FutureSPORT: When Will 4K Hit the Living Room?
While much of the hype surrounding live-4K-production technology has focused on image capture, the biggest questions remain on the distribution end. 4K cameras are increasingly being used in HD productions to create ultra-hi-res replays, but producing a full 4K telecast and delivering it to the home is still likely years away.
When that will happen depends largely on advances in distribution, compression, and set-top–box technology in the coming years, but don’t be surprised if viewers are watching 4K sports from their couch in the very near future.“If you had to put me on the spot and ask me when are we going to see the first 4K broadcast, I’m not sure, but, honestly, I think it’s going to be in the next two to three years,” Henry Derovanessian, SVP, consumer premise engineering, DIRECTV, said at SVG’s FutureSPORT Summit last week. “Clearly, it is an area of focus for us, but there are a lot of challenges. How do we get it up to satellite? How do we get it down? Can we stream it over broadband with the [data-]cap limits? Things are evolving. Are they evolving fast enough? That’s debatable, but it’s definitely happening.”
CE Manufacturers on Board
Much of the optimism regarding 4K distribution to the home is due to the fact that 4K sets are already being marketed and sold to consumers. Growing consumer interest will likely spur technology manufacturers to develop the necessary solutions to complete the end-to-end 4K ecosystem, which currently includes a variety of holes between capture and display.
“I think that, with 4K displays being sold to consumers right now, it is not hard to look ahead a few years and see the possibility, if not the likelihood, of getting 4K images to 4K displays to consumers’ homes,” said AGP Principal Adam Goldberg, who moderated the FutureSPORT session.
Further development of HDMI standards will also play a crucial role in delivering 4K to the home, although there is still plenty of work to be done in that sector as well.
“There has been a lot of work on HDMI; the existing standard is 1.4b,” says Quantum Data CTO Mark Stockfisch, a member of the HDMI Forum, which oversees development of the next HDMI standard. “The HDMI 1.4b [specification] does have a 4K capability, but it is limited to lower frequency and lower frame rates.”
Not Surprisingly, Sports Will Be Primary Driver
Regardless of when — or if — the 4K revolution takes place, one thing is sure: sports will be key in terms of content. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is expected to be a coming-out party of sorts for 4K, with Sony and FIFA producing three matches in 4K using a new Telegenic 4K mobile-production unit. Although the content will not be distributed to the public (as of now), the World Cup will serve as a valuable opportunity to test new 4K distribution technologies in addition to Sony’s production at Estadio Mineiro in Belo Horizonte.
“Major sporting events — the World Cup next year and Olympics 2016 — are going to be the drivers,” said Derovanessian. “Like it or not, the consumer [manufacturers] are going to take that opportunity to push 4K TVs. They are going to expect some programming. That is going to be a catalyst for the service providers, including us, to provide [4K programming]. And from our perspective, that [programming] is going to be mostly focused on sports, because that is where you get the differentiating factor. It’s pretty impressive to watch sports on the 84-in. screen at a bar or on your home entertainment center.”
HEVC/H.265 May Provide the Key
Many see HEVC/H.265 (High-Efficiency Video Coding), the next iteration of MPEG’s compression standard, as the key to distributing live 4K content to the home. With four times the amount of data being pushed into the same distribution pipes, the 4K signal must be compressed more efficiently if the format is to take off on the consumer level. Enter HEVC.
The new compression standard, which has nearly been finalized as the next international compression standard by MPEG, requires 50% less bandwidth than the current MPEG-4/H.264 standard to deliver the same video quality. This will allow twice the data to be pushed through existing pipes, opening the door for widespread 4K delivery.
“From a bandwidth standpoint, for us and everyone who is looking at 4K, H.265/HEVC is mandatory; it is a must-have,” says Derovanessian. “For us, we are looking at a higher bitrate [for 4K]. For that higher bitrate, because there is so much information to be processed, advanced codecs are what we need to have.
“But even within H.265,” he continues, “you are looking at the different variable rates. What is good enough? The wow factor for 4K comes with a 64-in. or larger screen. It is not as impressive [on smaller screens], so, if you ratchet down the bitrate, it is more or less the same [visual quality].”