FutureSPORT Reflections, Part 1: Can Ultra HD Withstand the Spotlight?

4K and Ultra HD took center stage at the Sports Video Group’s second-annual FutureSPORT Summit Wednesday.

There was discussion about the future of the second-screen experience (expect fans to demand more video, deeper stats, and more analysis), creating better HD (make sure your lighting is as great as it can be, improve those contrast levels, and never skimp on buying a quality camera/lens combo), and cloud-based workflows (invest in pipes capable of plenty of data, expect content creators at home to tap into all assets in the production truck, and design today’s trucks with IP in mind). But the main focus was the panel discussions on how 4K is impacting HD workflows today, what equipment providers are up to in terms of next-generation production gear, and how it will, eventually, become a consumer service alongside HD.

Little more than a month ago, the industry gathered in Las Vegas for the NAB trade show, and 4K was the big story for attendees pondering the future of broadcasting. Only three months earlier, CES heralded the launch of Ultra HD and all the consumer press hype that came with it. But the talk at NAB 2013 (and at CES, for that matter) raised plenty of questions: When will an end-to-end Ultra HD production workflow be available? What will it take to get Ultra HD into the home? And will Ultra HD become the next 3D?

Heading into FutureSPORT, it was clear that the event would be defined as a success only if it could shine a light on some of those questions and help attendees understand how, exactly, Ultra HD should be affecting their near-term and long-term plans. And, surprisingly, there was plenty of light shone, thanks to forthright panelists who understand that Ultra HD, much like HD, is going to take years to perfect.

Is Ultra HD the next 3D?
A consistent question across all the panel sessions, comparison with 3D was also the most important. Only four years ago, the big news at CES was 3D, with suppliers of top-level HD sets looking to fight off up-and-coming manufacturers — such as Vizio and Haier — of cheaper HD sets by embracing a 3D format that required refresh rates that such manufacturers were incapable of matching. A rush to market led to a number of missteps that have damaged the growth potential of 3D and rendered it a niche product awaiting the arrival of glasses-free technology.

3D also suffered for another reason: from the beginning, it was possible to deliver 3D signals to viewers at home. At first glance, that should have been a great thing; the problem was (and still is) that the amount of bandwidth dedicated to 3D programming reduces much of the resolution that the production team sees in the truck. Add to that the terrible marketing in consumer-electronics stores, confusing content carriage deals, and challenging and costly productions, and the 3D movement is in limbo.

But Ultra HD, it appears, will be different from 3D and, in fact, could be different from the HD transition, which itself was fraught with doubts and dismissive attitudes.

Why will it be different? Future Sport laid it out.

1. There is already a market for 4K equipment
4K-capable equipment is already being used as a production tool for HD football, baseball, and NASCAR coverage. Sports coverage has become, increasingly, about getting the perfect replay angle, and 4K makes the replay experience even better. It allows the replay operator to freeze a 4K image, zoom in, and extract an HD-quality close-up of, say, a foot touching a bag in baseball or a sideline in football. Replays, ultimately, are about giving the viewer more information about the game and more reasons to tune in. As an HD production tool, 4K shines and gives viewers even more reasons to tune in.

And, perhaps most important, its use as a production tool today means there is actually a business, albeit a small one, for manufacturers of 4K-capable gear.

2. Using 4K within HD productions gives the format visibility today
Although 4K broadcasts seem to be at least 18 months away, the use of 4K within HD broadcasts will give the new format something HD and 3D never had: an opportunity for those watching an HD sports event to see how much better 4K is than HD. One can imagine that the consistent use of 4K will not only give broadcasters ample opportunity to accustom viewers to the concept of Ultra HD but will also open up a marketing opportunity for Ultra HD set manufacturers. Imagine the 4K zoom applications’ being sponsored by Sony, Panasonic, or Samsung with related commercials airing directly after the replay. The HD transition and 3D never had such a one-two punch.

3. Those who see it today quickly see the benefits…
Discussions of the 4K screenings during the Final Four NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament focused on how some viewers watched a 20-minute 4K loop three times in a row. Another session mentioned how consumers simply ooh and aah when they experience 4K. So the interest is there today. The only question is whether the oohs and aahs will continue once consumers see the price tag.

4. …and it is easier to demonstrate than 3D or even HD
It’s easy to forget how lame HD demos in consumer-electronics stores were for the first eight years of HD broadcasts. Someone shopping for an HD set was lucky if the store received an over-the-air signal from the local PBS station, which was the only consistent 24/7 loop available. Blu-ray and HD-DVD were still years away, so the only other option was SD broadcasts (stretched) or SD-resolution DVDs. Buying an HD set was often a $4,000 gamble that, by the time the consumer got the set home and set up with an HD over-the-air, cable, or satellite receiver, the experience would be worth the investment.

And, when 3D came along, the requirement for glasses (if they weren’t stolen) to be mounted on a pole where they would be worn by person after person made for a demo that felt about as sanitary as licking an airline tray table. So people would often simply walk by the programming loop — even if the loop was more than just the 3D Blu-ray menu.

But 4K will be different. Sony already has its Ultra HD server, so content will be displayed from day one. And even HD content, upconverted, will exceed the current HD experience. From day one, the sales experience will be a great one.

5. Prices will continue to drop
And perhaps most important, set prices will continue to drop. Two sets that Sony introduced at NAB 2013 are priced below $7,000, a massive decrease from even three months ago. By the time Ultra HD broadcasts begin sometime next year, the price of an Ultra HD set will probably be as low as $3,500 and possibly $3,000.

These five factors seem to set Ultra HD up nicely to find success in the marketplace. But there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. Next week, the second installment of this report will delve into what those are and how the industry will address them.