4K Status: Production Yes—Delivery No

For all of last year’s talk about distributing 4K television to home viewers, there has been little real progress on making it a reality. The only place 4K technology is being used regularly is in some sports production and in the making of premium television programming.

A few over-the-top content providers, such as Netflix, have distributed 4K programming to viewers and others have done experiments on special events. But routine distribution — if it is ever to arrive — is still in the future.

Even in production, the 4K infrastructure solution is a kluge and considered temporary. Currently, the workaround signal interconnect for uncompressed 4K uses quad HD-SDI links at 3Gb/s with each link containing a 1920 x1080 progressive video signal that represents 1/4 of the original image.

Transporting 4K production video
There are currently two formats used to transport 4K via quad link signals — square division quad split and two sample interleave.

Square Division Quad Split: Each link contains one quarter of the original image. Courtesy Ross Video.

Square Division Quad Split: Each link contains one quarter of the original image. Courtesy Ross Video.

Quad Link 2 Sample Interleave (2SI): Each link contains a full image at 1/4 resolution. Courtesy Ross Video

Quad Link 2 Sample Interleave (2SI): Each link contains a full image at 1/4 resolution. Courtesy Ross Video

Of these two schemes, 2SI offers greater flexibility. But it is just being implemented by manufacturers of mainstream camera, server or graphics systems. Neither solution is ideal and both are considered temporary.

The TICO 4K solution
The more permanent solution (if anything is ever permanent in video) is the use of a single wire. That’s where TICO, a light-weight compression scheme, comes in. It enables 4K to be transported over a legacy SDI infrastructure, in addition to more modern IP production and contribution networks.

TICO was developed by intoPix and work is now ongoing at SMPTE to publish TICO as Registered Disclosure Document (RDD) for the benefit of the entire broadcast and media industry. It is hoped that document will be completed by year’s end.

(Editor's note. Learn more about TICO at The Broadcast Bridge click here.)

The TICO alliance is a coalition of companies united to use TICO as the next-generation single-wire, compressed 4K interconnect solution. The alliance includes Grass Valley, Imagine Communications, Tektronix, Ross Video, Altera Corporation, Artel Video Systems, Embrionix, Image Matters, Keisoku Giken, Macnica Americas, Nevion and Xilinx.

The TICO Alliance membership includes a broad range of familiar broadcast equipment manufacturers.

The TICO Alliance membership includes a broad range of familiar broadcast equipment manufacturers.

With a visually lossless compression up to 4:1, TICO enables the mapping of a single 4K 2160p60 stream over a single 3G-SDI link. At over 10Gbps Ethernet, it allows the simultaneous transmission of up to three streams of 4K 2160p60.

TICO provides a low latency (limited to just a few pixel lines), preserves video quality across multiple generations of encoding/decoding, fits into the smallest FPGA (field programmable gate array) devices and runs efficiently in software. The technology is also designed to enhance live IP systems by reducing the cost for both HD and 4K video.

In December 2014, intoPIX announced the creation of a Registered Disclosure Document (RDD) at SMPTE. It is hoped SMPTE’s work on the technology will be complete by year’s end.

Mark Hilton, VP of infrastructure at Grass Valley says his company is adapting their 3G products to 4K capability. The format's future adoption depends on getting everything onto one cable.

Mark Hilton, VP of infrastructure at Grass Valley says his company is adapting their 3G products to 4K capability. The format's future adoption depends on getting everything onto one cable.

Mark Hilton, vice president of infrastructure at Grass Valley, said his company’s main goal today is “to get off quad links” for 4K. “We plan to support the TICO protocol and you’ll see more about this at IBC. We plan to have most of our portfolio of products supporting TICO by the end of the year. That’s in development right now.”

Though Grass Valley has built a few quad line 4K production trucks, Hilton said the challenge with our production switcher is you are reducing the number of inputs and outputs by a good amount when you do 4K with quad HD.

“Our existing products were built for 3G so we are adapting them to 4K,” he said. “Our next step is to simplify the connection between those products with one wire. Beyond that we are looking at developing native 4K products without losing production capability.”

Hilton said it is a hard requirement with TICO that the technology must become a SMPTE standard before Grass Valley will deliver it to customers. “They have firmware that we can license. It’s firmware we can run on a FPGA in our products. That’s the beauty of it. Most broadcast products already use FPGA chips, rather than requiring some special chip.”

Though Hilton said Grass Valley recommends using an IP broadcast infrastructure with 4K, it will not be an essential requirement with the TICO solution. “We are looking at 4K over an existing 3G infrastructure which would not require IP,” he said. “There’s interest for people to adopt 4K, but not necessarily have to tie it to IP. There’s still a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt around IP and when and exactly how people will adopt it.

“We have done some tests with the existing infrastructure and it works. But we haven’t launched it,” he said. “If you take a 4K signal and run it through TICO you get a 3G signal that comes out. The intent is whether you can take the 3G and push it through an existing 3G infrastructure. We believe the answer is yes.”

James Stellpflug, vice president of product marketing at EVS, said his company’s XT3 family of servers has been supporting 4K, but most of that 4K video is being used as a production tool within standard HD broadcasts. 

James Stellpflug, VP of product marketing at EVS notes that his company produces 4K products, but customers use the technology primarily inside standard HD programs, not as stand-alone content.

James Stellpflug, VP of product marketing at EVS notes that his company produces 4K products, but customers use the technology primarily inside standard HD programs, not as stand-alone content.

“The entire production is done typically in an HD format, but 4K is used for a camera acquisition into an EVS production server and from that people either crop or zoom extraction shots from regions of interest in the image,” Stellpflug said. “They are essentially using 4K as an over-resolution acquisition and then using it to tell a different story within the HD production.”

Most agree that IP is the best way to enable 4K, Stellpflug said, but then you run into the challenges. “It would also mean some light compression to move the signals efficiently though the size of pipes available today,” he said. “If we start to apply compression, you’ll see two or three different camps each looking at a different solution.”

Since NAB, Stellpflug added, the development of 4K has been slow. “It is still the status quo. People are dabbling in it. There have been no major leaps and bounds since NAB in terms of the standards changing or in implementation.”

As much as equipment manufacturers are attempting to ease the use and hookup of 4K for its customers, there are still many doubts among television engineers about whether 4K is worth the high cost and how much difference it will make in its raw form in viewer living rooms. There is more than just high resolution needed for a great picture, which boosts the argument for a more flexible IP infrastructure.

“IP is a transport infrastructure platform over which you can put lots of different formats, 4K being one of them,” Grass Valley’s Hilton said. “But the beauty of IP is it allows you to scale. Once you put in the IP infrastructure, you can adopt 4K and you can even go to 8K. You can also have 4K at higher frame rates, which would be a different bit rate. So IP is far more flexible and agile and allows configuration to deliver what the viewer wants.

“4K is a nickname for ultra high definition TV,” Hilton continued. “UHDTV has lot of different profiles, different frame rates and different formats. My opinion is higher frame rate, higher resolution and expanded color space are probably more naturally apparent to the home viewer than higher resolution. People don’t have large enough TVs and their nose is not right up on the screen to be able to see the difference in resolution. That’s just my opinion, not the official Grass Valley position. An IP infrastructure offers the flexibility to offer home viewer what they care about.”

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