FutureSPORT: Has Innovation Frozen the Industry?

The latest series of innovations in sports production and distribution technologies may actually be grinding the industry to a halt. That was the feeling expressed by panelists during a conversation at SVG’s FutureSPORT conference earlier this week.

Harmonic's Tom Lattie, DIRECTV's Phil Goswitz, Ericsson's Matthew Goldman, and IABM's Stan Moote discuss future technologies at SVG's FutureSPORT conference earlier this week.

PHOTO CAPTION: Harmonic’s Tom Lattie, DIRECTV’s Phil Goswitz, Ericsson’s Matthew Goldman, and IABM’s Stan Moote discuss future technologies at SVG’s FutureSPORT conference earlier this week.

While the television and media industry is buzzing about 4K, 8K, high-dynamic range, high-frame rate, and more, there’s a bit of bottlenecking going on as each new innovation is actually freezing live content creators/distributors and consumers alike from taking important steps forward.

Phil Goswitz, SVP of Space and Communications at DIRECTV credits this to three key doubts that are plaguing the industry: Is the leap from HD to 4K disruptive enough to hit a home run with consumers? If not, should we wait for 8K or high-dynamic range? Are we making the same mistakes we did with 3D?

“There is uncertainty and the road map is we need to get moving,” says Tom Lattie, VP, Marketing Management and Development at Harmonic. “There’s consumer demand and while there’s a lot left to work out there’s still a lot of opportunities to incrementally improve the viewing experience. We all forget that HD started very slow and very rough but it progressed over time. That was good in that some consumers could get some content early. Sets weren’t at full resolution and production that wasn’t 100% there but getting moving and getting customers to the consumer is the ideal way to build momentum.”

DIRECTV is one of those content distrubutors that has actually made a tangible commitment to 4K, investing in satellites and infrastructure to launch up to 80 channels of live, linear, 20mbps 4K and releasing 4K Genie settop boxes to customers.

“Our conviction comes out of the fact that its better, natural, we see good content from it, and its compelling,” says Goswitz. “Our customers ask us for the best, premium video experience available and we want to provide that. We are very, very close with 4K and we’re doing everything we can to usher in high-dynamic range and high-frame rate as well because frankly there’s no bitrate that would deter us right now with the investments that we have made.”

4K and 8K tools have made their ways into sports productions already. There’s been considerable usage of 4K as a replay tool for extraction into an HD production. Even companies such as NHK in Japan have run 8K production tests – as they did this past summer at a Yankees game. The key issue is that there are two very different types of rollouts: content acquisition/production (which is taking place) and delivery to the home (which still has a considerable way to go).

“The practical way to do a rollout is when there is a noticeable difference and a consumer benefit in what you are doing,” says Matthew Goldman, SVP, Technology, TV Compression at Ericsson. “So all of those production things translate into something that is a consumer benefit, but you’re not delivering high frame rates to the home, at least not for a while unless you are lucky enough to be one of those few communities that has a gigabit-per-second to the home. So the issues of delivering to the home are more about what can we do with extremely limited bandwidth and still build a compelling user experience.”

So if there’s no real chance of 4K to the home happening until as late as 2018 – as some on the panel predicted – is there a risk of the market just freezing? Is the industry trapped in this quagmire between HD and 4K and is there a chance that 8K or even 16K can lap its predecessors?

“We end up with the standard scenario of too much hype and than everyone goes back into their shell and that can happen on consumer side as well as on the end-user side in our business,” said Stan Moote, CTO at IABM. “I think that’s where the sports community can jump in. We also need to teach the consumer because ultimately we are getting into some incremental changes. These are little steps and by the end the end of the decade we are going to see a big change. Ultimately when everybody buys their phone they need to consider where it fits in the budget for the television, as well. For the same price you can get an iPhone you can get a 4K set now. That is dedication on the consumer side.”

In the meantime, many on the panel find 8K to be nothing more than a distraction and a detrimental one that is keeping the industry and the consumer from taking the next step forward, while incremental enhancements such as HDR and HDR+ could benefit the consumer in the more immediate future.