Is 4K Ready for Its Closeup?

The B&C Sports Business & Technology Summit in New York City this week put today’s use of 4K in sports broadcasts and its long-term potential into focus, with experts discussing the current challenges and opportunities related to this still young format. But, as immature as some of the workflows and technologies are, Larry Thorpe, senior fellow, ITCG professional engineering and solutions division, Canon USA, was quick to remind attendees that the 4K movement is much broader and arguably 10 years ahead of where the HD transition was at a similar juncture.

“There is an evolution of 4K equipment that was not there with HD, as, in the beginning, it was only broadcasters who were interested in HD and Hollywood was not interested,” he said. “But the use of film in motion picture is collapsing before our eyes, and faster than I ever thought would happen. [So having Hollywood on board] is a huge driver that is synchronous with the new 4K niche applications in TV, and that is going to speed the evolution. One year ago, there were $80,000 4K cameras, and, this year at NAB, there were seven cameras going for more or less $30,000.”

Jim Hurwitz, director of market segment management, Miranda’s Telecast Fiber Solutions, said that most production-equipment manufacturers have a roadmap for 4K.

“All 4K production is still done in an island in production trucks, and the cameras are still separate from the rest of production,” he added. “And we’re still waiting for the production-standards dust to settle.”

Hurwitz, however, made mention of one event that is not waiting for the standards dust to settle: the Confederation Cup, currently taking place in Brazil and a tune-up for next year’s World Cup. Sony has deployed a Telegenic 4K-capable truck and will produce matches at Belo Horizonte in 4K next week.

“It’s the first full 4K production from cameras to router with a 4K production switcher and multiviewers,” he added.

Another driver? In HD, the production tools were created 10 years before HD consumer sets were available. This year, consumer sets, albeit expensive, are available and waiting for content. That could allow consumer adoption of 4K to occur much more quickly than with HD.

Rich Zabel, VP, sales, sports, Harris Broadcast, says the current state of 4K reminds him of the early days of HD, when all products suddenly made the switch to be HD-capable.

“From the infrastructure side, everything is 4K-ready and works great for experimenting and for early adopters, but it’s still not economically feasible [to work in 4K],” he said. “We need another generation [of development].”

While the industry waits for 4K distribution and production tools to catch up, the next-generation format with four times the resolution of HD is currently being used in HD broadcasts. Mark Haden, VP of engineering and IT, MLB Network, said the additional resolution of a 4K image allows the production team to zoom in 600%, extract an HD image, and deliver it to viewers at home without resolution loss, artifacts, or macro blocking.

Added Rich Russo, director, Fox Sports, “On the goal line, you can get the definitive look, and that is so important. The use of 4K is evolving. but it helps us bring the viewer closer to the action and see whether a receiver’s feet are in or out of bounds or whether a knee is down. The quality is really good, and the use is going to evolve.”

Thorpe noted that a single 4K camera can expand the nimbleness of the overall production: “A wide-angle 4K shot of cars speeding down the track can allow the operator to see that the cars are too close and then anticipate the action and zoom in. That is hard to do with HD cameras, as [those operators] need to decide where the action might be.”

Current HD productions are using only one 4K camera, but, if the pricing of 4K cameras continues to fall and some additional issues related to lensing and depth of field can be sorted out, there could eventually be an opportunity to have every camera in an HD broadcast be 4K and extract the best angle for close-ups on exciting plays.

And then there is the flip side of that equation: taking HD material shot at 1080p/60 frames per second and upconverting it to 4K.

“Upconversion is an interesting discussion, as we are here with 4K displays and nothing to put on them,” said Thorpe. “So 4K sets in the living room could be fed with upconverted HD. At CES, there was a lot of material on 4K screens that was upconverted, and, if you see terrific HD upconverted, it is a riveting experience.”

There is one additional ripple effect of the 4K movement: 3D.

“3D will be back with 4K 3D at a higher frame rate and with no glasses,” predicted Zabel. “In three to five years, 3D will be more popular than it is today, and higher frame rates will make it dramatically different.”