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No, UHD won’t go the way 3D went!

Last month IHS Media & Technology Digest published a report authored by Richard Cooper on UHD stating that it could be the next 3D if the industry doesn’t get its act together.

I was an early critic of 3D arguing as early as 2009 that the 3D emperor didn’t have any clothes on. Hopefully that will legitimize my total disagreement with the idea that UHD might go the same way.

In my work at the Ultra HD Forum, we compiled a list of over 50 live commercial UHD services at the end of 2016. This was never the case for 3D.
Continue reading No, UHD won’t go the way 3D went!

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@nebul2’s NAB 2016 Journal (UHD, HDR, VR, All-IP)

Las Vegas was again focused on UHD in 2016, at least through my eayes. The four Keywords I came away with were 1: UHD (again), 2: HDR, but also 3: VR and 4: All-IP production. Of course other things like drones were important, but I'm not a real journalist, I don't know how to write about things I don't know.

NAB Parking Day1

We got in from Europe on the Saturday evening and this year I was on a budget so we stayed in an Airbnb apartment with my colleague Marta. It turned out to be just behind the main LVCC parking lot. On Sunday morning, you can see on thE right what the parking looked like when you arrive before the show is really underway.

Size and growth of the industry

On the Sunday I sat for a moment through the "Media Technology Business Summit" run by Devoncroft and learned abit about the industry trends:

  • Starting with radio shows this year’s NAB is the 94th annual Show, so I suppose in 6 years we’ll have a big bonanza, I wonder if we’ll have something like Augmented Reality in 8K by then.
  • Devoncroft sees the global media being market worth 49bn in 2015 with the US Media industry having pushed revenue per user to the limit. 3000 vendors make up their industry panel and 2009-2015 CAGR was 1,9% with 2014-2015 OpEx spend at -4.2% and CapEx spend at -4.4%.
  • Despite the OTT craze and losing traditional subs, ESPN still gets 7$/Month from linear subscriptions, but only 0,42$/Month from OTT viewers, so hold your hats, linear pay-TV ain’t dead quite yet. Beyond sports, Devoncroft argues that even though there is growth, digital revenues are insufficient to replace linear ones. The big issue is how the ad market can transition.
  • 4K and UHD make up the third most import topic for respondents of Devoncroft's 2016 Big Broadcast Survey the results of which will soon be released. But Demand for UHD is less for “more pixels” than one for “better pixels”. So according to Devoncroft, like Ericsson, the HDR Vs. 4K debate is all but over.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

I then popped into an Augmented Reality (AR) conference where Gary Acock and Juan Salvo were discussing how to add live content to the UnReal video gaming engine. AR is seen as bringing the real world into Virtual Reality (VR). Stitching 360° video is still apparently a “pretty unpleasant experience” and French startup VideoStitch was mentioned as one of the key players working on fixing this. Currently 360° production design is limited by how effectively you can stitch video. But with AR there are also Inherent UX limitations like parallax issues with head movement or camera movement when there’s no head movement. With AR one needs to always know where the head is and how it's positioned as head movements affect the content that is being created.

The amount of data to process for VR can be well over 1TB / hour so the coming (?) VR/AR revolution needs powerful GPU and CPU.

AR, VR and any immersive experience are still moving targets in 2016. But neither AR nor VR are isolated from the broadcast experience anymore. Indeed VR is less of an isolating and lonely experience, but a new way of engaging, a bit like coming to a conference and interacting with social media on a smartphone at the same time. Content is still king and creating compelling content remains the goal where AR & VR are just other tools. As we still don't have toolsets like an « Adobe for AR/VR » we need to jerry-rig existing tools.

A VR demo that was not at NAB intrigued me. Frauhoffer’s Stephan Steglich told me about FAME. It’s the simple idea of navigating the 360 video with a remote control. 2 key advantages are removing the isolation aspect of having to wear something over the eyes and moving all the processing to the cloud, allowing for future-proof deployments. It sounded convincing but I’ll wait for a compelling demo before making an opinion.

Showstoppers

Sennheiser Mic

I had been told great things about the CES Showstoppers being a big event, at my first experience at NAB, it was a very focused affair where great food and wine seemed to be as attractive for the media as the companies to visit.

German manufacturer Sennheiser was showing off their latest MKE440 DSLR microphone, which they say is the first mini-shotgun for HQ stereo sound image in one take. I was more taken by the beautiful design of the prototype VR microphone that goes under VR camera.

I met up with V-Nova’s Fabio Murra who was showing their two OTT deployments based on their Perseus codec. FastFilmz launched on March 26 in India offering SVoD to a mobile-only Tamil customer base with a potential of 120m subs. There were 350 titles at launch and according to V-Nova, Perseus made the business case possible in southern India where only 2G is available in some areas, offering a 64-128 kbps bandwidth. The demo I saw was watchable at 120kbps using 14 fps (I had to point that out though). The Perseus codec is described as “hybrid on top of H264” with a metadata stream on top of H264. I’ll be looking to dig into this a bit more as I no longer understand exactly what this means after a heated discussion several analysts. Content is protected with DRM I couldn’t find out by who.

I only glimpsed the other demo of a 4K STB using OTT delivery. It was showing Tears of Steel at 4mbps and looked fine but without any wow effect at least for what was on screen then, or maybe it was just that I was too far away for the small screen.

V-Nova had already announced a contribution deal with Eutelsat and promised another one for the next day (which turned out to be Sky Italia).

brother

The Japanese company Brother that I wrongly thought of as a printer maker (does any Japanese company do only one thing?) was displaying « Airscouter », a surprising head-mounted monitor designed for cameramen in difficult positions. You see a 720p resolution image in the corner of one eye. It was a bit disconcerting and I guess limited to some very specific use cases. I felt a bit nauseous with it on my head but it does really work and felt maybe like what Iron Man might feel.

Ultra HD Forum

Monday was taken up with Ultra HD Forum activities for me. We had our own press conference in the morning and in the after noon I made a tiny presentation during the Pilot press conference in the Futures Park. I discussed, the forum’s reason for being, it’s history, our Plugfest #1, the Guidelines 2016 and the general « Work in Progress » aspect of live UHD.

« Pilot » is new name for « NAB Labs » that was started in 2012. We were among 30 exhibitors in Futures Park, which aims to promote « Edge of the art » concepts that are not yet commercialized. ATSC 3.0 was the star with 15 companies focusing on that alone. Other stuff is very diverse ranging from commercial R&D, government to academic research. NHK 8k Super High Vision was prominent as usual and the Nippon public broadcaster is still scheduled to launch commercially in 2018 « so people can enjoy in 2020 Japanese Olympics » in glorious 8K HDR with HFR.

Security and analytics

Monday night was over-booked and I chose the Verimatrix media dinner. I had some animated discussions on UHD and the extent to which HDR might be the only big game-changer (I still believe in 4K but am feeling more and more lonely on that front). Tom Munro the CEO gave me a great update on the company strategy and how the move towards analytics, which I now understand can be a logical progression for a security vendor. If the financial transactions are precious enough to secure, then private usage data is worthy of the same efforts. More on that in a dedicated blog soon.

Satellite industry on edge of a cliff and might UHD save it?

On Tuesday I got myself to the Satellite industry day. I have this vision on the industry (at least the broadcast and the Telecoms parts of it) sitting on the edge of a cliff wondering when fiber, 5G and delinearization will push the off the edge.

Despite a great lineup with Caleb Henry of Via Sat Mag, Steve Corda VP Bizdev SES, Markus Fritz Eutelsat, Dan Miner AT&T and Peter Ostapiuk of Intelsat, the opening panel didn’t really give me any new ideas to tackle that problem.

AT&T in particular sees similarities between the move from SD to HD and that from HD to UHD, but IntelSat sobered the audience asking how the content industry will make money from upgrade to UHD. SES’s Steve Corda made it scarier still reminding the audience that during the upgrade from SD to HD we didn't have competition from OTT as we do now with most early UHD coming from OTT suppliers.

The satellite industry panel agreed that demand for UHD channels is growing especially from their cable operator clients and that the bottleneck is still available content. AT&T's Dan Miner noted that a key change in OTT delivery in the coming 18 months is that US data plans will enable the TV Everywhere on cellular networks.

The consensus is that to have a monetizable UHD offering you need a bouquet of at least 2 channels, ideally at least to 5 including sports.

When the panel went round enumerating their live 4K services, I counted about a dozen UHD linear channels and as many demo channels as well as a few events based channels.

One of Viasat’s founders Mark Dankberg gave an inspirational talk reassuring the audience that the satellite industry’s future is safe, at least if they copy Viasat. The merger of AT&T and DirecTV is an indicator to him that Satellite without broadband is no longer viable in the long term. Viasat started 1986 in defense, during the 90's they got into VSAT (Data Networking) just on the B2B side. Dankberg believes high –orbit geostationary is still the way to go (instead of mid of low-orbit (LEO)) because it’s the best way to optimize resources with thousands of beams. He points out that as 95% of demand is in 15% of geography; LEO that orbit the earth can't do that. I was enthused by his talk and hoping to get home and write a blog about it, but when I looked through my notes I realized that in the end there wasn’t any new information, just the charisma and communicative beliefs of an industry veteran.

TV Middleware on Android

Beeniuis, the middleware guys from Slovenia that I’ve written about a few time caught me in the south hall so I went to have a look.

In demonstrating their new version 4.2 core product, Beenius told me that the EPG is dead but still went ahead to show me theirs. Navigation is via genres with favorite channels on top of a carousel that mixes live and VoD. Recommendation currently uses their own algorithms but can be based on Think Analytics with « Trending » content on second line.

beenius

The company is very Google-centric, although they still have a Linux offering with a Hybrid DVB solution. They clarified to me how GooglePlay apps can be controlled by the TV operator with three different approaches:

  1. 1. Preinstalled apps and an open GooglePlay
  2. 2. « Walled Garden » where the user chooses apps from the operator’s list typically among a dozen including YouTube, Netflix, etc.
  3. 3. Apps already embedding into the UI, which is also a closed model.

VoD also benefits from integrated recommendation but is open to extra info from the Web such IMDB content.

Beenius haven’t had much interaction with 4K yet, although they say they are ready. As with any competitive TV middleware you can fling content from screen to screen.

The operator-controlled UI can be updated from a central server so that a new version of the App gets automatically pushed to STB via GooglePlay as soon as it's closed and reopened. Playing in the google arena has enabled a full-featured app for Android powered smart TVs, Beanies just needs Google to finally get it right in the living room.

Automatically generated HDRB-COM

Ludovic Noblet of French institute of research B<>Com showed me a tool to up-convert SDR content to HDR. He sees it as a gap-filler for legacy setups which is already available for offline, with a real-time version planed for IBC 2016. The current version introduced a latency of just 3 images and was convincing even if it didn’t carry that amazing wow-effect of some native HDR content. He was very secretive about the first customers but seemed very confident.

The pull of social media

On the last day I had a quick stop at Texas Instrument’s tiny booth, simply because they engaged with me on twitter ;o)

The LMH1219 is a 12G SDI card shown above enables SDI cables to be up to 110m without any signal attenuation, instead of the usual 20-30m. Its UltraScale processing equalizes and Improves the signal. The TI chip is agnostic to metadata so should work fine with HDR for example.

Another hardware innovation they showed me was a single chip for receive (Cable EQ) or drive mode (TX) that makes BNC connectors more versatile as they needn't be just IN or OUT but can be either. The device isn’t available yet nor does it have a product name. Launch is expected in Q1 2017.

Note that I didn’t interact with any of the All-IP production vendors, but just noted it as a buzzing theme in conferences and on booth signage.

NAB Day 3

Oh and the Convention Centre car park looked like this from our apartment window by 9:30 am Monday through Wednesday:

That’s all for now folks.

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User experience gain must trump resource consumption for UHD success

This opinion blog is about 3 things that could derail UHD if User Experience lets them.

Ok so you can already tell that I’m biased. I believe in UHD and its five components that will change user experience:

  1. Higher resolution (4K)
  2. Higher Dynamic Range (ability to see details in both brighter whites and darker blacks simultaneously)
  3. Better colour (more colours, closer to human perception)
  4. Better sound (more channels than speakers, object based surround sound)
  5. Higher refresh rate (especially for action which can otherwise look choppy at very high resolution without higher refresh rates)

My crystal ball hasn’t confirmed that this is the order in which these components will arrive, or to what extent it’ll be a big bang approach, or even if some components might get left by the wayside. I’ll delve into that in another blog. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve witnessed HD succeed and I have written several times about why I believe UHD’s time is now (recently here or here in early 2014 for example). I have nothing to sell and no vested interest in UHD, I’m simply driven by my geeky fascination with the promise of a great new experience brought to TV and IP technologies that I’ve been working with for so long.

But just in case I am wrong, here are 3 things that that some of us fret about and still could prevent UHD success.

Thing Description Issue Why it won’t stop UHD
Fragmentation Vendors pulling in different directions Device & content incompatibility Industry bodies like the Ultra HD Forum or the UHD Alliance
Energy Extra brightness, more pixels and more images consume more power Regulation, consumer reluctance, UHD perceived as not Politically Correct Technology progress has often consumed more power (e.g. HD vs SD). Better efficiency means extra power required is less than extra user experience delivered. CPE power issue is more in standby mode than peak consumption. Need not consume much more power with HD-only signal.
Bandwidth UHD can require over 4 times HD bandwidth / file size. Channel and content distribution issues. Monthly data caps will be an issue for OTT households. Networks grow in quantum leaps, UHD will help spur the next one. All-fibre connections and future 5G networks will provide more bandwidth than UHD can consume. A new generation of low-orbit satellites is also on its way.

The driving force providing the impetus to overcome challenges such as those mentioned above is User Experience. This is the part of the equation I have to rely on gut feeling or faith for. My premise is that UHD ushers in a great new User Experience with a sensation of realism and immersion.

If it actually turned out that UHD didn’t bring that “wow” effect so many of us in the industry believe in, then any one of the above “things” could alone derail UHD from becoming a market success and we’ll have to find another game changer in the TV industry.  My experience so far suggests that UHD will be that game change but also that there are still niggles that need ironing out.

As it happens I’ve been watching quite a lot of 4K TV via Amazon and Netflix in the last few months. Landscapes and close-ups are all pretty amazing, but I do have a nagging worry over some indoor scenes, which despite being shot by top-of the range pros (e.g. Amazon’s Transparent, or Breaking Bad, …) leave a strange feeling that something isn’t quite right in 4K resolution. It occurs when there is some mild camera movement yet when most of the scene is in focus. I get this counterintuitive sensation that there is something maybe amateurish in the composition. This could be due to the shooting not having been properly thought out by the director and cameraman for 4K TV playback, or maybe it’s just me not yet being used to processing so much data on screen. If either of these is true, which I suspect is the case, the issue will quickly disappear. But this highlights my only real concern over UHD’s success: will it be consistently “wow” enough to overcome resistances like the three issues stated above? If so I have no doubts that vendors, content providers and operators, as personified in the Ultra HD Forum, will be insure that the whole UHD movement is not derailed by relatively minor teething troubles.

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@nebul2’s 14 reasons why 2015 will be yet another #UHD #IBCShow

Ultra HD or 4K has been a key topic of my pre and post IBC blogs for over 5 years. I’ve recently joined the Ultra HD Forum, serving on the communications working group. That’s a big commitment and investment, as I don’t have any large company paying my bills. I’m making it because I believe the next 18 months will see the transition from UHD as the subject of trials for big operators and precursor launches to something no operator can be without. Time to get off the fence. I once wrote that the 3D emperor didn’t have any clothes on; well, the UHD emperor is fully clothed.

Of course much still needs to be achieved before we see mass adoption. I don’t know if HDR and 4K resolution will reach market acceptance one at a time or both together, and yes, I don’t know which HDR specification will succeed. But I know it’s all coming.

Below is a list of 14 key topics ordered by my subjective (this is a blog remember) sense of comfort on each. I start with areas where the roadmap to industrial strength UHD delivery is clear to me and end with those where I’m the most confused.

Note on vocabulary: 4K refers to a screen resolution for next gen TV whereas UHD includes that spatial resolution (one even sees UHD phase 2 documents refer to an 8K resolution) but also frame rate, HDR and next generation Audio.

So as I wander round IBC this year, or imagine I’m doing that, as probably won’t have time, I’ll look into the following 14 topics with growing interest.

1. Broadcast networks (DVB)

I doubt I’ll stop by the big satellite booths for example, except of course for free drinks and maybe to glimpse the latest live demos. The Eutelsat, Intelsat or Astras of this world have a pretty clear UHD story to tell. Just like the cableCos, they are the pipe and they are ready, as long as you have what it takes to pay.

2. Studio equipment (cameras etc.)

As a geek, I loved the Canon demos at NAB, both of affordable 4K cameras and their new ultra sensitive low-light capabilities. But I won’t be visiting any of the studio equipment vendors, simply because I don’t believe they are on the critical path for UHD success. The only exception to this is the HDR issues described below.

 3. IP network; CDN and Bandwidth

Bandwidth constricts UHD delivery; it would be stupid to claim otherwise. All I’m saying is that by putting this issue so high on the list everything is clear in the mid-term. We know how fast High-Speed Broadband (over 30MPS) is arriving in most markets. In the meantime, early adopters without access can buy themselves a UHD Blu-ray by Christmas this year and use progressive download services. The Ultra HD Alliance has already identified 25 online services, several of which support PDL. Once UHD streams get to the doorstep or the living room, there is still the issue of distributing them around the home. But several vendors like AirTies are addressing that specific issue, so again, even if it isn’t fixed, I can see how it will be.

 4. Codecs (HEVC)

The angst around NAB this year when V-nova came out with a bang has subsided. It seems now that even if such a disruptive technology does come through in the near-term, it will complement not replace HEVC for UHD delivery.

The codec space dropped from a safe 2 in my list down to 4 with the very recent scares on royalties from the HEVC Advance group that wants 0.5% of content owner & distributor's gross revenue. Industry old-timers have reassured me that this kind of posturing is normal and that the market will settle down naturally at acceptable rates.

 5. Head-ends (Encoders, Origins, etc.)

I always enjoy demos and discussion on the booths of the likes of Media Excel, Envivio, Harmonic, Elemental or startup BBright and although I’ll try to stop by, I won’t make a priority of them because here again, the mid-term roadmaps seem relatively clear.

I’ve been hearing contradictory feedback on the whole cloud-encoding story that has been sold to us for a couple of years already. My theory – to be checked at IBC – is that encoding in the cloud really does make sense for constantly changing needs and where there is budget. But for T2 operators running on a shoestring – and there are a lot of them – the vendors are still mainly shifting appliances. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you’d expect the whole cloud concept of mutualizing resources to work better for the smaller guys. I must have something missing here, do ping me with info so I can update this section.

 6. 4K/UHD resolutions

While there is no longer any concern on what the screen resolutions will be, I am a little unclear as to the order in which they will arrive. With heavyweights like Ericsson openly pushing for HDR before 4K, I’m a little concerned that lack of industry agreement on this could confuse the market.

 7. Security for UHD

Content owners and security vendors like Verimatrix have all agreed that better security is required for UHD content. I see no technical issues here - just that if the user experience is adversely affected in any way (remember the early MP3 years), we could see incentive for illegal file transfer grow, just when legal streaming seems to be taking of at last.

 8. TV sets & STBs

Well into second half of my list, we’re getting into less clear waters.

When it’s the TV set that is doing the UHD decoding, we’re back at the product cycle issue that has plagued smart TVs. It’s all moving too fast for a TV set that people still would like to keep in the living room for over 5 years.

On the STB side, we’ve seen further consolidation since last year’s IBC. Pace for example is no longer; Cisco is exiting STBs etc. It seems that only players with huge scale will survive. Operators like Swisscom or Orange can make Hardware vendors’ lives harder by commoditizing their hardware using software-only vendors such as SoftAtHome to deliver advanced features.

 9. Frame rates

This is a really simple one but for which consensus is needed. At a 4K screen resolution the eye/brain is more sensitive to artifacts. Will refresh rates standardize at 50Hz or 60Hz? Will we really ever need 120Hz?

It’s clear that doubling a frame rate does not double the required bandwidth as clever compression techniques come to play. But but I haven’t seen a consensus on what the bandwidth implication of greater frame rate will actually be.

10. Next Gen Audio

There are only a few contenders out there, and all have compelling solutions. I’m pretty keyed up on DTS’s HeadphoneX streamed with Unified Streaming packagers because I’m helping them write an eBook on the subject. Dolby is, of course, a key player here but for me it’s not yet clear how multiple solutions will cohabit. It isn’t yet clear how if and when we’ll move from simple channel-based to scene based or object based audio. Will open source projects like Ambiophonics play a role and what about binaural audio.

11. HDR

High Dynamic Range is about better contrast. Also, the brain perceives more detail when contrast is improved, so it’s almost like getting more pixels for free. But the difficulty with HDR and why it’s near the bottom of my list is that there are competing specifications. And even once a given specification is adopted, its implementation on a TV set can vary from one CE manufacturer to another. I final reservation I have is the extra power consumption it will entail that goes against current CE trends.

12. Wide Color Gamut

As HDR brings more contrast to pixels WCG brings richer and truer colors. Unlike with HDR, the issue isn’t about which spec to follow, as it is already catered for in HEVC for example. No, it’s more about when to implement it and how the color mapping will be unified across display technologies and vendors.

 13. Work flows

Workflow from production through to display is a sensitive issue because it is heavily dependant on skills and people. So it’s not just a mater of choosing the right technology. To produce live UHD content including HDR, there is still no industry standard way of setting up a workflow.

 14. UHD-only content

The pressure to recoup investments in HD infrastructure makes the idea of UHD content that is unsuitable for HD downscaling taboo. From a business perspective, most operators consider UHD as an extension or add-on rather than something completely new. There is room for a visionary to coma and change that.

Compelling UHD content, where the whole screen is in focus (video rather than cinema lenses) gives filmmakers a new artistic dimension to work on. There is enough real estate on screen to offer multiple user experiences.

In the world of sports a UHD screen could offer a fixed view on a whole football pitch for example. But if that video were seen on an HD screen, the ball probably wouldn’t be visible. Ads that we have to watch dozens of times could be made more fun in UHD as their could be different storied going on in different parts of the screen, it would almost be an interactive experience …