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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 …

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LTE Broadcast part 3/5: Reasons to be cheerful

With three mobile operators, Verizon Wireless, Telstra of Australia and Smart Communications in the Philippines, now having conducted successful trials of LTE Broadcast, it is a good time to assess why at last multicast video transmission over cellular is coming of age.

There have been various failures in the past, such as DVB-H, mostly in Europe, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO in the US, but they came too early and did not meet all the technological challenges. The underlying factor is the proliferation of tablets and ever larger smartphones, providing users with compelling mobile devices conducive not just for snacking but also consuming longer form content. This in turn has created a surge in video consumption over cellular that threatens to swamp both radio spectrum and the backhaul capacity of radio operators.  LTE Broadcast can save spectrum and fixed network capacity for popular live or linear video content that is consumed simultaneously by a sufficiently large number of people that would otherwise generate multiple unicast streams down to the cell level.

If there are only one or two people in each cell watching a given stream, then LTE Broadcast will not save much spectrum. But there is usually at any one time some relatively popular content being streamed over a given cellular network. Therefore, as various surveys from Ericsson and others have indicated, on average a mobile operator can cut traffic by at least 10% through use of LTE Broadcast. But that does not give the full picture, since the savings will be greater at peak times when more popular content tends to be consumed.

But the killer use case is for venue broadcasting, where hundreds or even thousands of people at say a large sporting event or concert may simultaneously want to tuck into action replays or content relevant to the occasion. Then LTE Broadcast becomes essential both to feed the cell where the venue is located and to distribute the content to devices over the RAN (Radio Access Network). Of course earlier cellular broadcast technologies could also serve venues in principle, but fell down over cost of infrastructure, lack of complaint devices and mobile screens being too small for compelling viewing. DVB-H required significant additional infrastructure investment to deploy, as well as specific upgrades to handsets.

LTE Broadcast will run over all LTE infrastructure and while it is not supported by current commercially available handsets, it will come out of the box with the next generation ready to hit the market in the second half of 2014. It also delivers video much more efficiently than its ancestors such as DVB-H, partly through being based on the 3GPP eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service). eMBMS uses OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), which has been incorporated a while in other wireless systems such as Wi-Fi, Wimax and DVB broadcast, but is new to cellular. The key point is that OFDM is a form of inverse multiplexing, splitting the broadcast signal over multiple low bit rate carriers that are therefore closely spaced in frequency, but do not interfere with each other because the waves are out of phase with each other.

This greatly increases robustness against fading at a given frequency, since the signal is split out across a range of frequencies. This robustness enables LTE Broadcast to deliver premium broadcast quality video over cellular for the first time. Apart from eMBMS, LTE Broadcast will in future be able to take advantage of associated developments in video transmission, in particular MPEG DASH for standardized streaming and HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)/H.265 for stronger video compression. Taken together these technologies will ensure that LTE Broadcast both reduces bandwidth consumed by mobile video and increases the quality. This is why despite having been bitten before the cellular industry is convinced that LTE

Broadcast will be a great success. Part one in the series by Philip Hunter is here, part two is here and part four is here.
Philip Hunter

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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.

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10 questions on UHD and how not to seem like a 4K Luddite

Despite being a bit of a geek, I feel I need to brush up my 4K basics to avoid seeming lame on such a hot topic. 2013 has already seen UHD/4K bloom at CES; now I need to be ready for IBC. So I had a long chat with Thierry Fautier who happens to be pretty knowledgeable on this. Here’s the transcript of our talk, in case you too want to seem less lame on the subject. 1. What exactly are 4K & UHD? 4K stands for “4 thousand” from the screen resolution of 2160 * 4096 pixels and is the new standard defined by the movie industry. The frame rate is still 24 fps, and the bit-depth remains 8 bit. UHD stands for Ultra High Definition and is supported by the broadcast and TV industries. It differs from 4K, with its greater color depth of 10 or 12 bits (which is a huge dynamic color range increase). The aspect ratio is brought back to the TV’s 16/9 ratio so it sports a 2160 * 3860 resolution. Frame rate is still a big debate. Some broadcasters are arguing that 120 fps are needed for football and that color depth should be 12 bits. The ITU specification gives a range of values, but the industry needs to rapidly agree and settle on some figures so that interoperability can be assured. Thierry’s company Harmonic believes that 4K with 10bit color depth @ 60 fps is a “good time-to-market and cost compromise” for the ecosystem. The following diagram gives a scale of the different quantity of data each screen size involves:

From Wikimedia (4K article)
From Wikimedia (4K article)

2.  Will/should 4K and UHD merge? No, cinema workflow will stay separate even if you’ll always get movies on your TV. Broadcasters will not accept such low frame rates on their own production. 3. What time frame do you see for adoption? The 2016 Olympic games will see the beginning of mass adoption. So we need field trials throughout 2015. That in turn means products must be on the market some time in 2014, which implies that we have to sort out the specs in 2013. The Brazil football world cup in 2014 will show a spike of interest but it’s too soon for any real impact. By EOY 2014 however there will be a range of TV sets and mass production can probably start in 2015. A recent Consumer Electronics Association study expects just 1M 4K screens in US in 2015. 4. “HD ready” or 720p preceded “Full HD” or 1080p. Will we see a similar 2K or something here? It seems that the UHD logo will be properly protected, so consumers should avoid confusion. Services like Netflix will target intermediate formats, and we will probably see an intermediate phase before UHD is launched with 1080p50/60. Indeed there is more and more content produced at 50/60 fps and workflows can support this. Once UHD STBs that can easily decode 1080p50760 are deployed, operators will be able deliver an optimized HD quality that will look much better on a 4K screen than today’s 1080i would. 5. Are there any short-term stumbling blocks for CPE? The current HDMI 1.4 standard limits 4K to an unacceptable 30 fps. HDMI 2.0 is needed for 60 fps, and this will be the true kick-starter for 4K adoption. CES 2014 should see the consecration of HDMI 2.0. 6. Is the compression ratio linear (i.e. will UHD require exactly 8 times the bandwidth of HD)? No. Today’s HD streams are compressed to 6MPS at constant bit-rate. By the time it’s ready for mass adoption UHD @60fps with 10 bit color depth should require just under 20MPS. 7.  Will UHD require HEVC or can it make sense to use H264? Without doubt HEVC is required for UHD to make it economically viable on existing infrastructure. 8.  Apple created the marketing term Retina display. What would be the UHD screen size to call it that? Early testing shows that there is no benefit below a 65-inch screen. But we are framing the problem incorrectly. Try to watch HD on a 65-inch screen. You will see artifacts, so if you want a screen above 65 you need UHD! 9.  In general, what’s the new screen-size vs. optimal viewing distance? I argue with my colleagues in the UHD community who dream of people sitting 1,5m away from the screen. In reality I believe people will stay 3m away, so again the key factor is large screen size. Very large screens will be THE key success factor for UHD adoption. The figure bellow shows the screen size as a function of the viewing distance for various resolutions. 5337324d_resolution_chart_zps161be652 [Author’s note: At its simplest it means that with a 50″ screen you need to be 5 feet or 1,5 meters from the screen. For the more standard 10 foot or 3 meter viewing distance to really feel the 4K effect in your gut, you need an 85″ screen.] 10.  How will the upgrade from HD to UHD compare to the one we’ve been through from SD to HD, in terms of: a) content production / post production This will be a hard transition for broadcasters this time because there are no connector specs yet. But the cinema industry has been digitally mastering in 4K for a while so there are plenty of 4K movies ready for release. b) content acquisition / preparation This should be fine as much acquisition is already in 4K. c) encoding Except for some early prototypes, 4K encoding is not yet available in real-time, mainly due to lack of CPU power. IBC 2014 should have some products but they might not yet be cost-effective. d) transport / Broadcast I see no network issue for the satellite and cable guys, indeed several successful demos have already been done (like the Eutelsat demo still available on 10A). For Telcos UHD will be dedicated to fiber delivery and terrestrial will probably need to wait until around 2016-18 for DVB-T to be ready for 4K. e) decoding Broadcom chipsets will be widely available to decode 4K/10bit/60fpw by 2014 so the first mass produced STBs will be ready by 2015. f) content protection This discussion has only just started. For now Sony’s 4K content uses Marlin DRM, which is the only commercial service currently available. g) pricing The very first devices will probably carry a premium for encoders and STBs of a factor around 3-4 on the price tag vs HD, just like we saw in the early HD days vs. SD. h) customer proposition People aren’t “dying for new screens” right now, but 4K could be a driver. The industry must convince consumers that much larger screens, where HD sucks, are a good thing. Otherwise 4K on a small screen isn’t appealing enough. It’s all about the large screen and being closer to it for a much more immersive sensation – without disturbing the brain the way 3D did (at least with glasses). Content and economic constraints will see 4K start life as a VOD experience as audiences will be too narrow to justify broadcast. This is where Telcos and Cable MSO come into play and I’m looking forward to talking to some of them about this at IBC 2013. Disclaimer I have no ongoing commercial relation with Harmonic; I just had easier access to Thierry than to Envivio, Ateme, Ericson, Elemental or any of the other reputable vendors in the space. And BTW I’m looking to do a similar debunking piece on HEVC, so ping me if you’d like to be my interviewee this time. BTW this 4K/UHD topic is one of the hot topics I identified for this year IBC here.

Update (november 11)

Kudos to Elemental who proudly announced the first real-time 4k transmission last week together with telco K-Opticom at 20MBPS – I’m told 12MBPS could have worked. It was for the Osaka marathon, perhaps not the most exacting of sports for TV, so the 30 frames per second limitations was probably not too much of an issue. Details on their press release here. Harmonic is showing 4K decoded at 60 fps on true CE device for the first time this week at inter BEE, but although the target frame-rate is here it’ll still be 8-bit color, Harmonic sa the rest of the workflow isn’t ready for 10 bit yet away… Seems like the FPS debate is closed as even Elemental people told be 60 is right for sports, but it looks like there’s room for a future blog exploring the 8 vs. 10 bit color issue. Stay posted.

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My pre @IBCShow 2013 hot topics

Here’s my take on what the key hot topics of IBC 2013 might be and the questions they raise for me.

Safe bets

Four topics are really way hotter than any others at the moment.

1.    4K/UHD

Will the cinema standard merge with the broadcasting one? Will there be an intermediary 2K, like we had “HD Ready” before “full HD”? [I tried to answer some of these questions with Thierry Fautier’s help here]

2.    HEVC

Are we in for the same long wait as when H264 was first supposed to come, or have things really accelerated? It used to take a decade to halve bandwidth requirements.  Last years UHD/4K demos required 35 to 40MBPS, how long will it take to compress down to the promised 10MBPS?

3.    OTT

Technology, ecosystems, devices

  • Is there a future for OTT STBs?
  • Will DASH finally be the ABR to standardize them all?
  • Has the interest in connected TVs peeked?

OTT Business & content disruption

  • What does Netflix or YouTube commissioning content mean to the industry?
  • Is the second screen becoming the TV? Is now the time for mass adoption of play-along apps?
  • Is cord cutting, a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of the end?
  • Oh and I suppose Social TV fits in here, but I’m not expecting it to trend much in 2013.

4.    Big Data, privacy, customer intelligence or the new clothes of recommendation

Content recommendation platform vendors have been screaming into the wind for half a decade already. All of a sudden the industry is listening to their message, but not from them. The Big Data crowd have stolen the limelight. Its ever so hard to form an opinion when something is so very hyped, but it is common knowledge that most operators still have a long way to go to start benefiting form the gold mine of customer data they’re sitting on. Content recommendation is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Outsiders that might get traction in 2013

New subject: Dongles

Despite set makers fantasies, the connected TV still isn’t a reality in terms of usage. But with those millions of out-of-date screens out there, could HDMI dongles like Google’s latest offering finally make that change?

An ten-year old story; that may at last be true: The time is coming for IP, another 4 points:

1.     The rebirth of IPTV

I used to write about the death of IPTV, so, I got the timing wrong. Well actually I may have gotten the whole story wrong. As OTT services seem to be more than a fleeting fancy, Telcos are realising that all that expensive multicast IP technology could actually make a difference. Maybe they won’t have to sue money out of the global players like Apple or Netflix, but actually be able to cut deals with them in exchange for guaranteed last mile delivery.

2.     Targeted advertising

Companies have come and gone on this subject. My take was that although the targeting tech sort-of worked, there were never big enough segments to personalise to, making an ad just costs too much. That may at last be changing with the scale available to some operators.

3.     Guaranteeing service, offloading, DPI, Net neutrality

Technology is now here to enable an operator to offload video streams from 4G to Wi-Fi either because its free YouTube stuff and the Wi-Fi is free or on the contrary because its part of a pay TV subscription that the Telco is getting a cut from and the Wi-Fi has no guaranteed quality.

4.     4G & Fiber

New high-speed networks really are finally here and accessible to significant segments of the market. This is not an IBC subject per se, but it is the fuel behind this whole IP set of trends.

See you in Amsterdam, and here or elsewhere to see how wrong I was ;o)