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European Digital Forum returns for 13th year

The medieval city of Lucca, in Tuscany, provided a picturesque backdrop for the 13th European Digital Forum earlier this month. Delegates and speakers from across Europe

The medieval city of Lucca, in Tuscany, provided a picturesque backdrop for the 13th European Digital Forum earlier this month. Delegates and speakers from across Europe gathered in the eighteenth-century Real Collegio within the historic city walls, though the debates and discussions were focussed firmly on the future. Where are UHD and associated technologies heading, and what are the challenges and opportunities these will create for those in the industry?

Richer pixels

Vice president of the UHD Forum, David Price, opened the conference by offering an update on the Forum’s work and progress. A lot has been achieved since Price’s early conversations with the EBU’s David Wood four years ago in which they concluded that UHD is “much more than just more pixels; its richer pixels.”

The UHD Forum now counts more than 50 companies among its members, a significant growth from an original group of seven. Price stresses that “we are not an SDO [software development organisation], we are there to advocate”, which involves promoting an industry consensus around common technical standards. The organisation has held numerous events and worked to develop guidelines that inform the industry on UHD technologies and best practices, but challenges still remain. “Will licensing issues for elements of UHD technologies constrain content availability? Will bandwidth constraints restrict UHD to a niche?” asked Price.

Do we really need 4K?

As well as potential industry restrictions, UHD technologies face another hurdle: are they really necessary? “Do we really need 4K?” asked Phil Laven, chairman of DVB, “my answer, bluntly, is no.” To really appreciate the technology requires unrealistic viewing distances; consumers may be impressed by a 4K TV in a shop, when they are 30cm from the screen but “how many of you watch at 30cm!?”

Perhaps Laven’s perspective on 4K as unnecessary is based on a view of the technology as a stand-alone entity: he continued, “the transition to 4K must be about more than just increasing the number of pixels. We need HDR, HFR, enhanced audio, extended colour gamut.” Many broadcasters, and presumably Laven also, “believe it would be better to wait for all or most of these features, delivering a big ‘wow factor’ for consumers.”

So what is DVB doing? In 2013 DVB’s UHD Phase-1 broadcast profile was agreed, and last year it approved the commercial requirements for the next phase of UHD TV. Phase 2 includes the capability to provide HDR images, and “the next stage” said Laven, is to add high frame rate (HFR) in 2019. “DVB doesn’t start with the technology,” said Laven, “it defines what we call ‘commercial requirements’ which are then used to select specific technologies to be included in a given spec.”

Agreeing on standards for the technologies is a major issue. There are at least five proposed systems for HDR, and getting an agreement on a single standard would be “ideal, but difficult to achieve”. Standardisation is “not meant to be easy” but as standards will be used for many years to come we need to tread carefully, to avoid choosing “the wrong one for short term gain.” 4K, Laven concluded, “was the easy bit. The ancillary technologies will be more problematic.”

3D: A cautionary tale

The broadcasters’ perspective was provided by the BBC’s Andy King and, on the second day of the conference, Massimo Bertolotti of Sky Italia. Both reminded delegates of the importance of the viewer in any discussion on UHD. “We forgot about the audiences,” said King, and used 3D as a warning to the industry of technologies which work well in testing stages and in the cinema, but not for all audiences, all of the time. “Don’t forget how easily 3D went wrong!” he cautioned, “it worked for the cinema, but the home experience was very, very different.”

The BBC works with audiences, he said, running “public value tests”: “we go to audience, sit them down and tell them what we’re doing, or run a trial. And then get feedback.” If UHD doesn’t go the way of 3D, “we kind of think 2017 is the year when things are going to take off.” This will be dependent on combining ‘more pixels’ with other elements: “we need to think about contrast, colour, frame rate”, a sentiment which was repeated throughout the two-day conference.

Sky Italia’s Bertoletti focussed on the importance of yet another technology: virtual reality. He agreed that “4K on its own cannot represent a total revolution.” Like King he drew attention to the viewer and not just the technology: VR, he said, provides a new way to distribute content and “offers the user a new television experience.” Viewers “have to feel emotion” he continued, and these can be triggered and manipulated by new forms of content distribution like VR, which offers the “chance for the final viewer to move”, blurring the line between “artificial and real components”.

Sky Italia has worked on a number of VR projects including Moto 3, basketball events and an episode of X Factor. This last 360-degree project was “pretty hidden” admits Bertoletti, but nevertheless “It was successful, with more than 100,000 viewers. People liked it.”

Stoking emotions

Jason Hofmann, vice president of architecture at Limelight Networks agreed on the importance of audience feeling: “Emotions are most important to me”, he said, during a panel discussion. For Hofmann, “4K is a means to an end”, and it is VR and HDR which “engender a higher engagement, a trigger for fandom, giving more emotion.” He admitted that he is not an “average user”, and instead is an early adopter of new technologies. However, surveys the company has carried out have found that “4K is not interesting for most of the people, because they don’t understand it, have never seen it” and it remains “an abstract idea.”

Perhaps it is the “hidden” nature of technologies like virtual and augmented reality, and 4K, which create a barrier to adoption by audiences, and lends them an esoteric air? Sahar Baghery, head of global research and content strategy at Eurodata, drew on a number of examples of companies using new technologies to “open up the way to new narrative and creative platforms”, among them Farm51, a Polish gaming company which has created a VR project allowing viewers to experience the Chernobyl site. This is just one example, she said, of how companies are “trying to increase proximity with the viewers to content”, whether UHD, VR, AR.

With all of the updated and evolving acronyms being thrown around, what of that stalwart, TV? Sergio Del Prete, vice president of editorial and content at Viacom, was optimistic. “TV is experiencing its golden age, and there is a growing need for content and stories. TV has not died, its very healthy.”

This was borne out by Eurodata research; “TV viewing remains strong at three hours, 14 minutes per day across the world” said Baghery, sharing the findings of a recent study, which also showed increases in viewing times in Latin American and African countries. However, there is an undeniable shift in our viewing habits, and broadcasters and producers need to adapt to new distribution and systems and devices, said Baghery.

Perhaps the most important theme that ran throughout the two-day Forum was that, despite the need for broadcasters and producers to adapt to change and develop new technologies, the needs and desires of the consumer must remain central. UHD, HDR, HFR, VR, AR; all of these technologies look impressive and will no doubt be money-spinners for those in the industry, but ultimately, the point of such new technologies, said Mauro Panella, of Fox Network Group, Italy: is to “help us tell new and different stories”.