Laying the groundwork for 4K

Is 4K the successor to HD and is it too early to start pushing it?
4K, Ultra-HD, Content production

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At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas this month, 4K TVs are likely to feature prominently, highlighting the major role played in driving the next generation HD technology by consumer hardware giants Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic. Although 4K sets are marketed under the 'Ultra-HD' label in North America, Sony insists on sticking with the 4K badge (to differentiate it from 8K) under which it already markets its home and professional cinema projection equipment.

Based on a resolution four times that of HD 1080p, (3,840 pixels horizontally, 2,160 vertically), 4K would seem to represent a more natural technology progression and easier consumer proposition than stereoscopic 3D. With elements of the 4K broadcast equipment market already becoming commoditised, momentum is building in support of the first 4K broadcasts by 2016, perhaps targeting the Olympic Games in Rio.

However, a number of key issues still have questions hanging over them, a basic one being that TV manufacturers need to persuade consumers to upgrade to a higher resolution set (currently costing north of $20,000) at a time when the benefits of HD are only just being enjoyed by the mainstream.

“Sixty percent of the world’s market has yet to transition from SD while others are prioritising multi-platform distribution,” notes Graham Sharp, CMO and SVP, corporate development at Grass Valley. “4K to the home is being driven by set manufacturers trying to boost their refresh cycle.”

The enhanced viewing experience that a 4K image offers has attracted broadcasters to tests, including Brazil’s Globo, Sky Deutschland and France Télévisions. BSkyB has trialled 4K recordings of Champions League matches and is examining distribution and production models as a prelude to possible U-HD channel launch.

Fox Sports is using a Sony F65 camera at 4K (transmitted HD) for higher resolution replays during NFL broadcasts. The Middle East broadcaster most likely to jump in this direction first, Al Jazeera Sports, has yet to make its interest public.

“Assuming the compression standards are in place, then the launch of services could be possible in three years, limited to movie channels in the first instance,” suggests Adam Cox, senior market analyst, broadcast, Futuresource Consulting.

The momentum is predicated on a new compression scheme HEVC (Higher Efficiency Video Codec), which will effectively squeeze double the amount of data over existing bandwidths. This will make it possible to broadcast 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pictures) at data rates of between 30 and 40Mbit/s, which is the capacity of terrestrial broadcast channel DVB T2. Korean broadcasters reportedly aim to test this later in the year.

As with HD and 3D before it, U-HD will be led by pay TV operators who believe they can market a premium service and can justify the necessary infrastructure – such as funding new HEVC-compatible set top boxes.

Nonetheless, Futuresource predicts just 123,000 4K panels will be in UK homes by 2016. “The lack of a potential subscriber base will be an inhibitor,” says Cox. “4K is likely to be adopted slowly as the industry, and consumers, are still transitioning to HD.”

Even if 4K services are several years down the track, content is emerging, including a rising slate of studio movies, flagship documentaries and some high-end TV drama either shot natively with 4K cameras or post-produced digitally at 4K from 35mm.

3D TV productions, such as Space, a first commission in 4K by Sony, Discovery and IMAX joint venture 3net, are also likely to originate in Ultra-HD, where the higher resolution master can help retain a high quality final image on transmission now.

With the HD equipment market swamped with competitively priced product, a new wave of premium tech is the best way to maintain margin. Until recently there was just one mainstream choice, the Red (original and Epic versions), but producers can now future-proof productions in 4K with JVC’s handheld GY-HMQ10, Canon’s EOS C500 and the F5 and F55 from Sony. An external recorder for those models will also enable Sony’s NEX-FS700 camera for hi-speed sequences to go 4K, while the full 8K power of its flagship F65 cine camera is to be unleashed in forthcoming upgrades. For-A has debuted a 4K variable rate camera and even minicam maker GoPro unveiled a 4K version of its Hero 3.

Sony is building out a 4K production pipeline based on its SR format and has a new XAVC codec designed specifically to go beyond HD, touting support from Avid, Codex, Adobe and others. 4K video cards from Blackmagic and AJA are coming on stream and 4K finishing tools from Nucoda and Filmlight are in the works to compete with Mistika and Quantel systems already in use.

Since editing can be performed using HD proxies, as far as post production goes, the issues are greater storage and processing power for transport and neither is insurmountable. In fact, some facilities are ready now.

“The demand is here and there’s no bottleneck – just faster and faster pipes and a bigger SAN,” says Richard Mills, CTO of OnSight, the London facility which is handling three documentaries (including Colossus Productions’ Galapagos 3D) shot at 4K to meet the high-spec deliverable for IMAX. OnSight uses a Barco projector for reviewing 4K content, Mistika for finishing and 10Gbps Ethernet to run data around the building.

LipSync Post performed its first 4K post operation in 2003. “The cost of 4K [production] will go up since the kit and storage costs more and time to complete takes longer,” informs head of post, Kevin Phelan. “But this was ever the case when HD was introduced.”

The grunt power required to shunt 4K signals around a live environment requires more than just cameras. The whole outside broadcast infrastructure, from professional monitors to vision mixers, needs upgrading.

With a view to attracting lucrative live sports contracts from pay-TV rivals BSkyB and BT Vision, the UK’s suppliers are laying the groundwork.

Telegenic, which took an early lead in 3D truck investment and won the bulk of Sky’s 3D TV live production on the back of it, is now building what it hopes will be Europe’s first 4K-ready mobile facility. “We believe 4K will be a format for live cinema events and domestic TV once compression formats become more efficient,” explains Telegenic commercial manager Eamonn Curtin. “We are in discussions with major manufacturers regarding new 4K cameras and resulting signal flow, with a view to forming strategic partnerships,” he adds.

Brian Clark, commercial & technical projects director at outside broadcaster NEP Visions, also says that the firm is working with manufacturers to test parts of the 4K workflow. “4K is very, very much on our radar,” said Clark. “Although the next leap in resolution was expected to be 1080p 50, we’ve reached a point where the market might skip that and go straight to 4K.” “Since 4K is effectively two HD signals, then manipulating it comes down to crunching data,” he says. “The entire design of Atlantic [the division’s latest 3G – 1080p 50 vehicle] is IP-based, where we are managing data, not traditional HD signals. 4K, 6K, 8K is on a rapid technology path.”

However, the owner of the UK’s largest OB fleet dissents. “I can’t imagine anybody at this point looking at building a dedicated 4K truck,” says SIS Live commercial director Phil Aspden. “There’s no indication that it would find enough work to justify the cost of investment.”

The HEVC scheme also allows for the higher resolution broadcast of 8K (equivalent of 32 megapixels or 7,680 x 4,320). The only broadcaster currently seriously developing this for domestic transmission is Japan’s NHK, which has earmarked the Rio Olympics as a watershed first broadcast.

“There is a school of thought that says that the 8K system is a bridge too far, and we need to start with 4K,” says EBU technical deputy director David Wood, who chairs the ITU committee that recommended the U-HD spec. “Then there are those who believe that 4K will probably only be around for a few years before the 8K system comes along. You wouldn’t want to re-engineer your studio just for five years, so why not go straight to 8K?”

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