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Wednesday, 20 November 2013 15:42

The Industry Transitions to Ultra High-Def

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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272003253The hot technological buzz phrase for today’s theatrical distribution and consumer space is “4K.” While the current digital cinema standard is an image resolution of 2048 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high (with width measurement rounded out to 2K), digital capture technology and projection technology is now at resolutions of 4096×2160 or higher — and 4K actually quadruples the number of pixels for richer screen resolution. On the consumer side, the HDTV standard delivers the same vertical resolution (1080) but isn’t quite as wide, with a resolution of 1920 pixels instead of 2048. Earlier this year, consumers were introduced to the new Ultra High Definition (UHD) format that delivers a resolution of 3840x2160. And even though that horizontal resolution is well shy of the 4,000 pixel mark, it’s still promoted as 4K.

We’re already seeing 2nd-generation UHD TVs (scheduled to ship in time for the holiday season, often at significantly lower prices than first-generation models), but there’s still a dearth of native UHD content to play on these models. This gap creates opportunities for entrepreneurial companies like indie distributor 3D Media International, which produces and distributes stereoscopic 3D documentaries on Blu-ray, such as the travelogue “Amazon 3D – In the Heart of Wild Nature.” 3D Media is one of the first companies to produce and distribute UHD content, and an initial UHD catalog includes “America – The Beautiful Country,” “Adventure Yellowstone” and “Fireplace.” The company is counting on UHD’s novelty factor to sell its titles. When consumers watched almost anything in high-def when that format was introduced, travel documentaries became a popular way to showcase the beauty of the new format. Right now, retailers and consumers are looking far and wide for native UHD content to justify the purchase of today’s new higher-end devices, but there isn’t yet a reliable infrastructure in place for the delivery of UHD content.

While 3D Media is releasing its first titles “optimized for 4K Ultra HD TVs,” the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), which promotes the Blu-ray format and establishes its technical standards, has yet to announce industry standards for native UHD releases. The likely candidate is a triple-layer version of the standard Blu-ray disc capable of storing up to 100GB of data, though there’s a question of how compatible triple-layer discs will be with the current Blu-ray players on the market. Early adopters have limited options for UHD content — they can either shoot UHD material with cameras from Sony and JVC, which sell in a $4,000+ price range, or they can buy UHD media servers from Sony or RED (yes, the company that makes the EPIC, SCARLET and RED ONE cameras), though Sony will only work with select UHD displays from its Bravia line. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced plans to stream native UHD content as early as 2015 — but these are all stop-gap measures.

The good news for content producers is that the electronics industry is hard at work building a “UHD ecosystem” to make it easy for consumers to get access to UHD content. According to industry analyst IHS Electronics & Media, this UHD ecosystem will be technically ready by 2017, and there will be over 200 UHD channels worldwide by 2020, and over 1,000 channels by 2025. Just as the mass introduction of HDTV required cable operators to introduce hardware to support the new format, next-generation set-top boxes will be needed for UHD broadcasts. This will motivate distributors like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV and DISH satellite services to encourage and possibly even subsidize the production of native UHD content. These companies have a challenge when it comes to new formats: A new format like UHD can help to attract and retain subscribers, but, until the amount of native UHD content hits critical mass, it’s hard to get consumers to spend extra bucks on a UHD programming tier, much less the cost of new set-top boxes. The expectation is that once the UHD ecosystem is in place and running, it will offer new opportunities for distributors and content producers alike.

According to a recent report in Broadband TV News, it will take upwards of a dozen years for UHD to grow to the point that it’s considered a commercial mass-market product. By comparison, HD TV was confirmed as a technology standard in 1990, reached technology ecosystem availability in 2002, and was considered a commercial mass market by 2006. Broadband TV News projects that UHD will happen much faster, as the technology will be ready and available before 2017 and commercial opportunities for pay TV operators and content makers will appear by 2023. Right now, cable companies rely on the MPEG-2 compression standard (the same technology used in DVDs) for most transmissions, but Broadband TV News reports that MPEG-2 will be phased out in the next five years to accommodate more HD and UHD channels. For UHD to be considered mass-market technology, roughly 3 percent of households must have a UHD TV set.

Not surprisingly, the Broadband TV News report also projects that major sporting events, like the World Cup and Olympics, will be a major factor in driving UHD sales. Test broadcasts will begin as early as 2016 and higher profile launches by 2017, when commercial channels and pay TV operator packages will be launched with deployments of UHD-capable TV sets and set-top boxes for the home. By 2023, the market will be mature enough to reach commercial mass market, offering the opportunity for all parts of the supply chain to gain significantly from UHD. But, as stated earlier, even with built-in up-conversion, most consumers will hesitate to invest in the higher-resolution format until there’s a lot more native content to easily acquire and view. Nevertheless, the report anticipates UHD sales to hit 3 percent or more by the end of 2017 in the U.S. and between 2018 and 2021 in most other regions. By 2025, almost half of the TVs shipped globally will be UHD TVs.

UHD has a major advantage over HD during the launch phase. Technologies like the next-generation compression codec HEVC (also known as h.265 and the successor to MPEG-4/AVC/h.264 compression) are much more cost efficient than older codecs. Cable operators will not only be shipping UHD-compatible set-top boxes, they’re expected to deploy complementary multiscreen and online video strategies as well. Industry analysts call this the Trojan Horse effect, as it will get UHD set-top boxes into the market at a faster pace than when early-generation HD set-top boxes were launched. This will also allow many operators the chance to switch off older MPEG-2 set-top boxes to free up transmission space for more HD and UHD channels.

In the dawn of color TV in the 1950s, the norm was to produce all shows in black and white on film or kinescope while reserving color for rare network specials. But Walt Disney, whose weekly anthology show aired on ABC, knew color would become common place in the years to come. Disney future-proofed his shows by shooting them in color even though ABC broadcasted these shows in black and white, so by the time Disney moved to NBC, he already had a backlog of color content. If the industry pundits are correct in that consumers will embrace UHD as the next must-have home entertainment format, content producers would be wise to follow Disney’s example and future-proof their content by producing shows in native 4K.

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