Exclusive interview with Sky Deutschland’s Stephan Heimbecher on broadcasting’s 4K future…
IP&TV News: Hi Stephan. What were the biggest challenges thrown up by the first End-to-End Ultra HD live broadcast of a football match?
Stephan Heimbecher: The major challenge was to change the entire production chain from HD to Ultra HD, starting with new 4K cameras on the production site and continuing all the way to the Ultra HD display in the consumers’ homes. The resolution quadruples in comparison to Full HD, but due to the parallel step from 8 to 10 bit and from interlaced to progressive format, the data volume in production increases by a factor of ten. That means that bandwidth and storage capacity need to be increased, and switches etc. need to be upgraded. The major bottleneck has been the HEVC real-time encoding, which makes it possible to distribute this huge data volume to the consumer in an economically feasible yet high-quality way. This gap was closed right after NAB 2014, when we conducted the first real live end-to-end test with HEVC and 50 fps at the Bundesliga match between Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen on 26 April.
Where there any major surprises – or significant lessons learned?
The biggest surprise to me was how few surprises there were in the end. Once we had the HEVC real-time encoder in place, the entire production chain worked end-to-end without major problems. As soon as we had the first test signal on air the night before the actual live broadcast, there was an almost immediate “thumbs up” from all technical partners – particularly the manufacturers – that were involved in testing their decoding solution – either iDTV or stand-alone receivers. Having said that, there was and in many aspects still is a lot of fine-tuning to be done.
What were you able to establish about the viewer response to this trial?
The Ultra HD live events we conducted so far were internal test productions. We still have many of our technical partners watching who are also consumers, and their feedback was very valuable to us. At various tech fairs, consumers were able to get a glimpse of parts of our production chain – and they were excited. Apart from the technical quality of the encoding, we also received feedback on the production itself, camera positions, panning & zooming etc., and will continue considering that in future productions.
Accordingly, how great do you expect the demand will be for Ultra HD? What’s driving Sky-D in its enthusiastic embrace of this technology?
We do believe in the potential of Ultra HD and a new viewing experience, which is the reason why we are doing our Ultra HD productions and working to pioneer the development of Ultra HD. The timing is going to be critical, because at the moment Ultra HD stands for “just more pixels” and might not yet have the big “wow” effect on all consumers. Enhancements like High Dynamic Range, extended colour range for “better pixels” and advanced audio will eventually do the trick, but this requires more adjustments in the overall chain – and that will take time.
I know you’ll be discussing some of these issues in greater detail at the Digital TV World Summit. What makes this event such an important date in the diary?
This event has been a ‘must visit’ event for the Digital TV business community for ten years. I’m pretty sure this won´t change in the future!
Stephan Heimbecher will be at this year’s Digital TV World Summit. For booking and more info go here.