AUSTIN, Texas -- Big Communications Event -- Every TV technology transition arrives with the same set of circumstances that suppress the initial rate of adoption: Sales of the requisite new displays remain low as long as content remains lacking, but the incentive for alleviating that lack remains low as long as the new displays aren't selling in big numbers.
The commercialization of ultra high definition (UHD, also known as 4K TV) video comes with some unique additional considerations that may also check initial progress toward wider adoption -- albeit only briefly -- including questions about how to implement associated high dynamic range (HDR) technology and a bit of wobbliness in the codec market that might complicate UHD streaming, according to the panelists at the BCE panel entitled "All the Way with 4K?"
The chicken-and-egg situation with displays and content gets resolved in a similar fashion every time. Display makers rely on early adopters to buy the first few systems, a few content providers hoping to gain some prestige from being first to deliver the new video format make a few shows in that format available, wildly popular sporting events are broadcast in the new format encouraging sports fans to buy new sets, at which point the ball is rolling and market expansion at an accelerating rate is virtually guaranteed.
We're nearing that point now, according to Heavy Reading Analyst Alan Breznick, citing projections that there may be as many as 77 million connected UHD-enabled TVs sold around the world by the end of this year, growing to 371 million by the end of 2019. Meanwhile, the number of 4K services being introduced or announced are also beginning to accumulate, from companies, including:
- Sony (movies)
- Univision (sports)
- Netflix (movies, concerts)
- Amazon (various content)
- AT&T/DirecTV (movies, sports)
- Comcast (various content)
- Dish Network (various content)
- Rogers (sports)
- BT (sports)
- Videotron (various content)
Charles Meubus, senior director of video technology at Videotron Ltd. , said 4K TV is still nascent, limited by number of 4K sets installed so far, but that doesn't limit rollout of new set-top boxes that can support the format. Videotron is doing exactly that. "It future-proofs our installed base," he said, adding, "These set-tops provide an exceptional end-user experience."
South Korea is one of the most active markets for 4K. There are several providers competing with 4K services, and Alticast Corp. is working with all of them. Alticast US vice president of business development Jae Park said there was a greater than expected uptake of set-top boxes in South Korea.
The improvement in video quality going from standard definition (SD) to high definition (HD) was substantial, but the improvement going from HD to UHD is not nearly as dramatic, noticeable only under limited circumstances that include sitting roughly ten feet from the screen -- not much less and not much more. The more stunning improvements derive from HDR, including greater contrast and more vivid imagery.
But there are several ways to implement HDR, and companies such as Videotron are thrown off by potential compatibility issues.
Kerry Sims, vice president, global solutions & smart infrastructure at Hitachi Consulting, noted that you get a wider color gamut, with deeper blacks and whiter whites.
Park said that in Korea, "we find 4K and HDR to complement each other. But there are still some questions about compatibility."
The other great thing about HDR, Meubus said, was that while the benefits of 4K are noticeable only on large screens, HDR is an improvement no matter the size of the screen. And yet. "There are some compatibility issues. We're a bit cautious about making a move before those issues are settled."
Sims noted it is feasible to remaster 1080p content. That will probably happen quicker to ensure a bigger library of HDR content faster. "It will give people who have access to HDR screens a better experience," he said.
UHD files are naturally larger than HD files, so compression is key. Meubus said that when Videotron started delivering UHD it required 32-35 Mbit/s for the live channel the company provides. The company worked that down to 25 Mbit/s or even to 20 Mbit/s, depending on the source of the video, he said. On the VOD side, the company started at 25 Mbit/s, and is trying to get it down to 19 Mbit/s.
Netflix, Park noted, can distribute 4K in 15 Mbit/s, but for sports the bandwidth required is going to be higher. "HEVC becomes critical to enabling these services," he said.
A potential problem with that, however, Sims noted, is that the H.265 group is having trouble reaching consensus on royalties, holding up the licensing of HEVC. The holdup is encouraging companies to investigate alternatives. One is Perseus, which developer V-Nova claims can compress 4K video down to the 7-10 Mbit/s range. Google has its VP10 codec, and Cisco has codec called Thor; the company might have a royalty-free version in 2017, Sims said.
Even with those concerns, little is going to impede the growth of the 4K market for long, the panelists agreed.
— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading