In five to 10 years, high-definition television will be modulated, compressed and displayed in ways that will make the technology of 2004 look primitive. HDTV programming will be almost universally available via scores of channels, many — if not most — of which will offer vast on-demand HD repertoires.
Most significantly, higher and higher-resolution imaging — nearing the threshold of “immersive” video displays (think 3D or virtual reality) — could expand the appeal of HD programming, finally delivering the “revolutionary” HDTV service that has been promised for more than two decades.
Of course, “five to 10 years” is a mushy timespan. Moreover, this vision of HDTV’s future, predicted by top technology executives in this country and abroad, might prove to be off base — if the disparity between forecasts and actual deployment of technology and programming in the past is any indicator. Nonetheless, dozens of HDTV possibilities and promises appear to be taking shape in laboratories and production studios.
'ULTRA’ HD, VIA JAPAN
For example, the Japanese broadcaster NHK and its allies are working on “Ultra High-Definition Video,” which will ratchet up the image resolution to 16 times greater than today’s most advanced video technologies.
NHK’s Science and Technical Research Laboratories, which has been developing UHDV, expects the system to create “immersive” media, which they say would give viewers the feeling and possibly the sensations of actually being “inside” a sports event or musical concert.
In some of the early UHVD tests — which involve 4,096 progressive horizontal scan lines at 60 frames per second — the feeling of being immersed in the proceedings was so pronounced that viewers claimed to experience physical sensations of motion, some to the point of nausea, according Dr. Kohji Mitani, who heads NHK’s research team.
Tests are also underway in Europe to determine how this technology can be adapted for bandwidth efficiency. But there’s another capacity to consider: Joseph Flaherty, senior vice president of technology at CBS Broadcasting, admits that advanced resolution of future HD systems may extend beyond the visual capabilities of the human eye.
Like many of his technical peers, Flaherty points to bandwidth productivity and flexibility as a key to near-term expansion of HDTV.
“We don’t have to send HD at 19.4 Megabits per second,” he says, noting that broadcasters, satellite and cable operators “could assign 50 or 100 megabits” to HD applications, then shuffle the bandwidth to accommodate the specific programming with the greatest needs at any specific moment.
Glenn Reitmeier, an NBC technology vice president, expects “new codecs for HDTV” that will compensate for the differing efficiency and latency factors in pre-recorded versus live events.
That’s a theme repeated by many of the pioneers who are working on the compression and transmission issues. Patrick Griffis, director of worldwide media standards at Microsoft Corp., foresees compression “on an order of 100 to 1, and we’re pushing to go beyond that.”
Of course, the next-generation standards battle, involving various versions of MPEG-4 (and other flavors of the H.264 format) may prolong the HDTV transition process – especially as HD comes into home set-top boxes and/or media centers.
Advanced modulation techniques will also make HDTV more accessible via cable TV, says Wendell Bailey, president of Strategic Technology International, a Maryland consulting firm. Bailey cites current trials of 1024 QAM modulation, which vastly multiplies the capability compared to today’s 64 QAM payload of 27 megabits per second or the leading-edge 256 QAM ventures (with 38.8 Mbps), offering twice the capabilities of the 19.4 Mbps HDTV signal.
“A new modulation scheme of 1024 QAM would deliver 50 Mbps,” Bailey adds. He expects widespread use of 1024 QAM by 2009.
Robert van Orden, vice president of strategy and product planning at Scientific-Atlanta Inc., also believes that cable’s “bag of tricks to deliver more HD” will move via several different avenues. He agrees that 1024 QAM is one of the key features, but acknowledges that “higher forms of QAM will require new set-top boxes,” which may be a financial barrier.
“Enhancements to plant bandwidth above 750 MHz” is a fundamental ingredient, which should be in place during the coming decade,” van Orden says. But most significantly, he expects on-demand technology and the introduction of the High-Definition Media Interface (HDMI) — which combines audio and video delivery — to accelerate HDTV accessibility. We’re in the process of building HDMI into set-top boxes as the connector of choice,” he explains.
At Motorola, Geoff Roman, chief technology officer in the Broadband Communications Sector, expects “a surge in on-demand HD content.”
Indeed, Kip Simonson, senior vice president at Charter Communications, contends that somewhere in the five- to 10-year future, “all locals that we still carry will be in HD,” as will “all premiums, pay-per-view, video-on-demand.”
Simonson adds: “Most if not all of the top 20 cable networks will have a 24/7 HDTV feed, and all PVRs will be HDTV capable.”
Time Warner Cable’s senior vice president of strategy and development Kevin Leddy is taking a more measured outlook, concerned that “many more programmers need to make the commitment to HD.” He also feels that if broadcasters travel the standard-definition digital TV route — i.e. multicasting — rather than embracing HD, then public appeal may be slowed. Leddy also observes that HD equipment is still too expensive for most viewers.
But Robert Zitter, Home Box Office’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, says that’s about to change.
HDTV’S SECOND PHASE
“I see the second phase of HDTV as one of rapid consumer adoption, driven by both the more affordable pricing of digital TV’s and the increasing amount of programming,” says Zitter. “By the way, I don’t only mean new [HDTV] programming. Viewers won’t believe how outstanding classic films look when remastered in HDTV.”
Clint Stinchcomb, senior vice president and general manager of Discovery HD Theater, expects that before the end of this decade networks that don’t show HDTV will face significant “ratings vulnerability due to people watching HD networks disproportionately.”
Transition issues are of concern to Bryan Burns, ESPN’s vice president of strategic business planning and development. In particular, he cites the need to “figure out how to produce telecasts in both 16x9 and 4x3 for consumers who will have both television sets in their homes” by the end of this decade.
And Cable Television Laboratories president Richard Green, who is usually steeped in technical minutia, opts to look at the aesthetic and programming vistas for improved HDTV. He notes it has great implications for performance arts such as opera and ballet, “which just don’t work on NTSC.”
“Now we’ll have a medium that is capable of much more aesthetic quality,” Green concludes. “High-def allows you to get the resolution and live effect. To the audience that is very important.”