted products.

Compare this with the idea of having multiple platforms supported by the same smart-speaker or similar device. Here, it can appeal to TVs, hi-fi / home-theatre components and allied devices that are expected by customers to run for the long haul or with premium network speaker products.

Either trend could be support by many different manufacturers while the devices that you interact with for these platforms could end up being more than just the cylindrical benchtop speakers.

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AVM adds mesh functionality to more of their network infrastructure devices

Article (German language / Deutsche Sprache)

AVM FRITZ!Box 3490 - Press photo courtesy AVM

Newer AVM Fritzboxes, FritzWLAN and FritzPowerline part of a mesh network

Neues FritzOS mit Mesh-Funktionen für mehr AVM-Repeater | ZDNet.de

From the horse’s mouth

AVM

IFA 2017 Press Release (Vergrößern Sie Ihr WLAN – mit Mesh).

Product Page

My Comments

Previously, I have covered how AVM, a German home-network infrastructure company, have approached the idea of a distributed home network. This is through a firmware update to some of their newer Fritz!Box routers and network-infrastructure hardware (Wi-Fi repeaters and HomePlug AV access points) such as the Fritz!WLAN 1750E repeater and Fritz!Powerline 1240E HomePlug access point.

What also impressed me about their approach is the use of a wired or wireless backhaul rather than just sticking to a wireless backhaul. Here, it can be about serving areas which are out of the router’s radio range, including providing support for multiple-building home networks. This is while providing a simplified setup and operating process for your home network.

Initially this was a beta firmware update that may not be considered stable and only applied to a few devices. But AVM have got the firmware to a stable condition and have written it to work with more devices. This includes the Fritz!Powerline 540 and 546E HomePlug AV500 802.11n single-band dual-stream access points and the Fritz!WLAN 1160 802.11ac dual-band and Fritz!WLAN 310 and 450E single-band 802.11n repeaters.

Of course they have underscored a simplified setup experience with firmware delivery and network configuration. This includes a Web-based configuration dashboard which shows how the network is set up as well as the condition of the wired and wireless backbones. The support for a HomePlug wired backbone will please those of us who live in stone or double-brick houses where HomePlug is more surefire as a backbone or who have multiple buildings on that large property.

Like with other distributed Wi-Fi setups, there is an emphasis on bandwidth optimisation such as steering high-throughput Wi-Fi devices to the sparsely-occupied 5GHz band if they can support it. Let’s not forget the fact that these systems set each access point on a Wi-Fi channel that they determine works best.

But why should AVM support single-band access points and repeaters that work the 2.4GHz band as part of their mesh? This may work out by allowing these devices to, perhaps, provide infill coverage on that band using a different channel. For example, other devices that work on that band like Bluetooth or 2.4GHz DECT devices, or the microwave oven may cause interference for Wi-Fi devices and a properly-designed mesh system could re-optimise the channels to avoid the interference.

What I still like of AVM’s approach to distributed Wi-Fi wireless setups is that they are enabling this functionality simply through deploying newer firmware to existing products rather than requiring users to buy a new system. This saves the users money when it comes to hardware costs as well as seeing newer hardware in to the long term.

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Acer raises the bar for convertible 2-in-1 laptop performance

Articles

Acer goes after casual gamers with upcoming Nitro 5 Spin convertible laptop | Windows Central

Acer Nitro 5 Spin: Gaming Convertible with 8th Gen Core Power | Laptop Mag

From the horse’s mouth

Acer

Press Release

My Comments

Before, the idea of a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop having any sort of gaming or mobile-workstation acumen was considered ludicrous. These systems were simply more about computing that matched your lifestyle rather than something that was about performance.

Lenovo offered the 15” Yoga 720 which was specced with a NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics processor but this was pitched more as a productivity machine or, should I say, a “prosumer” machine for video hobbyists, animators and the like.

But Intel recently announced the 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” range of Core CPUs with a focus towards high-performance portable computing. Acer came hot on the heels of this announcement by announcing a 2-in-1 convertible laptop incorporating this technology optimised for casual gaming.

Here, the Acer Nitro 5 Spin, which is a 15” convertible laptop equipped with the 8th generation Intel Core i7 CPU and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 GPU, is optimised and promoted specifically for casual gamers. There is up to 512GB of solid-state storage space which makes this machine earn its chops as your primary or only computer where you would harbour a lot of data. The display is a 15” Full HD display while the sound is looked after with a 3-speaker setup involving 2 properly-placed speakers and a subwoofer.

There is the backlit keyboard as expected for premium computer setups while the computer is secured using a Windows-Hello-compliant fingerprint reader. As for connecting to your home network, its 802.11a/g/n/ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi infrastructure is augmented by Acer’s OmniAmp omnidirectional antenna setup which avoids your computer losing the optimum connection no matter how you set it up. It is also worth noting that Acer places a promise for the battery on this computer to run for 10 hours before it dies out, but I am not sure if this is with the computer running a game or video content, or simply doing light computing tasks.

As the sales pitch goes, the use case would be someone who is a casual gamer rather than the core gamers who want the highest-performing computers. The class of user would be someone who, for example, plays one of the Civilization games to while away the long flight or plays games streamed from a console that has the ability to play a console game on a regular computer. But the Acer Nitro 5 Spin would also appeal to people who view the game streams like what is offered on the Twitch platform.

Let’s not forget that the powerful CPU and GPU in the Acer Nitro 5 Spin makes the computer earn its chops with people who are dabbling with video editing, animation and the like. It could also appeal as a “foot-in-the-door” towards mobile workstation territory for engineering, graphics arts and similar students, but I would like to be sure it has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for use with eGPU modules kitted out with Quadro or similar workstation-class graphics cards.

The initial price that Acer called for the Nitro 5 Spin in the US and Canada market is US$999.

Personally, I would see Acer’s Nitro 5 Spin underscore the viability of integrating the versatile positioning abilities of the 2-in-1 convertible with the concept of high-performance computing for a lot of applications.

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Another effort to turn a smartphone in to a pathology lab

Article

Android main interactive lock screen

An add-on could allow a smartphone to become a portable pathology lab

Researchers create tech that turns your smartphone into a medical diagnostic tool | Fast Company

University resources

Multimode smartphone biosensing: the transmission, reflection, and intensity spectral (TRI)-analyzer | Professor Brian Cunningham, University of Illinois

My Comments

In most situations, pathology testing has required that the samples be sent away to a central laboratory to be analysed in to something meaningful for the professionals who prescribe them. This would typically take more than a day unless the laboratory was co-located with the facility that collected the sample such as in a hospital.

But there are some steps being taken to use a common smartphone as the equivalent of a pathology lab for most of the common tests. The goal with these devices is to allow the analysis of the sample and communication of the results to the end-user with a very short lead-time.

The first one of these solutions was a portable spectrograph device developed by Columbia University that connected to a smartphone’s headphone jack and worked with a special app to identify the presence of pathogens associated with certain diseases. There was also a view to have it work with less-expensive devices that could run user-installed software like the iPod Touch or low-tier Android phones, along with the ability to work on very low power.

The second one of these solutions attaches to an existing compatible smartphone and makes use of that phone’s camera and LED “flash” light to analyse the sample. It could also be set up to work with an integrated green-light laser diode as an alternative analysis light source.

This time, the sample of blood, saliva or urine is collected in a special microfluidic cartridge which means that the same “lab” could be used for multiple tests. There is a goal with this technology to adapt most of the common pathology tests to be performed with this hand-held “path-lab” and the goal can be achieved by reprogramming the software that is the companion app for this device to suit the test.

Personally, I would see these technologies initially work with the common ailment-specific “screening” tests or various “wellness” tests like cholesterol tests. There will also be an appeal to implement them with various drug tests where there isn’t a goal to achieve forensic-level accuracy. Similarly, medicine-level tests associated with chronic-illness treatment could be evolved to this technology.

But why is the idea of purposing a smartphone or similar device as a portable pathology lab appealing?

The key driver is to obtain there-and-then results suing highly-portable cost-effective equipment.

One use case is to do one or more pathology tests on a patient as they are transported in an ambulance to hospital and have the results communicated to the emergency department before the patient arrives. This also extends to situations where there are many casualties such as on a battlefield or other disaster zone. In this case, the smartphone with the handheld “path-labs” would be able to provide better-quality information for on-site treatment teams, rather than having to transport many samples to ultra-busy laboratories who may not communicate the results in time.

The rural community will also benefit in the context of routine tests especially where the nearest capable pathology lab is a long distance away from the village or town. Here, flying-doctor services, district nurses and the like can perform the common tests at the patient’s home and pass them on to regular general-practice doctors or specialists as well as making the patient and carer known of these results. It also augments the use of mobile devices as part of telemedicine efforts that can benefit this community.

But the same situation also applies to delivering healthcare in to third-world countries, something typically facilitated by the many volunteer organisations who answer this need. Here, the volunteer organisations can use this technology for identifying disease risks or organising the right treatment in a “there-and-then” manner.

Then there is the ability to use this technology as part of at-home healthcare programs including supporting the concept of ageing-at-home. This can be about using it as part of medicine management or monitoring long-term illnesses and assessing the effect of treatments without needing to go to a doctor’s clinic or hospital.

What is being seen here is the ability for cost-effective smartphones and similar highly-mobile devices that are based on platforms that support user-installable software to be used as part of personal healthcare in any part of the world.

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The Google Home becomes a VoIP landline telephone

Articles

Google Home – to be an alternative to the landline telephone

(Update: Officially announced) Google Home’s calling feature might be coming soon | Android Authority

Google Home voice calling starts rolling out today | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Google Home

Introducing Free Calls With Your Assistant On Google Home (Blog Post)

My Comments

Using the common household phone

Could Google serve this role?

In May, Amazon launched an “over-the-top” VoIP system to allow you to call other Echo users as part of the Alexa platform. In my coverage of them launching this service, I saw it as another weapon in the battleground between the various voice-driven home assistant platforms.

Now Google have launched in to the USA and Canada a VoIP calling service which allows you to place calls to other USA or Canada phone numbers using your voice. At the moment, it is only an outgoing-call service.

As well, unless you are a Google Voice or Project Fi user, the person on the other end of the line won’t be able to see your number on their Caller-ID-capable telephone, but this will be enabled for other users to have their mobile number displayed by the end of the year. It is seen as a problem with most telephone users because robocalls and telemarketers conceal their Caller ID and users are not likely to answer calls which don’t relate to a person they know.

Here, the Google Home telephony setup works from the user’s Google Contacts phonebook which you could easily build up through your Android phone or through a Web-based user experience if you use an iPhone. There is support for multiple users with the Google Assistant differentiating them via their voiceprint.

Google still has a lot to do with making their Google Home voice-calling service catch up with Amazon Echo, such as supporting inbound calls, text and voice messaging, along with videocalls. In the case of videocalls, it may be about integrating Chromecast in to the equation, perhaps with support for a camera accessory which would be considered if they want to head towards dual-device large-screen videocalling.

But I do see Apple and Microsoft using their established VoIP platforms to make their forays to the voice-driven home assistant become communications devices.

Of course, the idea of integrating this kind of IP-telephony functionality in to Amazon Echo and Google Home platforms could be seen as retrograde by the millennial generation who are used to living without the traditional landline telephone. But such setups could be about maintaining a “catch-all” contact number for a physical location or older-generation users maintaining the idea of the traditional telephone but carrying it forward to the online era. Yet the mobile phones will simply serve as the private communications link while Google Home complements them for short calls where the privacy doesn’t matter.

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Are Siri and Alexa being seen as personal companions?

Article

Is Siri ending up as your personal companion?

Conversations with virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa may be signs of loneliness | First Post

Talking to Siri often? You’re probably lonely | Times Of India

Do YOU rely on your phone for company? Human-like gadgets can offer relief from loneliness in the short term | Daily Mail

Older adults buddy up with Amazon’s Alexa | MarketWatch

My Comments

Hey Siri! Why am I alone now?

A situation that has been drawn out lately is someone feeling comfortable with their iPhone in their hand or sitting at the kitchen table beside an Amazon Echo speaker, trying to build a conversation with Siri or Alexa rather than simply asking something of these voice-driven assistants.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Is this smart speaker becoming your personal companion?

Here, a Kansas University study found that Siri, Alexa and co are being seen as a short-term panacea for social exclusion and loneliness. This is something that is being brought on by broken relationships or an increasing number of work situations where one is spending significant amounts of time away from their significant other or their normal communities. It is also symptomatic of a loss of community that has come about in this day and age.

It is also worth knowing that older and disabled adults are using Alexa or Google Home as a companion in the context of managing lights, or simply asking for the time or a music source. These devices are deliberately designed to look like other pieces of consumer-electronics or IT hardware rather than the typical bland look associated with assistive devices. They also do serve as an aide-memoire for dementia sufferers but only in early stages of this condition before it becomes worse.

But Siri, Alexa, Cortana and co are not perfect replacements for real-life friends, There is the long-term risk of you losing real human interaction if you rely on them as your companions. Here, you simply keep them serving you as a voice-operated “digital concierge” that helps with finding information or setting up your smart home rather than the be-all-and-end-all digital companion.

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Multiroom to be another common feature for smart speakers

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon Echo – to become another online multiroom audio system

Amazon Echo multiroom audio not far off, report says | CNet

My Comments

A feature that is showing up with the “smart speakers” that are part of the various voice-driven home assistant platforms is the ability for multiple speakers of the same platform to work as a multiroom system. This is where the same content source can be played through multiple speakers of that same platform, including the ability to have multiple speakers or audio devices in a logical group representing, perhaps, a floor or an area of the house. This functionality is taking on the audio-content playback abilities like Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Tidal and others offered by the various voice-driven home assistant platforms

Google Home – already a multiroom audio system as well as a smart speaker

Google has already established it with their Home speakers and Chromecast-based audio connectivity devices. But Alexa are intending to join in by allowing you to play the same content source through multiple Echo speakers and to treat a group of speakers as a logical unit. Let’s not forget that while the market’s competitive, Apple and Microsoft won’t want to miss out on the idea of multiroom audio as part of their voice-activated home assistant platforms.

Similarly, Amazon have aligned their Alexa platform with DTS’s PlayFi multiroom audio platform which is pitched at the premium hi-fi market. They have a large number of the hi-fi names with them and are wanting to integrate full Alexa voice functionality in to their speakers and other audio devices.

There may be some feature possibilities that may end up in the product evolution for these smart-speaker platforms. One of these could be to set one or more pairs of speakers up as stereo pairs which can yield the improved separation when you listen to stereo content. Similarly, there could be the idea of creating a multiple-microphone array out of a group of speakers to make it easier for the voice-driven home assistant to understand you.

Who knows how hot the competition for the voice-driven home assistant that talks to you is going to be and whether this will mimic the home videocassette format wars of the early 80s?

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Mixing audio and Bluetooth Low Energy–what is happening

Article

Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Audio Adaptor

Audio over Bluetooth Low Energy could make these devices last for a long time on a single battery charge

Apple Used Bluetooth Low Energy Audio for Cochlear Implant iPhone Accessory | MacRumors

My Comments

Any of you who have used Bluetooth headsets with your smartphones may have come across situations where the headset ceases to function or sounds the “low battery” signal when you use these devices a lot. This can happen more so if you are listening to music then make or take a long phone call using the headset and is something I had experienced many times with the Sony SBH-52 audio adaptor. But the audio protocol is being worked on to avoiding consuming too much battery runtime.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

.. as it could with Bluetooth headsets

Apple and Cochlear, who are behind the Australian-invented Cochlear Implant hearing-assistance technology, have developed Bluetooth Low Energy Audio to provide a high-quality audio link between mobile devices and headsets but make very little demands on the battery. As well, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are working on a similar protocol to achieve these same gains, with the goal to have it part of Bluetooth 5.0. But this has to be supported in a vendor-independent manner in the same context as the current Bluetooth audio technologies that are in circulation.

But why is there an imperative to develop a low-energy audio profile for Bluetooth?

One key usage class is to integrate Bluetooth audio functionality in to hearing aids and similar hearing-assistance devices that are expected to run for a very long time. Here, we are also talking about very small intra-aural devices that may sit in or on your ear or be integrated in a set of eyeglasses. The goal is to allow not just for audio access to your smartphone during calls or multimedia activity but even to have an audio pathway from the phone’s microphone to the hearing-assistance device as well as the phone being a control surface for that device.

Similarly, there is a usage goal to improve battery runtime for Bluetooth headsets and audio adaptors such as to avoid the situation I have described above. It can also cater towards improved intra-aural Bluetooth headset designs or lightweight designs that can, again, run for a long time.

Let’s not forget the fact that smartwatches are being given audio abilities, typically to allow for use with a voice-activated personal assistant. But devices of this ilk could be set up to serve full time as a Bluetooth headphone audio adaptor with the full hands-free operation. The expectation here as well could even be to have the display on the wearable active while in use, whether to show the time, steps taken or metadata about the call in progress or whatever you are listening to.

Once audio over Bluetooth Low Energy technology is standardised, it could be a major improvement path for Bluetooth-based audio applications.

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An Internet-connected laptop could replace the link van for location broadcasting

Article

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

A laptop of the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming class could end up as today’s equivalent of an outside-broadcast link truck if the BBC has its way

BBC livestreaming Edinburgh festival from a laptop | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

BBC

IP Studio whitepaper

My Comments

If you watch news, sports, live concerts or similar content on TV, you will be seeing location broadcasting at work as they bring that footage to your screen.

Typically, a location broadcast that any TV studio does either required the use of video recordings that were transported to the studio before broadcast. Or they relied on a “link truck” which is a vehicle equipped with an antenna that beamed the location signal back to the studio using a microwave link if the idea is to allow the studio access to real-time vision. Some regular venues that are regular sources of content may implement a wired connection facilitated by a leased line between that venue and the studio.

Such setups have been limited by the amount of time required to locate the link truck and establish these radio links. This can also be limited through factors like weather or making sure of a line-of-sight connection to the studio’s link tower.

But the Internet and the size of computer technology has opened up the possibility of a laptop of the same or better calibre as the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming I recently reviewed connected to a high-bandwidth Internet connection as an alternative to the traditional location broadcast setup, especially for shows directly streamed to the Internet. The technology which is called IP Studio is part of an effort that Auntie Beeb is taking towards implementing IP technology for TV-show production. In this context, it is about being able to use a mobile wireless network to interconnect the cameras to the laptops for location broadcasting.

Here, they are using the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival to prove a setup based around laptops that are uplinking to the Internet via the same kind of technology used for Internet service. The editing software that is being used is primarily a Web-app which works in the browser rather than a standalone app. But it could allow for the link-van approach where a laptop is used to upload the edited vision to the broadcaster’s studio to be inserted in to the program.

Once it is proven, the BBC’s IP Studio technology which is based primarily on open-source tools, could be seen as beneficial for all sorts of broadcasters who want to save money and set-up / tear-down time on and see increased flexibility with their location work. For example, news-gathering teams could be able to set up and “go live” on that breaking event or press conference with a very short lead-time.

The same technology could open up affordable location-broadcasting technology to community broadcasters and specific-event Webcasters who place importance on cost-effective setups. Even organisations who have video-editing talent in their staff or volunteer collection could see this technology appeal to them.

What this is showing is that the Internet and cost-effective computer design is making big-time broadcasting and production technology more affordable.

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Traditional movie and TV studios shine towards direct video-on-demand services

Article

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

Could the various smart-TV platforms like Apple TV, Chromecast or Roku be required to run “content malls”

Disney Is Dumping Netflix And Launching New Streaming Apps | FastCompany

My Comments

Traditionally, movie and TV production studios have been making their wares available through distributors or other third-party elements.

But what has happened is that they are moving towards running their own video-on-demand services in a similar way to how some manufacturers and first-party distributors have set up their own “direct” mail-order or online storefronts in the US market.

Disney is heading this way by moving their content from Netflix to their own service, something they were announcing as part of a third-quarter earnings call. It may sound close to the established “catch-up TV” model especially where the TV channels are running their own content for a long time on their video-on-demand services. Here, Disney sees this service they are exposing as the online home for some of their content like Toy Story 4 or the live-action version of the Lion King, along with putting their library of TV and movie content onto video-on-demand. Could this mean the ability to “pull up” Disney’s short cartoons that graced Saturday morning children’s TV or the early part of the cinema sessions before and after World War II. Or the ability to see those classic animated feature-length movies that

Here, it is similar to what HBO and CBS have been working on by offering a direct video-on-demand service for their content. But the “studio-direct” model could lead to difficulties in navigating content of a kind offered by multiple studios, as well as requiring potential viewers to sign up with multiple video-on-demand providers. In some cases, it may also affect whether a potential viewer signs on because of the cost of the service or the kind of business model offered by the provider. It may appeal to those of us who shine to a particular studio’s output.

Studio-direct VOD along with niche VOD may then lead to a requirement to establish video-on-demand as a “content mall” facilitated by mobile / desktop-computing platforms and smart-TV / set-top / games-console platforms. This may involve the use of content directories that link to the service providers in a similar vein to TuneIn Radio or vTuner for Internet radio. At the moment, Roku is the only provider who is working close to a “content mall” for their set-top platform, but there will be pressure on other platforms to take this approach.

It is very interesting times ahead for video-on-demand as the traditional “single-front” Netflix model falls away to the mall-based approach.

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