4K, UHD, 3840x2160; technology, deployment, cost; consumers, creators, content; the hopes, the reality. These were just some of the topics covered and contested at the first 4K World Summit held in Seville last month. The two-day event saw keynote presentations from the likes of BBC Academy, the UHD Forum, DVB and SNL Kagan, as well as demos and roundtables with Grass Valley, Dolby, Canon, Avid and more. There was also a local flavour to the event, with a presentation from the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) and the general secretary of Innovation, Industry and Energy, of the regional government of Andalucía.
Now is an exciting time in the transition to 4K, and in the movement to real “4K for broadcast” asserted Canon’s Carlos Castan during a round table on the first day of the Summit. The company has recently launched a family of lenses for use with 4K 2/3-inch sensor broadcast cameras, and “this is the moment” said Castan “in which the real 4K is going to be used for broadcasting in a very short time.” Manuel Paredes of Grass Valley and EVS’s Henry Alexander both agreed that the technology is there, but the workflow and infrastructure needs to be adapted to the new format. In sport, for example, a 4K/UHD football match would require 18 cameras, said Alexander, which would mean “expanding the number of cameras you need by four”, so “the question is not what will happen, it’s more when it will happen on a mainstream level.”
It is likely that 4K will become more “mainstream” in regions outside of Spain and Europe first; “FOR-A has a lot of enquiries from Japanese broadcasters,” said Antonio Gallado, FOR-A Europe. “All our multiviewers and processors are working in 4K” and “around 40 per cent of our equipment is selling in 4K.” One of the most important factors in this mainstream adoption of 4K, is being able to integrate and adapt systems and products and “to have a workflow that can speed things up” leaving more time to invest in the creative, according to Miguel Angel Doncel, SGO.
Aside from talk of the technical, creativity was another discussion point during the round table. “4K gives you the tools to be different”, said Doncel. “We want to tell nice stories to our audiences, we want to give good feelings to our audience”.
A number of companies outline their dedication to 4K technology at the Summit, including Ester Fernandes of Spanish satellite communications operator Hispasat, who unsurprisingly stressed the “remarkable role” satellite could play in delivering high quality content to a global audience. In 2013 Hispasat launched its first 4K channel, followed by its first 4K live transmission in 2014 of a football match. This year Hispasat launched a new UHD TV service encoded in Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range: “we wanted to create emotions, we want to make the user feel that they can jump into the screen”, said Fernandes. HDR, in the words of Dolby’s Guillermo Nino, also partaking in the round table, is about creating “a dramatic visual experience” which involving “much greater brightness, much deeper and more nuanced darks, while rendering a full palette of never seen colours before on other TV sets.”
There was a lot of talk at the Summit’s opening about evolving technologies, but no mention of evolved budgets. The “elephant in the room”, said one delegate attending the Summit from the BBC, is money. Producing in SD is not the same as producing in 4K; it is not just the camera technology, but storage and post costs that need to be considered. The round table’s moderator however, did not share this outlook. “If you are shooting a documentary, it’s the same cost to shoot SD as to shoot 4K,” according to Pere Vila from the Spanish Radio and Television Corporation (RTVE): “The cost for RTVE is not expensive.”
Definitions and deployment
So, where is the industry now with 4K? President of the Ultra HD Forum, Thierry Fautier – also vice president of video strategy for Harmonic – gave a concise overview of the ‘Ultra HD Reality’ on the second day of the Summit. UHD encompasses a number of key definitions: wide colour gamut, high dynamic range, high frame rate and next generation audio – and content providers need to understand all the subtleties of the technology in order for it to be a success.
There has been little deployment of UHD services in the US, though by next year “this picture will change dramatically.” The real take-off will be between 2017 and 2018, when 20 per cent of households will have UHD capable reception, according to Fautier. Jorge Rodriguez of Hispasat thinks the take-off will be later; in 2020 we will have around 200 UHD channels on air, he said, in 2025 this will rise to 800, and “we will have the boom.” He predicts that 20 per cent of UHD TV channels will be broadcast via satellite.
At the moment though, the industry is stuck in ‘phase one’ according to Fautier: variegated services, broadcasting doesn’t have a UHD license, not many content providers are biting, lack of standards, premium content not properly protected. “We have seen limited success so far in phase one.” Phase two’s successful take off will require a “massive video workflow transformation” Despite the tremendous effort involved, Fautier assured delegates of the Ultra HD Forum’s commitment to the technology. The open forum is composed of a broad range of participants from the movie and TV ecosystem, and advocates an industry consensus around common technical standards.
The 4K future
It was easy for many delegates to show an enthusiastic commitment to a UHD future, but predicting the minutiae of this future is rather more tricky. The task fell to the Philip Laven of the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), an industry-led consortium committed to designing open interoperable technical standards for the delivery of media and broadcast services.
Laven opened with what we do know about 4K: UHD BluRay will launch in the US at the end of 2015 and in Europe next year, that 4K sets will become mainstream over the next five years, and 4K will become the norm. The transition to 4K offers additional features, and “there are lots more things going on that justify the move to 4K”. Perhaps most of these is notable is HDR, which is “the one thing that will sell to a non-technical member of the public”. People can tell the different between standard and high dynamic range, they can’t tell the differences in static resolution, Laven asserted. Will the future see broadcasters wait until all these “additional features” come together to deliver a “big wow for consumers”?
The DVB has already been working on the phase one broadcast profile; “we are now working on phase two, and the commercial requirements will be agreed in a couple of weeks time.” According to the DVB, there are two groups of people; those who want the enhanced HDR service by 2017, and those who want to wait a little bit longer to have HDR and HFR by 2019. The DVB is planning on making the phase two specification available in about a years time, allowing services to start in 2017.
The Summit provided networking opportunities as well as 4K demonstrations and workshops from companies including Filmlight, Dolby/Cellnex, Canon, and SES Astra, allowing plenty of opportunity for conversation to continue off-stage. However, the voice of consumers was also heard during the Summit, and a significant focus of the event. During an ‘Industry Snapshots’ roundtable discussion, Emili Planas of Mediapro asked “Who is interested in 4K? TV manfacturers for sure!” implying that the interest is not shared across the industry and admitting that it was a mistake for the company to start building 4K OB vans today, when the market is not ready to accept such productions.
TV manufacturers want to profit from the sale of 4K TV sets so, as Planas pointed out, their interest in the technology is a given. Laven seems to agree that demand is driven by manufacturers; he said that over the next five years 4K will become the norm, however, he went on to say that people will not be buying 4K sets because of the 4K technology, but because manufacturers can produce them for “not a great deal more than they can an HD set.”
However, Michel Chabrol of Eutelsat pointed out that it is the TV manufacturers who play a large part in helping customers discover 4K, so their role in developing the technology is “key”.
What we know about the future of 4K is “an impossible question” Laven said at the Summit. As Mohammed Hamza, SNL Kagan, pointed out, “we’re a long way off HD before we’re even starting to think about ultra HD”. Standards need to be established, content created, production workflows developed and costs considered before 4K garners cross-industry support, from creatives and broadcasters through to consumers. The 4K World Summit will return next November, and it will be interesting to see how many of the same points will still be in discussion and how much real progress will have been made.