Caution Still The Watchword Over 4k

Ultra High Definition (UHD), or 4k as it’s also known, is now firmly established in the minds of broadcast professionals and viewers alike, even if far from being established in TV studios and the home.

New 4k TV sets have been on sale for some time and test transmissions been carried out, with Indian Pay-TV operator already running a UHD service and more to come this year from in Germany over SES' free-to-air satellite channel and BT Sport in the UK over broadband.

While all this could point to a UHD avalanche over the coming few years, there is still some caution in the approach of many broadcasters and standards bodies. This was illustrated during the 4k, UHD and Beyond session at the New Content Horizons conference staged by Futuresource Consulting in London earlier this month. The panel comprised Andy Quested (centre, above), head of HD and UHD at the BBC, Simon Gauntlett (left), chief technology of the Digital Television Group (DTG) and Chris Johns (right), chief engineer for broadcast strategy with Sky.

While Sky Deutschland is known to be considering a UHD service and accompanying 4k Sky+ box by the end of this year or beginning of the next, its UK counterpart is not being drawn on its plans. Chris Johns, speaking before the BT Sport announcement, observed that the decision was "at what point in time do you jump" and implement the technology. "With HD there was almost a perfect storm, on the back of the move to digital," he said. "It is happening very slowly [and] the question is when you should adopt it."

Since the beginning of 2015 there has been speculation that a new Sky+ box will be launched by August at the latest, with a range of features to match the recent EE set-top receiver, plus an option for 4k. "Sky has not got a proposition to launch at thjis time," Johns said on the general issue of introducing 4k services. "We've been shooting material and are still learning how to shoot UHD. It's not a small investment and we need to pick the right time."

Andy Quested commented that the BBC had been making programmes in UHD "for the last five years", with among the most recent being the Queen's Christmas Speech. "It won't be like the 3D fiasco," he said. "My laptop can edit 4k and it is moving down the chain. The move to bring in UHD is not just about better resolution but improved colour and sound. It's about making a better experience."

While saying that UHD "would happen", Quested emphasised that the BBC did not have a position on a new service at the moment: "I don't see the need right now [and we] have a large following on HD." He added that OTT might be the right place for 4k at the moment.

On the subject of standards Simon Gauntlett commented that a number already existed, with more being developed on an ongoing basis. "There hasn't been agreement on any combination of standards," he said. "Probably the biggest challenge in this is faced by the retail sector, which has to work out how to sell 4k TVs without misselling them and having to deal with returned units in the future."

Quested said that the life cycle of TVs was aproximately seven to eight years, observing that he didn't think UHD sets were ready yet. "With standards I worry that the ITU study period is coming to an end," he said. "SMPTE is really good at getting a lot of standards to market and then lets the industry decide." He added that there could still be a world standard or a series of national standards.

Picking up on the piont about 4k sets already on the market, Johns said many would not be able to deliver the pictures that sports fans in particular would be expecting: "TVs from 2013-14 won't support 25 frames a second, which is the base standard, and those bought in 2014 don't do High Dynamic Range, which delivers brighter pictures."

As for whether viewers would hand over a premium for UHD services, Quested replied that "many people will pay for something their neighbours don't have". Gauntlett commented that DTT was another matter and that it was "fairly well known" UHD woiuld have to be delivered by IP, satellite or cable to begin with, although the BBC had carried out digital terrestrial tests during the World Cup.

A straw poll showed that none of the conference audience had 4k TVs at the moment. Andy Quested said he might get one this year, while Chris Johns seemed very happy with his "nice big HDTV". Whether that's an indication of things to come on their respective channels is a matter for the future.

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