TranSPORT: Inroads Are Being Made, But 4K-to-the-Home Is Still Far From Ready

Few topics in sports production today spark debate as quickly as the issue of 4K/Ultra HD. While many believe that the format, which offers four times the spatial resolution of HD, represents the next logical step in the evolution of video production, others see it as just another gimmick, similar to the 3D boom of the recent past.

From left: ATEME’s Mike Antonovich, Adtec’s Kevin Ancelin, Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, and SES’s Thomas Wrede

From left: ATEME’s Mike Antonovich, Adtec’s Kevin Ancelin, Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, and SES’s Thomas Wrede

Regardless of its place in the industry’s future, several technology vendors are already hard at work developing new tools for contribution and transmission in an effort to build out a live-4K-produciton ecosystem and eventually deliver 4K content directly to the home. Several of these vendors took the stage at SVG’s TranSPORT event last week for a spirited panel addressing when — or if — a full 4K-to-the-home ecosystem will become a reality.

“We are seeing demand for 4K on very high-profile events, but … it’s [using] low frame rates that are ultimately being delivered to the home via some lesser platform,” said Media Links President John Dale. “We are still in the early days, though. The hardware and chip sets don’t exist to do everything we would like to do right now. The important thing is, there has to be standards and interoperability for the industry, so there are opportunities for [Ultra HD producers] to produce content and distribute it and not be locked into proprietary solutions.”

Set-Top Boxes Aren’t Ready Yet
SES started its first transmission of HD channels in 2004 from Belgium and now carries 1,700 HD channels on its satellite worldwide. The company expects a similar development rate for Ultra HD, but a litany of significant challenges remain — most notably, the lack of Ultra HD-capable set-top boxes. For example, when SES teamed with several vendors in September to deliver a live 4K Ultra HD transmission of the Saracens vs. Gloucester rugby union match live from London to the IBC show floor, the company was forced to use a high-end PC to achieve Ultra HD delivery at 30 and 50 frames per second because available set-top boxes were capable of only 24 fps, a frame rate not acceptable for 4K display.

“The set-top boxes have not arrived yet, so we are talking about anticipating a future that hasn’t arrived yet,” said Thomas Wrede, VP, reception systems, SES. “I think we have to be honest that the set-top boxes are limited at this point in time for Ultra HD. The [set-top manufacturers] are not able to deliver the ingredients we need. The chips we have in the first Ultra HD prototype boxes are only 24 fps-compatible, and that is simply not acceptable.”

Differentiating Sports From Movies
The 4K format is about much more than just spatial resolution, however. Although 4K has already been widely adopted for cinema, sports-content producers are tasked with a much faster, high-impact product that must be delivered at a higher frame rate with crisper color than almost any other type of content. As a result, sports producers (and consumer-electronics manufacturers, for that matter) must take a different strategy from the cinema industry’s in producing and marketing Ultra HD content.

“There is Ultra HD with regard to movies, and then there is ultra HD with regard to sport. And, if we don’t set the tone for those differently, then we are going to fail in this business,” advised Matthew Goldman, SVP, technology, Ericsson. “I’m not going to say it is going to be a repeat of 3D, which had all kinds of other issues. But, if you base everything off of movies, which is at 24 fps, you don’t get the most important aspect of Ultra HD, which is the immersive experience.

From left: Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, SES’s Thomas Wrede, and Media Links’ John Dale

From left: Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, SES’s Thomas Wrede, and Media Links’ John Dale

“The least important quality for the immersive experience is the fact that it is four times the resolution of HD,” he continued. “The most important aspect is a higher frame rate, a great bit depth, and a high dynamic range. Those are the things in Ultra HD that make a difference. Movies in Ultra HD have a very different viewing experience than sports in Ultra HD. We can let the industry drive it through movies, or we can get people excited about sports.”

4K Streaming First, Linear 4K TV Later
The vast majority of the industry believes that 4K/Ultra HD will make its way into consumer homes via on-demand content on over-the-top boxes and game consoles. Although it’s unconfirmed, Netflix is widely expected to announce its own Ultra HD streaming service next year, promising an immediate outlet for 4K content to a vast pool of video consumers.

“We all recognize that what is going to drive Ultra HD is the displays, but the only way anybody is going to be able to consume Ultra HD initially is over the Internet for non-linear and on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon,” said Mike Antonovich, SVP/GM, Americas, ATEME. “That is going to be the first path to the home to prove the market. I believe it will all come back to satellite and high-bandwidth fiber services as long as that takes hold, but [4K Internet service] will arrive first.”

Adtec co-founder/SVP Kevin Ancelin seconded that notion:Our thought on 4K is that it is here now and it’s an absolute certainty because of displays and consumer electronics. But the delivery mechanism for 4K is stretched to the limit. So you will see second- and third-tier networks — such as Netflix — take the lead. You might not like Netflix 4K, but I don’t think it matters. People are going to watch.”