The broadcast industry is mired in a state of resolution confusion. HD is the format du jour, 4K UHD is emerging quickly and proponents of 8K refuse to stay quiet. For a broadcast engineer, it’s enough to make your head spin.
At the recent IBC2019 convention in Amsterdam many equipment suppliers were showing tools and techniques for producing and, yes, even delivering 8K—over an IP connection and, more practically today, via satellite. Beyond a smattering of digital signage and video score board applications now being deployed around the world, many said the driver for 8K is next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, where broadcaster NHK (and South Korean broadcaster KBS) has promised live 4K and 8K transmissions of select events.
Consumer televisions that can display 8K UHD, which boasts 33 million pixels (7680x4320), or four times that of 4K UHD and 16 times that of Full HD (1920x1080p60), have begun appearing in stores but the uptake has been minimal. Most 8K displays, however, are being used for public demonstrations of the immersive TV format.
In early 2018 Samsung tested 8K UHD broadcasting with local satellite broadcaster KT Skylife. The trial broadcasted a famous island of South Korea via satellite, operated by government-run electronics and telecommunication research institute ETRI, on an 85-inch QLED TV. The issue for consumers is that the recommended screen size must be over 65 inches and they must sit about three feet away from the screen to get the full immersive effect. No one does that at home.
Like Canon, numerous companies showed prototype 8K production technology on the exhibit floor.
Japanese broadcaster NHK has also broadcasting 8K “Super Hi-Vision” on a daily basis since December 1st of last year, via satellite; on a dedicated channel between the hours of 10 am and 10 pm. Audio is being delivered in 22.2 multi-channel format (although small sound bars are available to replicate the effect). NHK said it is broadcasting in frame rates of 59.94, 60 and 120P. NHK also said it has no plans of broadcasting 8K terrestrially. At the IBC Show it was stated that NHK is using a Tico 8K codec to reduce the bitrate of an uncompressed 8K stream to 48 Gbps (60hz, 10 bit, 4:2:2) making it possible, they said, to squeeze an 8K signal down a single 12G SDI cable with a latency of less than 0.2 milliseconds.
[Editor’s Note: Most Japanese are still watching HD broadcasts on HD televisions, although most new set sales are for 4K UHD models. The problem, like in the U.S., there is very limited access to native content on these new 4K televisions.
At the IBC Show, BT Sport—a major broadcaster made up of a group of pay television sports channels provided by BT Consumer; a division of BT Group in the United Kingdom and Ireland—staged a live transmission of an English rugby match. It was delivered via satellite to the company’s outdoor IBC exhibit stand at 360 Mbps.
BT Sport staged a live 8K broadcast using a collection of borrowed equipment.
“We’re trying to show that live 8K transmission is possible, but we’re not saying it’s going to happen every day,” said Andy Beale, Chief Engineer at BT Sport. “It’s just another tool for our clients to consider. We’re seeing it used at sporting events for large screen displays located around a venue to great effect. The point is, we can typically do it if the project at hand calls for it.”
The hardest part of setting up the live 8K demonstration, according to Beale, was procuring all of the necessary production equipment on the ground. They were able to secure a single 8K camera from Ikegami, a lens from Fujinon, a quad-link production switcher from Blackmagic Design, an encoder/decoder from AppearTV and Astro Design supplied the contribution system use to stitch the four quadrants together once received for display.
The 8K signal was split into four 4K SDI quadrants before transmission and put back together at the receive site and displayed on an 85-inch Samsung TV requiring an HDMI 2.1 connection. Also noteworthy: there are no 8K graphics system currently, so BT Sport sought the help of a London-based company called Moov to create some templates that were used to display match score and player information.
[To this writer, the like 8K image looked soft and the viewing experience inside a tent was not optimal; somewhat defeating the point.]
In the area of complementary 22.2 channel audio, it was announced at the show that nine partners—including Germany’s Magix Software, French researchers BCOM, Fraunhofer IIS and Munich research body IRT—are working with a BBC R&D team as part of the “Orpheus” project, to develop an object-based audio broadcast system from production to play-out and reception.
Panasonic showed a prototype 8K camera system with a PL lens mount and the world’s first 8K organic CMOS image sensor.
Meanwhile, on the exhibit floor, companies like Adobe Systems (Editing), AJA Video Systems (routing, signal conversion), Blackmagic (signal conversion, production switcher and recorder), Canon (lens), Cinegy (editing), ColorFront (8K HDR conversion), Fraunhofer Institute (JPEG XS compression), Harmonic (encoding), Ikegami (camera), Lynx Technik (SDI fiber converter), Panasonic (camera), Red Digital Cinema (Camera), Spin Digital (8K HEVC encoding), Sony (camera), and several others showed parts of the production ecosystems required to produce native (or upconverted) 8K content.
Of note, Harmonic’s Thiery Fautier, vice president of Strategy, said his company helped French broadcaster France TV deliver 8K signals over a 5G wireless infrastructure for a series of large screen displays in and around the 2019 French Open tennis tournament at Roland-Garros Stadium this past May. The broadcaster produced 100 hours of 8K content for the entire 14-day event and streamed it to the large screens at 39 Mbps using harmonic’s VOS software encoding and unicast technology. (NHK is delivering 8K over satellite at approximately 85 Gbps.)
Blackmagic’s new ATEM Constellation 8K is an UltraHD live production switcher with quad-split signal processing.
“We see 8K as a future solution that hasn't been fully realize yet,” Fautier said. “Once we get the [transmission] bit rate down and maintain the quality level, there’s no telling what will be possible. I don't think people should be dismissing 8K just because of its large file sizes.”
What was clear at the IBC Show is that many technologists want to show what is possible with 8K, even given the inherent limitations. In the case of the Asian broadcasters now broadcasting it, many feel broadcasting 8K could be a matter of bragging rights. Many say engineers appear to be experimenting with 8K without regard for financial business model or return on investment simply because they can.
It’s all part of a pixel race that most broadcasters want no part of, as they aspire to 4K UHD while continuing to deliver HDTV.
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