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4K/UHD for all – a pipedream or reality?

MediaKind's principal technologist Tony Jones takes a look at how the battle to deliver top-resolution quality to all consumers everywhere comes down to a handful of core technology innovations re-shaping the playing field

Higher resolution formats like 4K and UHD are quickly becoming standard formats for all types of media content. We can see this through examples such as the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, the first Winter Games broadcast in UHD, the successful 4K HDR deployment at last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics, and regular broadcasts during the 2021/22 Premier League season. However, while consumers are accustomed to these eye-catching experiences, only a small amount of content is filmed natively in 4K due to high production costs and limitations on delivery network capacity. The battle to deliver top-resolution quality to all consumers everywhere comes down to a handful of core technology innovations re-shaping the playing field.  

Decades of innovation 

According to Omdia Consumer Research, the share of consumers claiming that 4K/UHD content is an important feature in their video services generally rose faster than any other factor across the market over the last two years. Productions and contribution links in 4K/UHD are quickly becoming the standard practice for broadcasters and studios. Most devices, including Smart TVs and streaming devices, support 4K, UHD and HDR. Even streaming platforms including Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime Video have launched TV series and movies in UHD, usually with their most popular titles. So, what technologies are making these rollouts feasible? 

Many will remember the terms 4K and UHD breaking into the media landscape around a decade ago, promising to elevate the viewing experience for good – albeit remaining a premium offering for live and on-demand content. Since then, we have seen rapid developments in technologies such as WCG (wide colour gamut), HDR (high dynamic range), advanced video compression, and advancements in more captivating audio solutions. Perhaps the most influential enabler to the widespread rollout of 4K has been HEVC (high efficiency video coding), but now there is a new codec vying for attention: VVC (versatile video coding).

VVC Adoption

VVC is the latest video compression standard developed to improve compression performance and support a wide range of applications. It is the most efficient video coding standard available today and is starting to gain real-world implementation in consumer devices. VVC allows far more efficient encoding compared to HEVC, which is particularly important for higher resolutions and frame rates such as 4K/UHD and above. Implementations of video codecs (i.e. real-world video encoders) continually undergo major advances to improve their efficiency, including dual-pass and adaptive encoding, statistical multiplexing, and more. New video codecs such as VVC are significant enablers of enhanced video experiences for broadcast and broadband, like the future of 8K and the growth of the adoption of 4K/UHD by relieving the bottlenecks and costs associated with less efficient delivery schemes. 

Although the adoption of VVC is in its early stages and may take several years to achieve high levels of adoption, leading industry bodies and organisations are starting to get involved. Earlier this year, Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB), an industry-led consortium of the world’s leading media and technology companies, announced it would add VVC to its core specification. It’s the first standards body of its kind to implement VVC for video and audio coding in broadcast and broadband applications. Big technology firms such as Apple, Samsung, and LG have subsequently acquired 4K/UHD content rights, sensing a unique technology opportunity on the horizon. 

Bandwidth demands and lack of spectrum 

Terrestrial broadcasters have not made much progress in UHD adoption partly because of the bandwidth requirements and the ever-increasing demands on spectrum around the terrestrial frequencies by mobile operators seeking connectivity to IoT devices. Some satellite service providers have successfully done so for their own channels, such as Sky Sports and Sky Atlantic, but generally, uptake in the terrestrial world is relatively low. We’ve also seen that the same broadcasters have typically looked at their streaming services to deliver their UHD variants where it’s much easier to do so, even though costs at very large audience scales are still likely to be higher than traditional broadcast. 

Bandwidth and spectrum have also been put in a chokehold by the availability of C-band spectrum, which offers a very desirable balance of reach and bandwidth for mobile networks. It explains why broadcasters have struggled with UHD adoption to date. VVC enables broadcasters to achieve significant spectrum efficiencies by reducing the bitrate needed for the same video service quality where satellite remains in use, allowing better spectrum efficiency or lower streaming costs. For now, HEVC still provides a good way to deploy UHD, but VVC opens the potential for much wider adoption of 4K and possibly above, in a world where connectivity is key for everyone.