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Ultra HD: Where are we going?

By Matthew Goldman, SMPTE executive VP and senior VP technology for TV compression, Ericsson

Ultra high definition (UHD) for broadcast is evolving at a rapid pace — particularly for a new technology without an established, end-to-end ecosystem. We hear about UHD in the over-the-top (OTT)/streaming community, with players such as Netflix launching 4K services. We also hear quite a bit about the display technology making its way into the retail market.

It is still very rare though to hear of a major broadcaster embracing the technology. UHD adoption in the broadcast realm has been slow not because of lack of interest, but because it requires changes across the entire ecosystem.

The emerging and still-evolving UHD ecosystem will be the topic of an IBC2015 session presented by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). Scheduled for 16:00 on Sunday 13 September, in the Emerald Theatre as part of the Advances in Technology stream, the session is titled ‘UHD: Where
Do We Stand, and Where Are We Going?’

In exploring the full ecosystem, the session will address the impact of UHD implementation on both broadcasting and theatrical releases. As session moderator, I will be joined by panelists including Hans Hoffmann, head of media production technology at the EBU and former SMPTE standards vice president; and SMPTE executive member Spencer Stephens, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Sony Pictures Entertainment. We will examinine the new compression methods and standards being used to deliver content to customers and in discussing the relative contributions of spatial resolution, high dynamic range (HDR), and wider colour gamut (WCG) to delivering an immersive viewing experience.

In the UHD world, everything is new, from equipment such as capable cameras, switchers and servers to infrastructure and the bandwidth it can provide. On the production side, companies are dealing with new equipment, and also with new interfaces and protocols engineered specifically for UHD.

A precious commodity

With respect to delivery over the air (OTA), or even over wires, as with IPTV services, bandwidth to the consumer is very restrictive: Bandwidth is a precious commodity, and UHD’s demand for it is driving new compression methods, as well as standards, for delivering that content to customers. Although all of these complex elements and considerations are coming together, the transition to UHD will take some time.

That said, the pace of UHD implementation and adoption may seem quite fast when compared with earlier milestones in the history of television — the invention of analogue TV in the 1930s and its adoption over the following 20 years, the introduction of colour television in the 1960s and adoption over the next decade, and the transition to digital and then HD with flat-panel displays.

While a relatively slow pace is good news in some ways, it does raise the concern that if the UHD ecosystem is still in play, then early pioneers run the risk of investing time and resources in technology that could soon be eclipsed by another target. This concern affects how companies move forward into UHD, and being nimble as the industry moves forward will be among the many critical topics we examine during the session.

Standards work is one key to solidifying the end-to-end UHD ecosystem, and so we will discuss the standards currently in development and the work that SMPTE and other organisations are doing in this area. These UHD standards will take into account a host of different factors and the role they play in creating a more immersive and realistic viewing experience, which is the ultimate goal of most studios and broadcasters.

Pathfinder case studies

A major highlight of the session — I consider most exciting — will be the presentation of case studies by top figures at leading broadcast networks and motion picture studios. These case studies will examine the strategy and success of the ‘pathfinders’ that have rolled out the first UHD implementations. Representing one of these companies will be Stephens.

Together, these case studies will provide session delegates a unique perspective on the state of UHD. They will offer the latest details on which companies are entering the fray and the reasons why, the challenges and opportunities they have found, and how they have overcome unexpected obstacles in this new environment. Presenters will talk about the unique ecosystems that they have developed, the factors they had to consider in creating them, and the keys to putting it all together for a successful launch of UHD services or in broadcast as well as cinema.

It is always exciting to work on new technology, especially one that enhances the viewing experience, and UHD has tremendous promise as a means of bringing media consumers the full glory of premium content, whether it be movies in the cinema or live sports and other popular events in the home. At the IBC2015 show, the SMPTE session on UHD will offer a great deal of insight into how the industry is beginning to realise that potential.