NAB Labs Futures Park: FM & Smartphones - A Good Idea?
CreativeCOW presents NAB Labs Futures Park: FM & Smartphones - A Good Idea? -- Broadcasting Editorial


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NAB Show is RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER! Can you tell that I'm A LITTLE EXCITED!!? Every article I write between now and the start of the show (April 5th – 10th, 2014), will feature something about NAB. One of the most exciting places I'm attracted to at every NAB Show is NAB Labs Futures Park. A showplace to display the newest of advanced projects, demonstrations of high-tech media developments in progress, prototypes, and products not yet available for sale, this area features many developments from academic, government, and commercial research laboratories in the United States and around the world, allowing you to get up-close and personal with tomorrow's technology.

Each year since its 2012 inception, a special section of the NAB Show convention floor in Las Vegas is reserved specifically for the future. Currently led by NAB Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Kevin Gage, a 20-year industry veteran with experience developing digital platforms in film, television and music, its mission statement, according to its website, states that: "NAB Labs is an initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to foster innovation and continue to propel broadcast television and radio into the future."






Providing place for innovation, forging partnerships, networking with others in the development field and testing-out the new technology, NAB Labs concentrates on six areas: Showcase, Incubator, Innovation, Partnerships, Testing and Education. In other words, they present, offer funding, stimulate creativity, form liaisons, validate technology and educate.

In 2012, I was in awe of all the new devices and ideas! And while I was "Wowed" by the first year, the second year REALLY outdid its premiere by introducing technology from NHK – a Japanese public broadcaster – which demonstrated its "Super Hi-Vision" and featured the first U.S. over-the-air transmissions of an 8k broadcast. Prior, NHK made the world's first terrestrial 8K test transmission, which covered a distance of 4.2 kilometers and had a resolution 16 times greater than current HDTV signals can achieve, in May, 2012.

An update – on February 3, 2014, NHK successfully completed a test transmission of a compressed 8K signal across 27 kilometers (the same distance that can be achieved by current terrestrial digital broadcasting) on a single UHF-band channel! WOW!!! It's getting closer...

However, one of the most exciting things this year in NAB Labs Futures Park will be the exploration of FM (and AM) radio signals delivered via Smartphones! Apparently, radio is not dead – around 242 million Americans depend upon the old-fashioned local radio (broadcast free) for news, emergency information, music, sports and talk and only a small percentage of phones on the market in the U.S. today offer local radio as a feature. NAB Labs intends on changing that.

Despite the fact that over 84 million smartphones were sold in the U.S. and were equipped with an FM radio inside (in more than 90 percent of all top-selling models), FM reception was activated for users in only about 2 percent of those phones. With "on-the-go" and "on-demand" entertainment becoming more and more popular, why isn't this ability being touted by the smartphone manufacturers? Well, simply put – they don't want you to receive a signal for free.






NAB Labs points-out a very important fact – during an emergency or a crisis situation, cellular networks can go down while over-the-air radio stays on. At least one government official, though now serving in a different capacity, is aware of the importance of this.

"As broadcasters, we share the mission of serving our local communities – providing them with the news, emergency updates, and entertainment that they rely on each day," explains Gordon H. Smith, NAB President, CEO and former Oregon Senator. "This mission keeps us focused on adapting to consumers' changing needs...so that radio will always be there when listeners need us...on any platform...anytime and anywhere. NAB Labs – our innovation team – has been at the forefront of developing 'hybrid FM radio' and bringing it to smartphones and other platforms."

NAB has created a website: RadioRocksMyPhone.com, which explains the facts about FM Radio Reception in your smartphone, as well as how to save money, stay connected and even which phones are already capable of receiving free FM radio! There is also an option to "Join the Movement" which allows you links to many cell service providers so that you can voice your opinion to have this very sensible feature added (albeit for a one-time low-cost activation fee).

You may be interested to learn that NAB Labs is NOT alone in this push for smartphone radio; they are in cahoots with another. According to the IndyStar (www.indystar.com), Indianapolis radio executive Jeff Smulyan, the chairman of Emmis Communications, has spent the last six years and millions of dollars in an effort to make this happen.

"It became a passion," Smulyan said. "I became fascinated [with the idea of turning every smartphone into, essentially, a Walkman that pulls in FM signals]."

Via Emmis subsidiary TagStation LLC., a radio smartphone app (called "NextRadio") for consumers and related software for radio stations has been developed. "He's a bulldog," said of Smulyan by Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for NAB. "If not for Jeff's leadership, I'm not sure we would have gotten this far."

But San Diego media research consultant Mark Ramsey is already forecasting doom and gloom for what he believes is an ill-fated venture.

"What problem are we solving (putting FM radio on smartphones)? That's my argument. People don't use this as a decider when shopping for phones."

Obviously, Mr. Ramsey has not considered the "emergency/crisis" angle. Moreover, he has not considered the dropping ad revenues experienced by radio stations since the internet and smartphones have appeared. Creating a way for smartphone users to access free FM radio will give radio advertisers another route to deliver their marketing to consumers. I mean, seriously, when's the last time you carried your Walkman? Video didn't kill the radio star – a combination of smartphones and the internet did.

Time will tell whether this idea is eventually embraced or discarded.

As NAB Show 2014 approaches, more and more will be revealed about NAB Labs Futures Park and all of the wonderful innovations, ideas and technologies being created for future use in the industry. Until then, I will try to keep you as up-to-date as possible! Don't forget to make your travel arrangements to NAB Show 2014 SOON!









Ryan Salazar is currently a Director of Engineering and Post Production Technology, and is a seasoned industry professional with over two decades of experience in the broadcast, post production and information technology fields.

He is an active member of The Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Broadcast Technology Society (IEEE BTS), National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) and the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (ACM SIGGRAPH). Check out his website at: www.ryansalazar.net.