Ultra HD: time to invest?

Is the rush of interest in Ultra HD a flash in the pan, or will we see complete broadcast chains from the camera to the home? If you attended NAB this year you would be forgiven for thinking that every broadcaster in the world will be moving to 4K in the next six months, such was the frenzy of new products. The move to 4K won’t happen that quickly, but Ultra HD transformations will happen in the very near future, and broadcasters and production companies should be investing sooner rather than later.

We should start by clarifying the language. 4K video is not the same as the 4K production standard, common in digital cinema. Although it originated in marketing hype, perhaps we should stick to Ultra HD to describe something that is twice the resolution of HD in each direction: 3840 pixels on 2160 lines.

Netflix has announced plans for an Ultra HD service this year. BBC broadcast (over DTT as well as streaming) games from the FIFA World Cup (although it acknowledges it is likely to be only R&D facilities that will be able to receive it). Standards bodies, including SMPTE and EBU, are working on agreed formats so we can move forward.

On the other hand, international economic consultancy Deloitte predicts that the cost of creating an Ultra HD broadcast channel is in the region of $10 to $15 million, or around five times that of a new HD service.

Given the huge push by consumer electronics companies, it is likely we will see the situation we had in the early days of HD, when an increasing number of homes bought HD screens as they became affordable, without connecting them to HD sources. Consumers are already proudly pointing to their 4K televisions, while viewing HD content (at best).

But we should not limit our thinking on Ultra HD as only a way to bring us four times as many pixels. Ultra HD also offers higher frame rates and a significantly larger range of contrast and colour gamut. It would be tragic if we did not seize the opportunity to add these extremely valuable boosts to the viewing experience.

The counter argument is that we would have to handle huge quantities of data. An uncompressed 30 minute programme in today’s HD formats requires around 90 gigabytes of storage. But if we go for what we might call full Ultra HD: 4K resolution, at 50 progressive frames a second and 10 bits per colour for extended contrast, then we are looking at a file size of 900GB for half an hour. That is 10 times the size of today’s files.

Here’s the good news: he cost of storage is falling, and adding the server capacity is relatively trivial. Network technologies are also improving, with 10 gigabit ethernet now a standard product and 100 gigabit ethernet already available. So, the problems of moving the content around are increasingly manageable.

The latest compression technologies also are delivering remarkable efficiencies. HEVC already allows Ultra HD to be delivered in practical bandwidths, and as the codec is refined and silicon solutions are developed, compression efficiencies will only improve.

In 2014, we will see early adopters test the water with Ultra HD, and the industry will scrutinize the results keenly. Assuming we witness success, broadcasters will start to differentiate themselves by offering a real premium channel (possibly at a premium price) using the remarkable quality available.

For producers, given the availability of acquisition and post production systems already 4K-compatible, Ultra HD is part of the step-change both for 4K readiness and to future-proof assets on the road to 4K and beyond. The measurable value of Ultra HD content will dwarf the marginal cost of the technology, relative to the overall production costs.

Ultimately, the transition to Ultra HD can enable the transformation of broadcast operations and the realization of greater viewer engagement. Our customers are now reacting by transitioning from demo systems to the delivery of 4K production systems for commercial operation. 

Robert Rowe is managing director, Live TV, Snell.

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