HDR, 4K Take Center Stage at SVG’s Sports Imaging Forum

Fox and Spectrum Sports reported on their live 4K and HDR efforts and forecast the tech roadmap

SVG’s second-annual Sports Imaging Forum put cameras, lenses, and other video-capture tools in the spotlight on Wednesday at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Los Angeles. Along with the co-located LiveTV:LA conference, the Forum drew more than 300 attendees to discuss the latest advances in HDR, 4K UHD, virtual reality, and more.

The Sports Imaging Forum, along with the co-located LiveTV:LA Conference, drew more than 300 attendees at the Sheraton Universal Hotel.

The Sports Imaging Forum and LiveTV:LA were made possible by Title Sponsors Sony and LiveU; Diamond Sponsors Aspera, Canon, and TVU Networks; Gold Sponsors AJA, Grass Valley, Intelsat, JVCKENWOOD, and Riedel; and Event Sponsors SOS Global Express, Telescope, and VER.

HDR Takes the Lead
The Forum was headlined by the “Big Picture of Live Event Imaging” panel featuring top execs from Fox Sports, Grass Valley, Sony, and Spectrum Sports. When asked what technology would be the most important by 2020 — UHD, HDR, or VR — all four selected HDR.

“I’d say the least important is UHD and most important is HDR,” said Mark Coleman, VP, engineering and operations, Spectrum Sports. “In terms of impact to the viewer with the minimal forklift upgrade inside of our trucks and distribution facilities, HDR will be the easiest and most impactful.”

Coleman’s comments aren’t surprising, considering that Spectrum Sports has been leading the way when it comes to live HDR sports. Spectrum has already completed multiple live 1080p HDR production tests at Dodgers and Lakers games over the past two years, with the latest lens-to-couch test set to take place at Dodgers Stadium July 28-29.

“When we did our Lakers event in 1080p HDR, it was compelling,” he said. “It really looks good. But, when we did a 4K show with the Lakers, you couldn’t really see all that extra effort [we] were putting in.”

In recent months, the buzz surrounding live 4K has died down significantly, while the immediate potential of 1080p HDR has jumped to the technology front burner for many sports broadcasters. One thing is clear, however: for exploring 4K for live sports production, HDR must also be a part of the equation.

“If you’re going to [produce] UHD, it has to include HDR,” said Marcel Koutstaal, VP/GM, camera systems, Grass Valley. “[4K] without HDR is not even something to consider.”

In addition to enhancing the viewer experience, HDR also solves some significant HD issues that live sports production has been facing for years.

“The Big Picture of Live Event Imaging” panel featured (from left) Spectrum Sports’ Mark Coleman, Fox Sports’ Michael Davies, Sony’s Dave Keller, and Grass Valley’s Marcel Koutstaal.

“HDR solves some problems like video detail and shadows,” said Michael Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “There aren’t too many questions that can be answered by just packing more resolution in. But, in terms of colorimetry and other problems we have had for years, like the racking of light and shadow to light, these are things that can be circumvented with HDR. For [outdoor sports] like baseball and football, it’s going to be great.”

Although 1080p HDR seems the hot new thing, it’s by no means a walk in the park. Although it avoids many of the obstacles presented by 4K production, such as limited inputs for the switcher, 1080p HDR presents its own challenges.

“1080p HDR is supposed to be easier, but we are finding out that there are a gotchas there, too,” said Davies. “While you are not taking up the inputs like [with 4K], you are going to be screwed in a lot of other ways. So it’s difficult, from a truck and production perspective, to determine what is really serving our viewers the best.”

Sports Shall Not Live on 4K Alone
Fox Sports has completed several live 4K productions in conjunction with AT&T’s DirecTV in recent months, including a pair of NASCAR races in April. In the first race, Fox deployed 17 several Sony HDC-P43 4K robotic cameras, along with an army of HDC-4300 and HDC-4800 4K cameras, as well as 1080p RF cameras and 720p in-car cameras. Despite all these 4K cameras, the production team struggled to see a discernible difference in quality compared with the HD feed.

“At the end of the day, it was really difficult to tell the difference [between 4K and HD] on the first race,” Davies reported. “So, in [the second race], I took all of the [4K] robos out and replaced them with regular HD cameras and upconverted them. And I defy anybody, especially down the line, to tell that we had done that. We are not noticing a heck of a lot of difference for 4K just resolution-wise. Obviously, when you get into HDR, that’s different.”

Although the live 4K production has come a long way in just a couple of years, it remains fraught with technical limitations that broadcasters are still working to overcome, most notably a reduced number of switcher inputs.

“The other problem about 4K is that you are potentially getting an inferior product from a production standpoint. By that I mean the limitation on inputs, [upconverted HD] high-frame-rate cameras, and augmented-reality [tools] like the yellow line — a lot of which I think will be solved this year,” Davies opined. “But, at this point, if you are doing 4K or even HDR, you are limited, so [HD viewers] getting pristine downconverted 4K are not getting all the extra [features]. You can upconvert those missing pieces, and that’s what we do, but that is another fly in the ointment in this whole thing.”

4K Makes for a Better HD Product
Last year, Canada’s Sportsnet produced every Toronto Blue Jays home game in 4K SDR. Although its 4K channel is still in its infancy, with only a few thousand subscribers, the broadcaster was also able to deliver a higher-quality HD feed, since it was downconverted from the native-4K production. In addition, Sportsnet is preparing for 4K HDR production in the near future.

“At the end of the day, you are getting a great 1080p SDR signal, and, out of that, you are getting the best HD signal possible,” said Dave Keller, national account manager, sports sales – Eastern USA and Canada, Sony Electronics. “They send that out to the pipe for the [4K channel], which may have a few thousand people paying for it. But the HD channel, which is the moneymaker, has a better picture quality, and the viewer is saying ‘This is the best HD picture I’ve ever seen.’ And the evolution is happening, and, eventually, the 4K will kick in.”

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