FutureSPORT Reflections, Part 2: What’s Next for 4K?

Last week’s FutureSPORT Summit in New York City provided an opportunity to cut through much of the hype surrounding 4K and Ultra HD and get down to some of the pragmatic details. And, for a sports-production industry continually on the front line of next-generation technologies, it provided a solid wake-up call concerning what needs to be done today and what will happen tomorrow. More important, it gave enough information to enable professionals knee-deep in next-generation production planning to figure out how to approach 4K.

The big takeaway of the day is that those looking to produce a sports event in Ultra HD and have it delivered to viewers have a solid 12-18 months before they really need to worry about being left behind by an Ultra HD movement that sweeps the industry. There is currently no way to deliver Ultra HD signals at 60 or 120 frames per second (fps) to 4K-capable consumer sets.

First, there needs to be the ability to connect an Ultra HD set to an Ultra HD source. Last year, the HDMI 2.0 specification was supposed to be available, making it possible to pass Ultra HD signals at 60 fps to a 4K set at 18 Gbps. But that release has been delayed and is now expected to take place toward the end of this year.

And then there is the bigger challenge of getting 4K- and Ultra HD-capable set-top boxes into the marketplace so that cable and satellite operators can deliver 4K signals to consumers. There are no boxes currently available, and it will take a while for those boxes to hit the market (again, think 2014).

Even when they are available, they will be in a similar position to HD boxes in the early part of the past decade. Many cable operators had made the leap from analog set-top boxes to digital set-top boxes, which, when HD arrived, had still not been fully amortized. As a result, HD set-top boxes were deployed much more slowly and required an additional surcharge for the set-top box (not to mention a $10 a month upcharge for the HD tier). There is little doubt that Ultra HD set-top boxes, at least for cable and satellite operators, will undergo similar growing pains.

The wildcard, however, is the role that over-the-top boxes can play. Companies that manufacture those devices will provide a competitive pressure on cable and satellite operators so that, if online networks like Netflix, Amazon, or Apple, begin delivering a flavor of 4K or Ultra HD (most likely something along the lines of 24p), there will be a greater need to meet consumer expectations.

The Upside of Delay
Delay in the delivery mechanism of Ultra HD and 4K to homes, however, is good news for the live-sports industry because it allows the production side to catch up.

Ultra HD acquisition, for example, is very different from HD and SD acquisition. The use of full-frame camera sensors greatly limits the focus range, requiring much more production planning and a new skill set for camera operators, who, for decades, have put most of their energy into properly framing a shot. With full-frame acquisition, they will need to consider focus and change it dynamically while covering the action.

Delay also opens up the potential development of 4K acquisition using ⅔-in. sensors. That move would have some negative impact on the richness of the Ultra HD image, but it would make Ultra HD acquisition more akin to HD. It would also allow ⅔-in. lenses to be used, cutting the expense required to gear up for Ultra HD production.

And a number of other product areas will be refined during the ramp up to Ultra HD. Lenses, storage and networking technologies, graphics equipment, replay devices, and production switchers are all at the beginning of 4K- and Ultra HD-compatibility. So another 12-18 months of product development (think NAB 2014 for full 4K product lines, NAB 2015 for more-affordable 4K product lines) will allow for a maturity in equipment that could make the move to 4K seem more evolution than revolution.

Can Patience Prevail?
The challenge between now and the day Ultra HD becomes a reality in living rooms is to make sure that realistic expectations are the norm, not only for those within the industry but for the consumer-electronics industry and the consumer press. The rush to judgment on 3D and the very public growing pains of the 3D movement did nothing to help the format. Hopefully, there are a few things the industry can do between now and then to put some true momentum behind Ultra HD and 4K.

First, content distributors need to begin publicly discussing timelines for 4K content creation and distribution as soon as possible. An attempt to set a collective target that puts the broadcasting, cable, and satellite industries in the driver’s seat rather than reacting to every new-product offering from the consumer-electronics industry would do wonders for all. It would give the Ultra HD transition a sense of momentum, allow salespeople in big-box retail stores to have actual talking points, and limit the number of stories next CES that will call Ultra HD a failure.

And speaking of the consumer-electronics industry, it does need to do a better job of marketing Ultra HD than it did with 3D. The 3D movement was hamstrung by exclusive sponsorship deals that may have sounded great on paper (and in bank accounts) but ultimately did no one any favors. Having Ultra HD-set manufacturers create a program to push Ultra HD collectively would help prevent consumer confusion (8K will no doubt do its share of confusing everyone by 2015, if not sooner) and avoid fights like 720p vs. 1080i, LCD vs. plasma, SACD vs. DVD-Audio, Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, and passive vs. active glasses, which did nothing but discourage consumers from buying products.

What role will SVG and SVG Europe play in this process? As with HD and 3D, we will provide plenty of opportunities to discuss the technologies, learn about new workflows, and provide the type of market intelligence that will help you better understand the role Ultra HD could play in your organization.

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