4K or Ultra HD — the terms are nearly interchangeable — is coming with the inevitability of the next polar vortex.
But, like that vortex, the timing is inexact, which means cable operators have time to tweak their networks and standards bodies have time to revisit what needs to be changed to make sure 4K’s arrival is more aesthetically and financially pleasing than 3D.
That’s because 3D was a bust.
“It’s a broader kind of experience than 3D,” Tom Russell, senior director of standards for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, said.
Russell collaborates with international standards bodies and within the SCTE as it works to develop specifications to 4K a reality for consumers, programmers and MSOs. Within SCTE, these include constraint documents for HEVC/H.265 adaptations of International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) specifications configured specifically for cable.
Most consider HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Coding) to be the key ingredient that makes 4K happen, because its compression schemes lower bitrates and improve bandwidth consumption to the point where 4K can be introduced across existing infrastructure without disruption. HEVC’s advances have been likened to the move from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4.
While essential for 4K, HEVC “floats all boats. It makes HD look better, DSL [digital subscriber line] work better,” Joe Del Rio, associate product line director at Broadcom, said. “Lowering the bitrate even helps the transmission of content wirelessly.”
That wireless part is good and bad for cable. It’s good that HEVC will help cable operators pump content through to 4K-enabled devices when they pop up in all those new WiFi hotspots. But it might also be bad, because it helps cable’s mobile competitors push more aggressively into offering their own broadband-delivered video services.
“It’s a significant increase in the aspect and resolutions that are being deployed,” Jamie Miles, group vice president of content operations at Time Warner Cable, said. “The HEVC codec is significantly more optimized for dealing with video.”
Better Pictures, Better Pixels, Better TV
That’s important because 4K produces lots more pixels — about 4,000 overall, give or take a pixel — compared to today’s HD sets that max out at 2,160. More pixels, though, are only one-third of 4K’s foundational building blocks.
Optimized audio — still in the labs — and High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, a set of techniques used to reproduce a greater dynamic range of luminosity than possible using standard digital imaging techniques, are the other two. HDR makes colors pop out to create the “looking through a window” experience so many associate with 4K television.
“4K is about better pictures; it’s about showing off in terms of more pixels,” Mark Francisco, senior director of advanced technology at Comcast, said. “Ultimately, though, the lasting value comes with a better visual and audible experience.”
There’s still work to be done across the entire infrastructure to routinely deliver that experience.
Detractors find fault with 4K because it’s being driven by a consumer-electronics industry unabashedly shilling pretty pictures to sell new, higher-priced devices. HD, these critics contend, could do the job if only the industry would actually deliver video that shows off actual 1080p video.
The problem is that most content is produced and delivered to a cable operation in lesser quality 1080i or 720p resolution; very little source material comes in at HD’s top-of-the-line 1080p/60 (frames per second). Cable operators, especially with HEVC, could produce more stunning pictures with better HD, but their hands are tied by the availability of source matter.
And content owners can’t bear the full blame because their infrastructure hasn’t been built to handle the higher resolutions.
When To Pull The Trigger?
That leaves a do-it-now or do-it-later scenario for all involved parties.
TV sets, like it or not, are being marketed as “UHD.” Smaller devices, even down to smartphones, tablets and laptops and even PC screens are becoming 4K-enabled. Blu-ray Disc players and other set-top boxes are claiming to be able to capture and display 4K signals. Streaming services like Netflix are boasting 4K libraries, and DirecTV has said it will ready to offer 4K via VOD this year, and live 4K streaming sometime next year or by early 2016.
Do-it-now proponents say, with justification, that consumers want the better viewing experience promised by 4K.
“Even when I look at the best HD, the 4K is better,” TWC’s Miles said. “But are we taking full advantage of the HD world? We’re not. I think there are some things that can be done to make that better without a doubt. There are a lot more gallons in the tank when it comes to HD.”
Doing it later appeals to content producers, especially sports programmers that still smarting from the burden of changing SD cameras and other equipment to HD. 4K only promises more expense for what some say is a less-obvious improvement than moving from SD to HD.
For once, cable operators, often bleeding on the cutting edge of changing consumer trends, are not worried about 4K. That’s partially because all the other infrastructure issues suggest a timeline that will allow them to tweak whatever’s needed to welcome 4K seamlessly into their programming packages, and partially because it’s not the major change — visually or technically — that they experienced when moving from SD to HD and presenting both formats at the same time.
4K has the same 16:9 screen ratio as HDTV and runs off the same HDMI connection. HD sets can display 4K content without the discernible — some would say disgusting — difference between HD and SD, and 4K sets only improve HD. A further benefit of 4K will make items such as a user interface look better on a big screen, Francisco said. “Imagine how much text you could put up on that screen,” he said.
Also imagine how much text or other graphic material could be placed on a tablet or a smartphone. Tablets could be the first widespread 4K devices, because their lower price would produce wider mass market appeal than big-ticket big-screen TVs.
HEVC, (Faster) WiFi Are Key
This tablets-first notion, which many dismiss, could strain cable’s current WiFi networks both inside the home and in hotspots. In a nightmare scenario, the cable home network would collapse under the wireless bandwidth demands generated by 4K tablets, smartphones and laptops.
“That’s one reason why HEVC has become important,” Julien Signes, CEO of Envivio, said.
It’s also a reason why organizations focused on maximizing WiFi are closely watching the advance of 4K.
“Today’s Wi-Fi technology would be capable of streaming with a buffer to a 4K device; it can manage very large video with a buffer,” Kelly Davis-Felner, vice president of marketing at the Wi-Fi Alliance, said.
WiGig, a new WiFi iteration targeted for release next year, will make 4K a piece of cake.
“If Wi-Fi covers your whole house, WiGig covers a room. I’ve seen demos of WiGig do real-time streaming of 4K video beautifully. WiGig is something that people are going to want to watch, because it’s going to be a very easy way to get video onto a screen,” Davis-Felner said.
The threat of hungry wireless devices won’t hold back 4K, most observers said, just as content, seen by some as a pothole, won’t be a problem — eventually.
Sports programmers, for one, are reluctant to move into yet another new format with technology, — including and especially cameras — lagging. That reluctance will evaporate the minute one sports network steps out of line and marches to the 4K beat, observers said.
“They [content producers] are not enthused, but watch and see: as soon as a couple of them start putting out a lot of content the others will follow along quickly,” Daniel Howard, chief technology officer of SCTE, said. “I hope that it won’t take as long as HD to roll out, but it does take a while for the content providers to get their infrastructure fired up and pump out all of their content in the new format.”
When they do, the cable industry will be ready.
“Technically, we’re there,” Comcast’s Francisco said. “We’ve proven the platforms, whether it’s IP delivery or traditional cable delivery. We have set-top boxes now. If the consumer demand is there and the content is there, we can roll.”