Football fever but ready for 4K?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

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The FIFA World Cup will have 3 games filmed in in 4K although still not broadcast live, Mark Errington, CEO at OASYS, looks at how 4K ready the broadcast industry really is.

With the World Cup set to be a major magnet to TV audiences globally, there’s been a hive of activity to develop the best broadcast technology possible to bring the action to our screens. One of the most notable advances has been around ultra high definition displays, otherwise known as ‘UHD’ or ‘4K’ TVs, which first began to make their mark at the beginning of 2013 during the Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show. Major sporting events have in fact already been filmed in 4K – for example last year’s French Open tennis and the Winter Games in Sochi, but in reality the scale of interest in The World Cup provides a perfect platform for this innovation to make its mark.

That said, the reality is most cable and satellite companies aren’t ready to broadcast in 4K, and even if they were, only a handful of homes actually have the right TVs to receive it. Beyond this, there is hardly enough 4K content available at the moment for consumers to purchase a new set for the sake of this innovation alone, its advocates will be hoping to obtain a critical mass of interest in 4K during The World Cup to secure its ongoing development.

Changes to the broadcast sector have in recent times typically stemmed from consumer electronics manufacturers wanting to sell more equipment – be this HD, 3D or now, 4K. It’s interesting to note that 4Ks fanfare at CES 2013 followed the major display manufacturers all endeavouring to push 3D as the next great innovation in TV the year before – sound familiar?

But for the similarities between 4K and 3D, there are some welcome differences. When 3D was in its infancy, we remember the channels that were rushed out by broadcasters to deliver 3D content through existing infrastructure – is it little surprise that these channels are so quickly falling off the TV guide? However in the case of 4K, due to insufficient infrastructure and finances available to transmit a signal that requires 4 times the bandwidth of a full 1080p HD channel, broadcasters have been forced to take a slower approach to its roll out. The infrastructure to actually deliver 4K content through the traditional broadcast, cable and satellite channels is just not there yet, even if the hardware and software for capturing, producing and playing it was ready.

So where we might have a slight wait while cable and satellite companies upgrade the hardware and software required to code and playout this video content, it’s interesting to look at the other mechanics currently used to bring 4K to our homes. Netflix has been using High Efficiency Vide Coding (HEVC) compression to stream some of its popular programmes such as House of Cards in 4k, while as long ago as 2010, YouTube started supporting 4K video and upload playback.

So does IPTV provide an alternative platform through which to offer 4K services, beyond traditional broadcast channels? The truth is that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent announcement in the US about new rules around net neutrality could make it more expensive for 4K to be delivered by IP transmission. Where the FCC proposed to allow services that take up a large amount of bandwidth to pay for preferential treatment, this would mean an expensive change for broadcasters and other over the top services – making IP a less appealing solution than some once thought.

A key reason for the delay to 4K’s take off is that there is no Serial Digital Interface (SDI) in place for it at the moment – which means that different HD SDI channels would need to be grouped together to transmit content, something that is not particularly viable. In response to this, efforts are being made by the SMPT standards committee to agree a reasonable signal standard in the industry and the HEVC compression algorithm, also known as H.265, allows audiences to watch these signals when they reach their home.

It’s clear some hard work is required for the broadcast industry to turn 4K’s hype into reality – no doubt, most of us will not watch the World Cup in 4K. For it to be firmly in people’s home for the next major sporting event, a complete overhaul of technology is required to transmit these new signals, with far from a couple of systems’ upgrades, no matter how many channels the broadcaster currently runs. This will result in some major changes to the infrastructure of the broadcast industry, where 4K calls for a more inventive, IT-based future as opposed to relying on the tired technology many broadcasters have available to them today. 

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