Guest post by John Ive, Director of Business Development & Technology, IABM
The one guarantee with Ultra High Definition (UHD) television is its ability to transform the image quality on our screens. However, there is still some doubt surrounding this new technology, and whether it will be a passing fad or a permanent fixture in our living rooms. UHD is currently at the centre of the broadcast industry spotlight and therefore the subject of a great deal of scrutiny.
There have been comparisons made between the launch of 3D television in the home and Ultra HD, yet, despite their similarities, UHD is actually a much easier production and viewing proposition. This has been reflected by broadcasters and consumer electronics companies who are predicting that interest is already high enough to make UHD programming a much safer bet than 3D ever was.
Ultra HD for the home has commonly been referred to as 4K, as it is a derivation of the 4K cinema standard. However, while cinemas show images in native 4096 x 2160 resolution, the domestic format is actually 3840 x 2160 so really we should refer to it as Ultra HD or UHD. Technically speaking the 4K equivalent is UHD-1 and 8K is known as UHD-2. The industry buzz stems from the image quality, with screen resolution at four times the definition of 1080p.
Regardless of how it is referenced, there has been a lot of discussion around whether the interest in UHD is about consumer pull or supplier push. As the margins on HD screens grow narrower, there is pressure on CE firms to launch next generation premium displays and it remains to be seen whether UHD will follow standard HD and become more of a commodity.
Screen sizes are a great indicator of demand, and these days it is no longer uncommon for home screens to be 50 inches or more. The biggest issue for consumers will be down to cost, although within the next few years it looks likely that UHD models will carry only a modest price premium over similarly sized full HD models. When we reach this point consumer interest will escalate and could see UHD turn into a mass market proposition.
When 3D equipment was launched into the home, it was a hard sell as consumers found it gimmicky and confusing. There were issues around peripherals with viewers having to sit in the correct position or wear the right specialist glasses. The big difference with UHD is that it is exactly the same as any other regular television format, in principle viewers don’t have to do anything other than invest in a set to get a vastly improved picture on their screens. As with HD we may see consumer investment lead programme content for a while.
For content producers, investment in UHD could begin now depending on the intended shelf life of the programme. At this point in time, content such as Reality TV and light entertainment probably wouldn’t warrant that investment. However, premium content could be future-proofed and archived in the best possible quality ready for the UHD boom.
So is there a killer app for UHD? Consumer sales are frequently sparked by major events, such as the World Cup, or seasonal trends like Christmas. This often prompts consumers to upgrade their televisions to a new model. Many of the biggest international broadcasters are backing sports coverage as a killer app for the new Ultra HD format. The technology offers the fluidity of movement and immense detail that lends itself to this type of programming. Sports fans will benefit from the extra resolution, with an enhanced picture that puts them right at the heart of the action. Movement is indeed one of the key discussion items with several specialists advising that not only does the resolution need to be increased but also the frame rate.
UHD is a opportunity to revisit many of the basic conventional video parameters which have been preserved from the early days of television for compatibility with legacy systems. On the table for change are interlace, dynamic range, bit depth, colour space, in addition to frame rate. All together these enhancements would make a significant contribution to an improvement in the viewing experience.
From a consumer perspective UHD is well placed to succeed, so broadcasters and their technology suppliers need to stay one step ahead and be ready to deliver UHD content to homes. Satellite and OTT providers have an advantage, and the major players could consolidate their market leads by establishing UHD channels relatively simply. Those using satellite distribution have the option to rent more transponder space which would make UHD a much more straightforward deployment than it would be for competitors using alternative delivery methods.
For digital terrestrial broadcasters, it poses more of a challenge, as their limited spectrum makes UHD much harder to implement. If we look at their offerings they tend to have 50 or 60 channels, of which only a handful are high definition. In terrestrial, there is simply not enough spectrum, which means providers will struggle to keep up with the latest trends, particularly when it comes to ultra high definition formats.
Perhaps the more interesting proposition is the internet. As internet speeds grow it could become a serious alternative to broadcast and packaged content. The internet has rapidly become a viable way to get much more data to homes for a significant percentage of the population. Consumers in more densely populated areas already have access to super high speed connections and, in the UK and other mature markets, governments are committed to bringing fibre to rural communities. UHD content can stream on a 15mbps connection or less, making it an option for providers, even for their customers on the most basic fibre packages.
The resolution on our screens is set to be revolutionised. Consumer interest is growing, alongside the size of the average screen, and the future looks clear, particularly if it is being viewed on a UHD screen.