SVG Sitdown: Sony’s Koichi Yamanaka Talks 4K World Cup, Future Roadmap

2014 has been an interesting year for Sony, which has seen plenty of ups — like its integral role in FIFA TV’s groundbreaking 4K production of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil — but also its share of downs, including an anticipated $2.1 billion annual loss. Even in the face of peril, however, the Japanese electronics giant is forging ahead, and its professional-video business, along with the potential rise of 4K technology, will play a key role in the company’s plans for a comeback.

Sony’s Koichi Yamanaka outside corporate headquarters in Tokyo

Sony’s Koichi Yamanaka outside corporate headquarters in Tokyo

In Tokyo last week during CEATEC Japan (a show Sony opted not to participate in for the first time as it does “all that is necessary to turn around the organization,” according to a statement), SVG sat down at company headquarters with Koichi Yamanaka, GM, Solution Business Development Dept., Professional Solutions Group, along with one of his group’s senior managers, Kento Sayama, to discuss the World Cup production, the promise of 4K, and how much they are looking forward to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.

Now that four months have passed, can you reflect a bit on how FIFA TV’s 4K production went at the World Cup and the role that Sony played in it?
Yamanaka: FIFA produced a 4K film with the highlights of the best action in the tournament from the three matches shot in 4K: one in the Round of 16, another in the Quarterfinals, and the Final. And, of course, Sony provided extensive technical support to the FIFA, which deployed equipment developed by Sony and OB-van equipment from Globosat and had technical support from Telegenic. FIFA used not only Sony cameras but also our Sony 4K server, monitors, and our MVS switcher.

I think we were very confident that we could prove that 4K production is real. We did our first 4K production at Confederations Cup; we used that experience when we did this [World Cup] production. This was a full 4K production, not a test, and it was very successful.

Have you seen a rise in interest and demand for 4K products from broadcasters since the World Cup?
Yamanaka:
We had many conversations with broadcasters at IBC[2014] that are researching 4K broadcasting, especially via satellite or on the OTT side. We can see that demand for 4K production is definitely getting real. Korea sees that 4K could come very soon, but even European or United States customers [are interested]. Many of the questions coming to Sony are, How we can combine HD and 4K? and How can we prepare for 4K? So I can see that there is very real demand for 4K, and it is definitely increasing.

While a full 4K-production ecosystem is probably still a few years off, how can (and are) Sony 4K products being used with today’s HD-production workflow?
Yamanaka:
4K for HD is one of the key applications for our 4K products, and we can see many actual-use cases of that. For example, Fox Sports used our F55 4K camera in a cutout zoom application in the [2013] World Series and [2014] Super Bowl. And we now see a few customers using 4K systems for “stitching” applications.

NESN in the U.S., for example, is using our 4K-stitch function and has a three-channel simultaneous cutout. They captured everything in a wide [shot]; then, for a baseball game, they cut out first base, second base, and third base with a zoom. I could see some very interesting applications with that.

[In another example,] at IBC, we set up three 4K projectors and created 2Kx12K big-screen images. Showing content with high resolution on such a large screen is another application we can see in the future.

What do you see as the biggest immediate technical challenges facing live 4K production?
Sayama:
There are several things that are still tough because we are in the early stage of 4K live sport. One [challenge] is definitely the lenses. We could have a very bright PL-mount lens that goes straight into F55, but the price point [is high], and there is still a limitation to what it can do. Of course, we could use the existing HD B4-mount lenses — there is an adapter for it, so that’s not a problem — but we have to admit that it loses a little brightness. So there is a balancing act between a very high-end prime lens and the use of existing lenses with less brightness.

The second thing is that 4K [footage] is a lot of information. I think the operators need to get used to that: you can’t pan as much or move the camera too much because some people watching on a big screen can get a little bit of motion sickness.

The third point is that sports is so unpredictable and, because of the high pixel count and clarity, if you’re a little off-focus, it’s visible to the viewer. That is something that the operators need to get used to. As a manufacturer, it’s our job to find ways to support that. In our viewfinder, we have a peaking technology [with] a focus assist that will electronically tell a cameraman if something is out of focus.

How important is educating the operators about how to handle these kinds of new challenges?
Sayama:
We have to educate because, for us, it’s not just making products and selling them to the market. Our mission is to create the market. So we have training facilities in Los Angeles, Pinewood in the UK, Beijing, and India dedicated to 4K/3D/HD training. For example, at the Sony Pictures Entertainment DMPC in Culver City, [CA], we offer free training every Thursday for 4K equipment and [help operators understand] things that they need to be careful of when creating 4K images.

What is Sony’s stance on 8K, especially given NHK’s plans to start testing 8K Super Hi-Vision broadcasting in 2016?
Yamanaka:
First of all, before we talk about 8K, we have to accomplish 4K production. From a workflow point of view, we still haven’t developed some of the items for the 4K [ecosystem]. Also, some of our products already have [8K capability]. For example, our F65 camera can create 8K images. That is going to be part of our direction. But, to accomplish a 8K total system, there are still many remaining [technological] hurdles. That’s why we are investigating 8K technology but are not in the right position to talk about the 8K workflow.

Sayama: But we are collaborating with NHK, one of our most important customers, to develop specific [products] that could be required. There’s always a discussion about, is it going to be 4K or 8K? We currently think it’s going to be 4K first and, in the future, there will be a new HDTV world where huge events for public viewing or large screen could be broadcast in 8K. We don’t think it’s going to be a full switchover.

Now we develop products for HD and 4K, and all of our 4K equipment is HD-compatible. Our customers can purchase it as an HD system and not have to buy a full new set. [They can] simply buy an additional option to make that system 4K when the time comes. That’s just the way we think about the system and protect our customers’ investment. If 8K comes in the future, we will be ready for it, and we will find a way for customers to migrate.

Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics will put a spotlight on Japan over the next few years and result in huge investment in a variety of markets. How is Sony working to support the Games and the city of Tokyo during the next six years of buildup?
Yamanaka: Such a big sports event is going to be a milestone target to develop new technology. Like the World Cup, we have been working to realize a 4K live-production system targeting the Olympics. We used Confederations Cup as a test, and, this year, we had success at World Cup. We expect the same manner of success in future development at the Tokyo Games. It’s going to be a major milestone.

Sayama: There are also so many opportunities for the whole city of Tokyo being renewed. There will definitely be demand for security cameras, medical services, digital signage; and, obviously, all the individual broadcasters will have needs. While the official Olympic sponsors will be responsible for work at the Olympics facilities, there will be much beyond that. The Japanese government are saying that they will invest in order to improve the city and the country based on 2020, and we will be proud to take part in it.

At IBC, Sony heavily publicized its AV-over-IP system, can you discuss how you see this technology impacting live sports production?
Yamanaka:
The key point is transmitting broadcast-quality pictures over IP with very low latency. So utilizing IP technology for live production is the direction we see everything going. Of course, we cannot totally switch [to IP] in one day, but, if industry is going to talk about higher resolutions and large data like 4K, then IP should be the way to transmit such kinds of higher-bitrate data. Using IP technology is going to be essential for cost-effective live production [in terms of] handling a 4K signal in an efficient way. That is why I think 4K and IP are kind of linked.

A few years ago, 4K cameras, displays, and other products were on the super-high-end expensive side, but now we’re seeing a more affordable crop of gear. How is Sony looking to fill this market?
Yamanaka:
Actually, we just made an announcement at IBC with a new choice of a 4K shoulder camera. PXW-FS7 is a Super 35mm very affordable camera. We are responding to the demand for a wider choice of 4K acquisition equipment.

The PMW-F55 camera has a live adapter that could be used for a 4K live camera that was being used for World Cup. In addition, we just [announced] a shoulder buildup kit for F55. That same shoulder-type camera interface is there. That is responding to the demand for 4K creation for the more documentary-type production. So, definitely, we are listening, and we are trying to meet the demand of the affordable 4K-production applications.

Aside from the 4K and AV-over-IP announcements, were there any other big developments to come out of IBC for Sony?
Sayama:
At IBC, we began to make a move more towards managed-service businesses. We’re always going to make great products and provide systems and solutions. But we also see the world changing from the heavy fixed investment into operational cost-based services. That’s a changing demand from our customer. So, at IBC, we announced a service called Media Lifecycle Service. We help customers digitize all their taped content into files and try to find ways for them to [distribute] that content. They need content not only for the main broadcast but also for the Web and different versions of content, so this service will provide different file formats. We announced that in Europe, and we’re definitely going in that direction [in Japan] as well. The customer can still buy our equipment, but, if they need to outsource, we’ll also be there to provide that service.