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My Ultra High Definition #NAB15

There is always plenty to see at NAB and if I liked Las Vegas, I’d surely come more often. But the last time I was here was in 2001 when the show was dubbed the convergence NAB.

I’m going again this year for one main reason: Ultra HD. Sure 4K has been a key topic for at least the last five NABs, but now is different and here’s why.

Gut feelings aren’t very useful in making business decisions, but sometimes, once all evidence has been considered, that’s all you have to go by. Intuitions can even be dangerous when you don’t have enough information, like in 1993 when I advised my cousin not to join an Internet start-up because I “felt” that the Web was going to stay the realm of geeks and early adopters. Thank god he didn’t heed my stupid advice. I also missed the SMS boat with a strong gut feeling that such a barbaric user experience would never make it mainstream. But those were spot decisions made without enough background knowledge let alone understanding of what was really going on under the surface, driving user behaviour. Daniel Kanneman, in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow explains how any experts intuitions are mainly bunk anyway.

So I’ll attempt o explain why UHD will be real and will start now with as much argument and fact. I will own up to what is no more than opinion. To prove that this isn’t just consulting BS (yes I admit I’m also a consultant) I’m spending a few grand of my own money and taking 5 days off to go to NAB, which represents over my annual investment as one man band. Now is the time when the industry will really launch UHD, and I want to be there. The table below lists the main reasons given by those who advocate waiting for the time being.

Issue

Description

Facts

Opinion

for

against

Content creation, postproduction & workflows 4K content requires powerful hardware and four times the storage space. Studios already shoot in 4K, as do high-end smartphones. 4K cameras already used to produce several feeds in many studios. Cost, lack of standards, creates risk of needing to re-invest. To produce the best possible HD it’s already better to work in UHD then downscale. Be first out of the stalls for UHD deployment.
Content availability Most libraries are not UHD Anything shot on 70mm film can be re-mastered.

Up-scaling any content improves the HD experience.

It will take time to reach critical mass of native UHD content. This is also a chicken and egg situation. Offer and demand will prod each other forwards. Shorter content shelf life means more new content.
Colour depth and refresh rates UHD shows everything better including flaws. 30 fps looks jittery in UHD. These issues will be addressed irrespective of UHD. HD needs them too. UHD hardware may not support future HDR and HFR specs. Can cause legitimate delays. However, improved HD creates awareness of picture quality and fuels desire for UHD.
Device readiness Require more power to decode. With Moore’s law still in effect this problem will disappear shortly Impossible to leverage existing hardware in the field Smartphones shoot 4K that users will want to watch (Apples 5K iMac sets the scene). UHD is a premium feature consumers will pay for.
Distribution and Bandwidth Require 3 to 4 times the HD bandwidth Fibre and 4G deployments in full swing, HEVC is here Volumes required for ABR file storage will explode. Beyond HEVC, a new wave will come (I’l keeps tabs on the buzzing V-Nova).
Screen size and viewing distance To be at least 6 feet away from screen it must be at least 55” In urban homes shorter viewing distances make sense. Huge screen sizes are only popular in some markets As long as consumers perceive benefits they will adapt, they always do.

I wont dwell in this blog on the benefits of UHD, but unlike with other technical (r)evolutions such as 3D, all content will benefit from UHD. I also see an opportunity for a new kind of video story telling. High resolution content with shorter viewing distances lets different parts of the screen tell a different story depending on how and where you watch. Video can become more immersive. Choosing what part of the screen to watch is almost an interactive experience. Whether 3D technology is present or not will become a technical detail.

All the issues discussed above will benefit from branding, standardization and end-to-end interoperability testing which is why I will be reporting from the launch of the UHD Forum in Vegas. I’ll also look into the UHD alliance which has already launched a consumer facing Web site.

I’ll write a post-NAB blog, so far I intend to meet up with:

  • the Ultra HD Forum gang,
  • The Ultra HD Alliance (if I find them),
  • V-Nova that boasts UHD stream at HD bitrates,
  • BBright that offers an entry-level UHD play-out system that simplifies trials,
  • Verimatrix, that is launching a new UHD focussed security suite,
  • Sony to get a feel of the latest 4K cameras and TVs,
  • Please comment if you have other suggestions.

You only need to see UHD twice for it to make sense UHDUHD ;o)

[Update, just got back rather that a new blog here is the word cloud of my impressions walking around the halls and listening to conferences (see my twitter for more details)] : wordle 7

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Real UHD deployments in 2016 says Thierry Fautier, UHD Forum will help

Most of the video ecosystem is agreed on one thing: Ultra HD or 4K will happen, but none of us agree yet on when and how. It is clear is that the standards will play a key role in determining the timeframe. In previous cases, say with DASH for example, an industry body above competing standards has been the most effective way to speed things up. It seems like two separate initiatives are coalescing independently, which may be a good thing. CES 2015 was the place to be and many UHD issues where addressed. To get a clearly picture, I spoke to someone at the heart of it all. Here is my interview with Thierry Fautier VP of Video Strategy for Harmonic Inc.

Q: First of all Thierry can you confirm that UHD was a prominent them in Las Vegas this year?

A: Most certainly, Ultra HD was one of the most prominent topics at CES 2015. This was the first major show since some key announcements of Ultra HD services in late 2014:
- UltraFlix and Amazon that offer OTT services on connected TVs,
- DirecTV that announced a push VoD satellite service (through its STB that stores and then streams with decoding in the Samsung UHD TV),
- Comcast that announced a VoD streaming service directly through the Samsung TV, with content from NBC.

Q: But these services require UHD decoding on a Smart TV?

A: Yes that is a first takeaway from CES: TVs are the ones decoding UHD for now, STBs will start doing so from second half of 2015.

Q: Beyond the few services just described, what signs did you see that UHD might really start becoming available to all from 2015?

A: Several, for example the announcement that Warner Bros has decided to publish UHD titles using Dolby’s Vision process. Netflix also announced that its Marco Polo series would be re-mastered in HDR (but without announcing which technology). So on content and services side, things are moving on HDR.

Q: Do you see HDR as one of the first challenges to solve for UHD to succeed?

A: I do. The plethora of HDR demonstrations by all UHD TV manufacturers was impressive. I will not go into the details of the technologies used, it would take too much time and this may change (due to the standardization effort of HDR). The only thing I would say is that there is a consensus in the industry to produce UHD TV, it will be around 1,000 nits (against 10,000 for the MovieLabs spec) [a NIT is a measurement of light where a typical skylight lets in about 100 Million Nits and a florescent light about 4,000 Nits]. On the technology side, LG is the outsider with its OLED technology that was shown in 77 inches, while the rest of the industry seems to focus on the quantum dot (Samsung announced in 2014 that it was abandoning OLED).
This suggests that we will have HDR in 2015; the real question is on which spec HDR will be based? You now understand the eagerness of studios to standardize HDR.

Q: so is HDR a complete mess?

A: HDR is actually already in the process of standardization, but with more or less synchronized work:

- ITU began a call for a technology which was answered by Dolby, BBC, Philips and Technicolor.
- EBU / DVB is working on a standardization of HDR mainly for live broadcast applications. The goal is to finalize the spec in 2015.
- SMPTE is defining the parameters required for the production of HDR content. A first spec (ST 2036 for HDR EOTF and ST 2086 for Metadata) has already been ratified.
- MPEG is currently defining what to add to the existing syntax to HDR in a single layer. The outcome is expected in July 2015.
- Blu-ray is finalizing its HDR (single layer) specification and also hopes to freeze it mid-2015 to optimistically hoping to launch services in time for Christmas 2015. Blu-ray is working in coordination with MPEG and SMPTE. Note that Bly Ray will then follow specifications for streaming / download under Ultra Violet.
- The Japanese stakeholders, through NHK, announced they would now develop their own HDR for 8K.

So you see the diversity of the various proposals that exist, the new “Ultra HD Alliance” should bring some order here. The clue I can give is that to have a Blu-ray UHD service in 2015, this must be done with chips that are already in production in 2015. I think we will see more clearly at NAB (April) and that by IFA (September) everything will be decided, at least for the short term, aligned hopefully with DVB / EBU Ultra HD-1 Phase 2.

Q: I gather what is now called the “Ultra HD Alliance” is actually something different to what I described in my last blog and that it’s first challenge is getting HDR sorted out?

A: Indeed Ben, the Ultra HD Alliance is a group of 10 companies primarily from Hollywood and the world of TV in addition to Netflix and DirecTV on the operator’s side. The first goal of this group is to get HDR (High Dynamic Range) specifications under control (see diagram below) and the quality measurement from the output of the UHDTV. In this regard, Netflix will launch a certification of the quality of HDR streaming; HD to start and we can imagine that this will be extended to UHD. Note that no manufacturers have yet been invited, which is surprising as they are the ones actually going to do most of the job!

Q: So the organization we spoke about last time is something else?

A: Yes Harmonic, with a group of 40 other companies have proposed to create an Ultra HD Forum to take care of the complete UHD chain from end-to-end, including OTT, QoS, Push-VoD, nVOD, adaptive streaming, Live and on-demand. After various meetings that took place at CES, discussions are on going to ensure that the two groups (UHD Alliance and UHD Forum) work closely together.

Q: so as in other areas would you see the need for at least two governing bodies to manage UHD standards?

A: In the short term yes. The UHD Alliance is focussing a single blocking factor at the moment i.e. HDR/WCG/Audio , but will have a broader marketing and evangelization remit. The UHD Forum on the other hand is starting out with and ambition of end-to-end ecosystem impact. In the longer term there is no reason the two entities might not merge, but from where we stand today it seems most efficient to have the two bodies with the different focuses.

Q: Does HDR make sense without HRF (High Frame Rate)?

A: Well I'd say on the chip side there is still a challenge as 2 times more computing power is required; HDMI is also a limiting factor as bandwidth increases. Early services might get away with just a 25% increase. Most encoder providers are not yet convinced that the effort will produce improvements justifying the disruption brought by the doubling of frame rate. We have been asking for 60/120 fps formal testing but we’ll need to wait for the new generation cameras especially in sport, as opposed too currently used cameras often equipped with low shutter speeds coming from the film world where 24 fps is the norm. At IBC’14, Harmonic together with Sigma Designs, was showing encoding of UHD p50 and up conversion in a Loewe Ultra HD TV set to 100 fps, with a motion compensated frame up conversion powered by Sigma Designs. Visitors from the EBU saw the demonstration and were pleased with the result. This will be one of the most contentious topics in the months to come, as the value might not be able to counterbalance the impact on the ecosystem.

Q: What about the chipset makers?

A: I visited Broadcom ViXS, STM, Sigma Designs who all had demos at different maturity levels to support different types of HDR. They are all waiting for a standard for HDR.

Q: So to wrap up can you zoom out of the details and give us the overall picture for UHD deployment?

Ultra HD is a technology that will revolutionize the world of video. Making UHD requires a complete rethinking of the workflow, from video capture, production to the presentation. This will take several years. I’m not even talking about spectrum issues to get this on the DTT network....
As you can see, the specifications are still in flux when we talk about “real Ultra HD”, the technologies are being set up and should be ready in 2016 to make live large scale interoperability testing during the Rio Olympics and also have the first services to OTT or on Blu-ray Disc that supports the HDR and WCG (Wide Color Gamut).

(Disclaimer 1: Thierry is a friend and is passionate about Ultra HD, he was invited speaker at both NAB and IBC last year on UHD, disclaimer 2: Although I have written for Harmonic in the past, I’m not under any engagement from them).

diagram UHD2

To be continued....

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Ultra HD ecosystem getting organized, alliance on the way

I attended the French HD Forum meeting on UHD last week in Paris, which hosted by Eutelsat. France prides itself on being innovative, often with government or strong regulator incentive. How this actually works out is a matter for politicians as in the case of the Minitel that predated the Internet. There is still no consensus on whether it was a good thing for France, with French people becoming used to eCommerce before the term even existed or whether on the contrary it made France miss the first Internet wave.

When it comes to TV standards similar debates rage. Much ink was spilt over the terrestrial switch-over which was completed here in 2011. The transition from SD to HD was always a political hot potato and is still underway with spectrum scarcity in the current DVB-T1 setup restricting HD to 5 of the 23 FTA channels.

Unsurprisingly, when the French get talking about UHD, there’s palpable tension with all the differing agendas. Does it make more sense to finish upgrading the end-to-end environment to HD before playing around with UHD, or on the contrary would it be more economical to avoid two upgrades and go straight to the ultimate target of full UHD? Should TV stations wait for customer demand or try to stimulate it with UHD services in as early as 2015?

Beyond these legitimate debates, there is also some confusion that is artificially created by a lack of information and sharing across the Ultra HD video ecosystem.

The risk of confusion

As UHD TV gradually tips over it’s peak of inflated expectations the TV industry at large, through the diversity of its reactions, will undoubtedly lead it down to the depths of disillusionment. Some TV stations publicly doubt if 4K will ever be a sound business proposition, while satellite operators and many technology vendors have bet their future on UHD success. Sometimes, even within the same industry group UHD is being pulled in several different directions at once as for example between the different UHD specifications of ITU, EBU, Digital Europe and CEA. Some key differences and commonalities are:

Feature

ITU EBU (phase 1) CEA Digital Europe

Resolution 

4320p 2160p 2160p 2160p
Frame rate 120/60 60 60/30/24 60/30/24
Color space BT2020 BT 709
HDMI NA 2.0 2.0
Bit depth 10/12 10 8 minimum 8 minimum
HDR Under standardization Phase 2 Not mentioned Not mentioned

The standardization of UHD has so far been much less chaotic than it was for say 3D technology at a similar stage.

Some clear standards emerging from:

  • the telecoms sector with the (ITU-R) recommendation from ITU’s Study Group 6 (more at: http://www.tvtechnology.com/news/0086/itu-issues-uhdtv-standards-recommendations-/213615#sthash.DXG9J7bU.dpuf),
  • the video technology space, which is also active with MPEG-HEVC having published a specification in January 2013 that can use used for UHD and that is now looking actively at HDR,
  • the consumer electronics industry that provided a vital part of the Ultra HD requirements with the standardization of HDMI 2.0,
  • the broadcasters, with the DVB/EBU ultra high definition broadcast format (UHD-1 Phase 1) specification for example.

But UHD’s success will rely on much more than just increased bandwidth and resolution and many of the other elements are still under discussion like for example the required increases in both color sensitivity and contrast with HDR (High Dynamic Range) or refresh rates with HFR (High Frame Rate). Norms for carrying higher definition audio with a greater number of channels have been standardized by ETSI with AC-4 that is actively promoted by Dolby. The MPEG standards body is currently in the process of creating an object based audio encoding standard with MPEG-H. The IP encapsulation techniques defined by SMPTE (2022-6) are still to be universally accepted by the industry.

To succeed faster, at a lower the cost for early adopters, UHD doesn’t need yet another body defining standards, but one that explains them, helps ensure their interoperability and promotes successful business cases.

After the failure of 3D, the industry needs to regroup around UHD to ensure its success, in a similar way the DASH Industry forum (dashif.com) has rallied all the DASH energies.

The Ultra HD ecosystem is quite complex and we provide here (courtesy of Harmonic) an end to end diagram for Ultra HD:

diagram UHDTo speed up the process of getting through the trough of disillusionment or maybe is it to cross the chasm, I learnt in Paris that a few market leading companies are in talks to set up an alliance. Its intended scope is to cover all parts of the content lifecycle from production to display, encompassing contribution, distribution, post-production and play-out. The Alliance’s stated goal will be to promote interoperable specifications, propagate effective business models, provide forecasting and share all successful application models.

The alliance would identify, describe and share specifications relevant to all parts of the distribution chain in close collaboration with standardization bodies.

Interoperability will be a key driver for all the alliance’s work, defining the system level interop points, organizing interop plug fests and publishing and promoting the results.

The Alliance would also deliver business models for both live and on-demand content, sharing any industry success stories and ensuring any mistakes are only ever made once.

An Ultra HD Alliance would promote existing industry reports but also pool real market data from its members and use projections to obtain the most accurate forecasts for critical market dynamics. The number of deployed UHD capable CPE, the readiness of live TV workflows or the extent of UHD VoD assets will be closely monitored and projected. The alliance also intends to show how UHD can be used in different application domains such as VoD, Live TV, Linear play-out, Push VoD, etc. presenting the benefits of UHD over HD with operator feedback.

To successfully promote Ultra HD, the alliance would be represented at trade shows and conferences. The alliance’s website would encourage interaction with blogging and social media. Webinars and various publications including whitepapers will also shorten UHD’s time-to-market.

The alliance would be open to companies from all parts of the ecosystem. Content providers, broadcasters, production houses, operators, playout companies, encoder vendors, audio specialists, security providers, chipset makers and UHD device manufacturers would all be able to join. Other organisations such as the HD Forum, EBU, DVB, etc. would be welcome too.

The setup of the alliance is still at the stage of informal talks, but the first formal meeting will take place at the CES in Las Vegas in January 2015.

Stay tuned for an update after the show (previous 4K blog on 7 Reasons why UHD/4K makes sense here)

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First 4 trends spotted at IBC14

I didn’t write any prediction on what would be important this year, but while it’s still fresh here are my first impressions

Last year the Cloud was a key buzzword and Amazon was, this year, it’s replaced by Virtualization, basically the same technology, but with the possibility of running all those virtual machines in a service provider's own data center. It is supposed to lower costs eventually and make things like redundancy management easier, but I’ve yet to be convinced if it’s really such a big deal. I’ll try and stop by some of the encoding booths like Envivio, Harmonic or Elemental to check out where it’s really just a generalization of the concept of software based encoding vs. hardware based encoding.  I'll also try to get back to the Amazon Web Services stand in hall 3 where they're explaining how Netflix uses AWS with special tools developed to optimize service availability.

4k has of course been around for several years yet still manages to buzz. I’ve been told to go see Samsung’s giant curved display in hall 1. The main difference from last year is that there’s hardly a booth without a 4K display or two, most now at 60fps and more and more UI’s, like that on display at SoftAtHome’s booth, are now native 4K.

OTT is still very present even if it too has lost its novelty as so many commercial deployments are out there. OTT ecosystem vendors are repositioning frantically as value is eroded. Some like Piksel seem to be keeping their end-to-end positioning, while others like Siemens with its Swipe service are also bringing out specific components to sell as services. Enhanced ABR is also appearing, to help reduce Opex costs, by finding tricks to use only as much bandwidth as is required. All in the CDN crowd like for example Limelight, Anevia, Broadpeak or Media Melon (who don’t have a booth) have things to show in this area.

IoT and the connected and/or smart homes have been around for years in other shows, but have now just made it to IBC. Managing the home network is becoming more challenging for many reasons. One that struck me more is that we are seeing a greater proportion of homes with 100M+ broadband connections, but in-home effective throughputs down to just a few megabits, often not enough to stream over Wi-Fi. There were quite a few solutions at IBC, like AirTies' home Wi-Fi meshing.

Some trends though are clearly on the way out. I noted for example that it’s already out of fashion to talk about embedded apps now that HTML5 is a no-brainer and any mention of the smart SmarTV is positively 2013.

More soon, stay tuned...

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Seven simple reasons why UHD/4K in the living room makes sense, where 3D didn’t

It's easy after the fact to say "I told you so", but 3D never happened in the living room as we pointed out four years ago here.

Looking at the world though the same prism, here are my seven bullet points summarizing why UHD/4K will happen. If you're not sure what UHD/4K really is, see this quick guide here.

I. 4K doesn't require special glasses.

II. Almost any content can be up-scaled, making it look better in higher resolution.

III. 4K/UHD improves viewing experience all the time, not just during the wow! moments of a 3D movie, and never makes you seasick.

IV. Four times the resolution makes the viewing experience more immersive reducing the need for 3D content in the first place, and 8K will just do this again.

V. 4K/UHD will make 3D catalogues look insignificant in size as easy re-mastering of movies means UHD/4K VoD will be here before we even notice, which is what Netflix seems to be betting on.

VI. Workflows and post-production may indeed be tough in 4K/UHD, but they’re a piece of cake compared to 3D ones.

VII. Business models and device penetration are still holding back live 4K/UHD streams and the ink still needs to dry on HEVC. But the reason for being and value proposition oh live UHD is clear. What was a live 3D stream going to be used for?

I'll add-to or amend this list. Let me know your thoughts.

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IBC 2013 part 2: Brightcove & Envivio

Brightcove

I met up with Albert Lai who is CTO of Media and Broadcast Solutions. He told me that Brightcove has “traditionally been a big end-to-end black box”. But that is changing as more and more requests come in for just a part of the workflow.

Brightcove has seen the Software As a Service (SaaS) model move to a Platform As a Service PaaS (platform) one, but where modularity and Flexibility have become the key criteria.

All this modularity has come about because of the very different use cases Brightcove now caters for, ranging from the Cloud transcoding services for HEVC to the Viacom native apps including the Nikelodeon one that just recently won an Emmy.

Brightcove was founded in 2004 and IPOed in February 2012. As of December 31, 2012, Brightcove had 335 employees. It is headquartered in Boston with offices in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo and Sydney.

The leitmotiv of my interviews this year was 4K and Albert told me that the Cable Show 2012 was when Brightcove first started getting requests about 4K.

Brightcove has conducted internal tests on 4K content management and has concluded that it’s a very promising approach. At present it is “less a technology issue than a general marketplace one, where availability is still an issue”.

I pointed out that Cinema content was already widely available in 4K but Albert responded, “Sure cinema content is there, but its just a small amount”.

Albert sees 4K representing a 100% to 400% increase in storage and transmission costs although he thought that HEVC will alleviate some of the pain by doubling the quality within the same bandwidth and providing for a better experience. The monetization question must however be addressed, so Brightcove is listening to the market and is ready for, but not pushing 4K right now.

The Zencoder purchase of last year is probably part of that readiness campaign. Zencoder is a pure-cloud software based encoding solution for live and on-demand content.

Envivio

This year I spoke to Jean-Pierre Henot the company’s CTO based in Rennes.

I went straight to the point in asking about HEVC so Jean-Pierre first explained the main demos at the front of the booth. Three screens were showing an HD demo of live content at 24 frames per second and all looked identical. One screen was showing MPEG2 at 8 Mbps, the centre screen displayed MPEG4 at 4 Mbps and the last one was showing HEVC decoded content, currently at 3 Mbps but expect to be reduced to 2 Mbps by EOY 2014. Note that the latter still has a CPU power requirement four times greater which really is an issue in the short term.

All the demos used software encoding.

Jean-Pierre noted that the hardware decoding part of HEVC is stable already for HD content, but that for 4K HEVC decoding is still only available in beta versions as the protocol is still a bit new. Fully compliant reference designs are expected for CES 2014.

This is inline with some minor issues still pending with the specifications for HEVC transport, which is otherwise ready for HD.

Like a decade ago with MPEG4, the situation regarding royalties is still being sorted out.

We discussed the cheaper 4K sets available today and Jean-Pierre scoffed at the 30HZ limit as Envivio sees 60fps as a requirement for sport. The hardware limitation of HDMI should be gone thanks to the new 2.0 specification. This should also be available at the beginning of 2014.

All in all, Henot confirmed the general industry view that royalties, devices, frame-rates and HDMI 2.0 have been the stumbling blocks so far for 4K.

As these are gradually removed, HEVC will take off but start initially below 4K.

HEVC has no noticeable impact on ABR, which is the key enabler for many OTT services.

There seems no doubt that HEVC will be next “best solution” available for video compression and with the shorter lifecycles all round, it will take less time than MPEG4 did to penetrate market.