Why 4K Streaming Isn’t Easy

CSG’s Steffen says the company powering Sony’s Ultra service had its work cut out for it

When Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) launched Ultra, its new 4K streaming service, on April 4 — available exclusively on Sony Bravia 4K Ultra HD (UHD) TVs — the studio wasn’t playing around.

Films offered on Ultra go for $30 a pop and SPHE tried to make sure consumers got what they paid for: In addition to 4K resolution, the films are enabled with high dynamic range (HDR); include bonus features rarely found outside of the Blu-ray Disc format; and Ultra-purchased films are enabled with UltraViolet, allowing owners to play the content anywhere they want.

It was (and continues to be) a lot of work. To get it done, SPHE turned to Englewood, Colo.-based CSG Systems International and its Ascendon digital services platform. Paramount, Comcast, ESPN and such retailers as Cineplex in Canada and Media-Saturn in Germany have all used Ascendon to launch and monetize new digital services.

Kent Steffen, president of content for CSG Systems, recently spoke with Next TV contributing editor Chris Tribbey about how Ultra and SPHE took the Ascendon platform to its limit. Here’s an edited excerpt.

NTV: We hear a lot about these services launching, but we don’t often get much regarding the nuts and bolts behind them. Can you detail what CSG Systems brought to the table for Sony’s Ultra service?

Kent Steffen: We started working with [SPHE] almost three years ago on their UltraViolet service. With Sony, we’ve helped them roll things out on an international basis, providing the video players, the digital lockers, the commerce and wallet capabilities, the apps pushed onto various devices. [Ultra] was an extension of that, where they launched the app on the Bravia TVs and its tie-in with the Sony Pictures store, which is another set of sites we host for them.

We’re basically the video infrastructure, [the] business layer around searching and browsing and commerce, and the whole connected customer model for these services.

NTV: Ultra hasn’t been up and running that long. How’s it going so far?

KS: Sony’s pretty happy so far. They did their initial announcement at [International CES] and did their own press event [on March 29], and they’re pretty happy to the overall public reaction to it. We’re at the beginning, so we’ll continue working with them to expand it in a whole bunch of different ways.

NTV: Ultra’s a 4K, UHD service, with HDR. What were the unique challenges getting it up off the ground?

KS: People have been talking about 4K for a long time, and we did a lot of work with the video players and content prep to make sure consumers got the best experience, especially on the TV side of it. It was quite a bit of work on the video side, where the content is being streamed over the Internet on connected TVs. You need profiles that can handle multiple bandwidths and broadband speeds. We worked closely with Sony to get the profiles tuned specifically for HDR.

Obviously, as a spec, HDR has been out for a while, but from an implementation [standpoint], transcoding on video players, it’s relatively new. A lot of it was getting all the magic to work together.

Sony did an amazing job getting a great catalog of 4K content out there, and then doing really cool things to enhance these experiences with trailers, behind- the-scenes [content] and other [bonus] content.

NTV: You hit on this: The bandwidth issue has always been a concern when it comes to delivering 4K to the home. How was that addressed for Ultra?

KS: For Ultra, we’re obviously doing an adaptive bit rate, so if you’ve got the bandwidth you’re set, but if you don’t it will automatically throttle itself down to offer the best experience it can based on your bandwidth.

NTV: How did CSG and Sony go about offering bonus features with Ultra?

KS: We’ve seen it done before, but not often. Sony wanted to use [Ultra] as a showcase, and it shows where a lot of their ideas are going with interactivity, with bonus material, with taking an UHD Blu-ray experience and [making] that available [for streaming]. They did a great job taking the assets they had, putting them into one place on the 4K side, and it shows up as a great consumer experience.

NTV: Is there anything else out there comparable to Ultra or that looks promising for the entire 4K streaming ecosystem?

KS: This one is the best of the best we’ve seen. It’s interesting, because whenever you have these stair-step evolutions, it’s a whole ecosystem and a whole supply chain that needs to get revamped — the assets, the content prep, the delivery, the video players, the devices themselves.

One of the neat things about this project is, because [Sony] controls a lot of those layers of the supply chain, you can do some pretty unique things. It’s a pretty unique offering, because 4K requires so many changes across the supply chain in the digital world.