Set-top boxes (STBs) that plug into TVs may seem old fashioned for many people, but sales of the devices are continuing to grow. In 2021 alone, over 300 million of STB units are forecast to be shipped worldwide. At the same time, the actual device is evolving – providing new use cases and adding a new layer of intelligence to the user experience. Indeed, now is an exciting time for innovation in the STB market, with this driving higher demand for increased computation power, and more advanced graphics and machine learning capabilities.
The STB market can be simplistically divided into two different device types. First, the traditional STBs, including satellite, cable, Tivo, or Freeview boxes and, second, the new Retail Over The Top (OTT) providers covering Roku, Amazon Fire and Google Chromecast, and so on. The latter is where there is expected to be higher growth rate, with significant volume increases forecast for the next years. Then, within these different device types, there are different tiers that are set apart by the level of compute and complexity levels of different use cases. Across all the tiers, there are various trends that define the evolution of STB market in the next three to five years. Let us take a deeper look at what these are...
There are currently hundreds of millions of subscribers across the top streaming services worldwide. These services are all important influencers for the STB market, driving better experiences and enhanced capabilities. The better experiences are all largely focused on the UI, including a high-resolution interface and personalized content recommendations. Meanwhile, the enhanced capabilities largely focus on the need for improved image quality for 4K video throughout the entire pipeline. Even lower-cost STBs require 4K video support throughout the entire pipeline. AI super resolution is also important (more on that later). This is causing all home devices, including smart TVs and STBs, to evolve, with higher performing hardware solutions needed to ensure that the end user can enjoy these expanding capabilities.
Working from home has changed our behavior. There are now versions of video call apps for smart TVs, such as Microsoft Teams and Skype, but also Facebook Portal, a separate device that plugs into the DTV specifically for video calling. This requires smart camera support, but making this possible focuses on immersive visuals. This recognizes hand and body gestures, enhances, or blurs out the background, enables AR features similar the Snapchat application (for example, animal features and enhancements, and so on) and intelligent focus with face tracking.
Various gaming applications are delivered through STBs through cloud gaming providers like Google Stadia and Tencent Games in China. Cloud gaming requires STBs that enable video and command streaming and low latency features, alongside improved CPUs and GPUs for better gaming experiences. Even low-tier STBs supports basic cloud gaming experiences, with Android TV already supporting Android gaming apps.
The emergence of fitness applications through DTVs and STBs comes following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen many people exercise from home. This new trend combined with the renaissance of smart cameras provides an opportunity for fitness applications. AI algorithms for body position tracking is required during fitness applications. This is alongside an always-on voice subsystem for voice command and digital assistant features with the STB. I suggest reading Mina Dimova’s excellent blog for more information about making the fitness application experience possible.
As I mentioned previously, voice command is an important feature for STBs. These devices need voice UI to enable more complex applications and experiences, such as the fitness applications described previously, as well as basic voice commands for an improved user experience (UX). The use of dedicated NPUs is important here, bringing AI functionality into the mix for an improved Local Automatic Speech Recognition experience.
This involves AI-based picture quality enhancements with the STB device. Super resolution uses a combination of AI and traditional video processing techniques to achieve a high-quality picture when upconverting video sources from lower resolution to 4K. For the higher-tier set-top boxes, this could go all the way up to 8K. While 4K STBs currently market leading the current market, it is only a matter of time before more 8K STBs enter the market and are shipped worldwide. 8K STB consumer adoption is likely to be accelerated by big sporting events, including the Beijing Winter Olympics and football World cup in Qatar.
This trend is relevant across all tiers of STBs. This recognizes the growing emergence of new threats and attacks on the device, especially with a vast amount of content now coming directly to STBs. With content becoming a huge differentiator in the market and its short theatrical release cycle, STBs are looking at more sophisticated security protections across devices. Moreover, with video being operated on by more processing engines in the chipset, the big challenge is ensuring that all this content is kept secure across the entire platform. This means protecting the content, operating system, applications, and assets from attacks. In addition, just like the smart TV, there is now far more user data on STBs. New applications, such as those for social media accounts, payment and video calling, mean that personal and visual details are being stored on the device. Therefore, there needs to be more advanced security requirements to protect user data.
Overall, it is an exciting time for the STB market. STBs across all tiers are getting more sophisticated and enabling greater and higher value use cases and experiences. Allowing the end user to do more through their STB devices that ever before. However, this requires more compute power across CPU, GPU, and NPU. Whatever the tier of STB, Arm can offer IP solutions that empower this new wave of innovation within the market. If you are interested in learning more, then contact Arm and we can help.
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Good article, especially Apple TV 4K new model released in 2021 has increased user experience by upgrading CPU/GPU performance (A12 Bionic).