4K Workflow Must Mature Before Home Distribution Can Be a Reality

At IBC2013, Sony and FIFA made waves by announcing that next year’s World Cup Final will be broadcast in 4K. And, with January’s Consumer Electronics Show sure to show quite a few 4K consumer sets, both ends of the 4K workflow are maturing. It’s connecting those ends that’s the problem.

This month’s CCW show in New York City hosted an afternoon session highlighting the challenges of distributing Ultra HD 4K content to the home.

“The broader question, for a broadcaster, is about, first, the distribution to our facilities and then how we redistribute that,” said Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group. “As a broadcaster, we’re certainly looking at the future of what broadcasting needs to be, and so this becomes a piece of what we certainly need to be able to offer but currently are just dreaming about.”

Currently, content distributors are experimenting with 4K distribution to the home; however, these tests largely focus on the lower frame rates used for movies.

Said Mark Francisco, fellow, Office of the CTO, Comcast, “24-frames-per-second [4K] material is very much possible today. There’s a number of devices out there that can do it with conventional encoding, but what we haven’t yet seen is the advent of IP streaming of Ultra HD. I really think that’s going to start opening new avenues of possibilities of delivering Ultra HD out there.”

Because of the higher frame rates of live sports, the current broadcasting workflow cannot support 4K sports without impairing the visual experience. Set-top–box technology is not there yet, and, while the HEVC compression standard and recently announced HDMI 2.0 hold the potential to deliver 4K content to the home, neither technology is fully mature. Nor will they be in time for next year’s World Cup.

“You will not be experiencing what true Ultra High Definition in sports should look like for the World Cup,” said Matthew Goldman, SVP, TV compression technology, Ericsson Television. “With sports, it’s not about looking at something that’s surreal. It’s about looking through a window and pretending or hoping that your experience will be like it is at the venue, and to do that, we have this higher resolution.”

Interestingly, because of the relative maturity of consumer-grade 1080p sets and broadcast 4K workflows on this year’s trade-show floors, the 1080p content often looks more appealing. Given that 4K is best viewed on a larger screen — which most consumers cannot afford or do not have space for — broadcasters are not driven to broadcast in a format that the majority of the audience cannot yet experience.

“Broadcasting is really a mass-market experience,” said Aitken. “There certainly are the ‘out-of-the-norms,’ but squarely in the middle of that 85 percent who consume content from local television are people who, for a long time, will not be able to afford nor will have [access to] the technological riches to properly give them that immersive environment.”

As technology vendors from all points in the 4K ecosystem attempt to avoid HD’s early market woes, they are careful to distance themselves from failure of 3D.

“The old expression: once bitten, twice shy,” said Goldman. “I think the recent rollout of 3D is exactly the type of rollout that we want to see prevented when it comes to Ultra High Definition. I’m not saying that’s the path we’re going down, because 3D in and of itself should not be compared to Ultra High Definition for one basic reason: [Ultra HD is] not an alternative viewing experience. Ultra High Definition is very natural. 3D, particularly stereoscopic 3D, was not natural. … [There] is none of that with Ultra HD, but it doesn’t mean we can’t mess up the rollout.”