The Dawn of Ultra HD

The dawn of Ultra HD is upon us and the beginning of the slow sunset of HD was an underlying theme of the 2013 IBC show. Ultra HD, also known as 4k, was everywhere at this world-renowned, video and broadcast industry conference. From production equipment to post production to transport to displays, all the elements are in place for Ultra HD to take-off.

Component costs appear to be further down the price curve than when HD was at comparable point in its life-cycle. For instance, on the low-end, displays are already available in the $1 to $2k range, while name brands can be had for as little as $3.5 to $6k. The cost of cameras is to the point that anyone in the market for a new camera has to at least consider 4k.

Still, path to mass adoption won’t necessarily be a straight line. Like with early adopters of HDTVs, some consumers may be burned as early model TVs support only 30 frames per second over HDMI (the recently ratified HDMI 2.0 standard supports 60 fps).  The 30 fps lower frame rate would prevent smooth playback, particularly for live action sports.

To get the full benefit of the higher resolution, higher frame rates (e.g. 60 fps and maybe even as many as 120 fps) and 10 bit color (instead of 8 bit color) seems to the consensus for what is necessary.

With HEVC encoding, the bandwidth reductions are significant and mitigate the increased bandwidth requirements of 4k. One codec vendor suggested encoding rate similar to today’s MPEG-2 HD channels. But for those with bandwidth starved systems, 12 Mb/s isn’t trivial.

Security is going to be more important than ever to protect the 4k resolutions that can provide an immersive theatrical experience and would also be valuable to pirates.

Many skeptics ask whether consumers will even be able to tell the difference in picture quality and, even if they can, will they care enough to pay extra. In reality, the driver may not be the improvement in video, but the push by manufacturers and over-the-top service providers to differentiate their products.

The killer content application may not be video, but pictures. That is, photos are stunning and lifelike on a 4k display. And the usefulness may not be the entertainment, but presentation is where 4k shines. The extra resolution gives user interface designers more real estate to work with and, from the presentation that Nagra provided, it is clear that they are already figuring out ways to help viewers to find and interact with content using these higher resolution screens.

Although it is still early in terms of roll-out, the IBC 2013 conference made it clear that Ultra HD is something that Broadband Service Providers should closely monitor.

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