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To 4K, and Beyond!

The National Association of Broadcasters’ NAB Show has been a good milepost on the way to wherever we are collectively going, and this year’s event, held in Las Vegas back in mid April, was no exception.

Buzz Lightyear, the star character in the Toy Story movies is known for his catch phrase “To infinity, and beyond!” Regrettably, we don’t have Buzz’s powers to immediately fly off to “beyond,” but in a unique way we not only have a good idea of where we are, but one suspects that most RS readers also have a decent idea as to where their business is going. Knowing where we are, or want to go, is one thing. How we get there and perhaps to Buzz’s “Infinity,” is quite another matter.

As we have said in this space over the years, the National Association of Broadcasters’ NAB Show has been a good milepost on the way to wherever we are collectively going, and this year’s event, held in Las Vegas back in mid April, was no exception. And while we are not the broadcasters, production facilities, edit houses, or program distributors that make up the core NAB attendees, what was said and shown there is key to the services and products we sell, install, provision, and maintain. After all, “Content is King.” For us to facilitate the use of the technology that we sell and install, it is critical that those who go to NAB be able to deliver on what we promise of ever-increasing video and audio quality with expanded interactivity, as well as to deliver “content anywhere, on (almost) any device.” In other words, we want to go “to infinity and beyond,” but are the tools there to make that possible?

Dolby’s AC-4 system will enable ATSC 3.0 to deliver a wide range of program options including “comedy commentary” on a soccer match, as demonstrated at NAB.

As a compass, NAB sometimes points us in a direction that we never reach. One need look no further than 3D, which was predicted to take over the world not that long ago. It ended up being generally regarded as OK for movies, but it never got the desired traction for home video content regardless of the distribution channel. Some are painting 4K/UHD with the brush of 3D, but any reflection on what we saw at NAB this year proves that definitely not to be the case. Indeed, added pieces of the puzzle that complete the 4K/UHD picture–literally and figuratively–were very visible in Las Vegas.

The basic groundwork for 4K–cameras, recording and storage, editing, and displays–is now commonplace and becoming more affordable; everyone can now get on the 4K bandwagon. A great example of that is the ultra-long length lenses from Canon and Fujinon that will accelerate the coverage of sports in 4K.

ATSC 3.0 will be built in to some new sets, such as shown on the menu for this LG prototype, or via a gateway unit that connects via wireless to multiple smart TV sets.

Delivery? We have that now with streaming content and Ultra HD Blu-ray, but that was also an area of interest at NAB with improvements in, and price reductions for, encoders. You will never purchase one to install for a client, but they are required to make the raw 4K files used in the production workflow sufficiently compressed for live, recorded/downloaded, and streaming distribution.

Most importantly, the validation point from NAB was the emergence of High Dynamic Range (HDR), perhaps even more so than increased resolution, as the thing that pushes 4K/UHD content from “nice to have” to “I want it sooner than later” to “I have it.”

Sony’s NAB booth showed how HD and 4K can be shot by the same camera at the same time.

NAB 2016 was definitely HDR’s coming-out party. The underlying hardware needed for image capture and post-production was there. The major camera manufacturers have the imaging capability and needed data in their output streams, the postproduction/editing systems are “HDR compliant,” and as noted, the critical encoders were shown that are able to embed the HDR data into the distributed signals.

Sometimes you can even have “too much” of a good thing on display. One thing that was not solved at NAB was what the outcome might be for the growing format war between the different methods available to distribute HDR, and what that happens when it is handled over on our end of the system. Coming out of NAB we still have both the basic “plain vanilla” HDR-10 version with its 10- bit processing and single-layer transport, and Dolby Vision with a 12-bit, dual-layer configuration and other enhancements. In the background, the now-merged Technicolor/Philips system shown off the floor at CES was in more public view at NAB.

Key Takeaways from NAB

Given that HDR-10 is an open, license-free system based on the ST-2084 standards, it has quite a few adherents. Dolby presented very compelling demonstrations about the advantages of Dolby Vision, and although it currently has fewer brands offering it one side, it is getting traction from UltraHD Blu-ray and streaming distribution channels. Technicolor’s system, which you will see branded with the “Presented in Technicolor” logo program, does not yet have any branding announcements, but given the company’s power and brand identity it would be a big mistake to count it out.

Further, the single-layer nature of HDR-10 and Technicolor means that HDMI 2.0a is required for every component along the signal path. The Dolby’s dual-layer approach does not require the additional signaling needed to “see” and extract the HDR information. That means that given that this latest format battle is in its early stages, in this stew of content availability, display-device compatibility and the capability of devices in the end-to-end ecosystem will likely remain at a slow boil for quite some time.

Equally important, with devices shown at NAB in abundance to support 60fps (or even higher) frame rates, 10- and 12-bit color and similar, our post-NAB view is that whenever possible, any device or product you install going forward should have HDMI 2.0a capability with 600MHz/18Gb capacity and HDCP 2.2 to assure that there won’t be complications with regard to content protection/copy control. For most new products this will be the case, but be wary of the capability of legacy AVRs or processors for these specifications. Recommend an upgrade when needed to assure clients and prospects that they are as future-proofed as possible. Better safe than sorry.

Live broadcasts to CES exhibits such as LG’s used a candidate version of the ATSC 3.0 standard to show that over-the-air 4K programming is getting closer to reality.

That said, with everything falling into place for 4K/UHD on the production and post-production side, the other logical question would be to ask what hints were under the rocks at NAB with regard to getting this great-looking content out to the public. Yes, we already have UltraHD Blu-ray, and 4K content is now starting to be available from the satellite providers. Afterall, the “B” in NAB does stand for “broadcasters.” Even in a world of alternate and OTT distribution services, the growing legions of “cord cutters” are rediscovering the value and availability of free, over-the-air (OTA) television.

The last great change from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting was government mandated and brought a wide range of essential improvements, such as HD and 16:9, as well as the ability to add more program streams within the same RF channel. Now, going on 20 years after the start of the last change, the market requirements are different. Yes, some broadcasters will want to offer 4K. Others will be more interested in the “reverse spectrum auction” that will enable broadcasters to sell their license back to the government and then work with another channel to send both stations’ programming out in full HD simultaneously. Beyond that, there is a call for better mobile reception and the addition of immersive or interactive audio, HDR, and more.

A big story from NAB that will affect your cord-cutters is how the next transition, from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0, will take place. It has been under development for quite a few years, and is now in the home stretch with first implementations likely late next year.

Forget everything you remember about the last transition; everything we heard and saw at NAB indicates this will be quite different. (With the caveat that much of this is subject to change over the next 18 months.) First, it is unlikely to be mandatory; stations will be able to stay as is or switch.

Don’t call this the “4K transition.” Just as stations had to switch from analog to digital, remember that they did not have to switch to HD or 16:9. Many did, some have not, and likely will not. Here, the transition will, when used, change the transmission technology, but what any station does with it will remain open.

How will your clients receive it? Last time around, the government mandated that TVs must include digital, ATSC tuners. Here that may not happen across the board. Rather, for those sets that go “tuner-less,” we saw the first working prototypes of what will be called “gateway” devices. Receiving live ATSC 3.0 signals from a broadcaster, the gateways contained not only the requisite tuner, but Wi-Fi to spread the ATSC 3.0 channels to other smart TV sets in the home as long as they are equipped with Wi-Fi and the proper decoding.

That means that only one of these audio/video hubs will typically be needed. Great, but remember that this will place yet one more bandwidth-intensive source in the home. Will the residence be able to handle multiple new streams without compromising overall system performance? In addition, the use of a single reception gateway feeding remote sets with their own internal IP decoders means that the audio will come from the set, not an external cable or satellite set top (STB).

That, in turn, means that the audio has to be sent out via either ARC or a digital output for use in a multichannel sound system. If you are already provisioning for audio originating from an internal smart TV app (e.g. for Netflix or other streaming services) you already know how to deal with this. If you don’t, now is a good time to learn.

Encoder manufacturer Harmonic showed how HDR compares to SDR, as well as how SDR can be upscaled to HDR. Note the 1,000-nit HDR picture with Rec. 2020 color on the left uses the same bandwidth as a standard Rec. 709 SDR image in the center.

Speaking of audio, the standard to be used is out for vote as we write this, but will be either Dolby’s AC-4 or the Fraunhofer Institute’s MPEG-H, or perhaps a broadcaster’s choice with the gateway having to accommodate both as with Dolby and DTS formats for current audio devices. Regardless of the ATSC’s selection, it will undoubtedly include the ability to handle both traditional “channel-based” audio as well as “object-based” immersive audio. In addition, both candidate systems will offer interactive audio.

Think of this as the broadcast version of the ability to select languages or “director’s commentary” on an optical disc. Demos at NAB included a soccer match with a choice of team commentators, “clean” sound without an announcer and even play-by-play by a comedian. Here, just as the audio choice from a disc is done through the player’s menu, the choices will be selected from the TV’s internal menu system or the gateway. Yes, that means that you’ll not only have to deal with transmission from the source to a remote, but perhaps integrating yet another device into your control system.

As a side note, the interactivity extends beyond just audio. ATSC 3.0 will require a broadband connection for a variety of services and program options–yet one more thing to keep in mind as you endeavor to future-proof current installations and upgrade with this new broadcast technology fast approaching.

Also demonstrated at NAB, was the “WARN” system that is a major update to the current “Emergency Action Notification System” or EAS. With WARN, rather than hearing a set of signal tones and a crawl across the bottom of the screen, WARN shows viewers a high-resolution message, integration with closed captions, and the ability to pop up live video content. For those worried about weather emergencies, earthquakes, or other disasters, this will be a major selling point of the totality of ATSC 3.0.

A final note of interest here was the latest group of demos of 8K video. Leading the pack is Japan’s NHK. Demos using a laser-powered projector on a 350-inch screen with 22.2 sound were spectacular. Along with the standard video-centric demos, there were also special showings of 8K content shot at this year’s Super Bowl.

Having progressing beyond the “science-experiment” stage, NHK produced the footage using a complete five-camera mobile unit. Its next major trip will be to Rio for the Olympics, but the footage will only be used for demos. Of course, it has long been publicized that Japan’s goal is to have 8K broadcasting to consumers in operation in time for their 2020 Summer Olympic Games. How much of that will reach over to this side of the ocean, and what the interest will be for consumers for the quality increase against the price, and its being too close to the investments now being made to move to 4K, are wild cards yet to be answered. However, ready or not, here it comes! 8K may well be a good expression of “beyond” infinity!

Of course, as with any trade show, even in an industry with a considerable amount of government regulation, it is always a toss up to view what one sees at NAB and make a guess on the future. (Again, 3D comes to mind.) However, between 4K, HDR, ATSC 3.0 and, eventually 8K, we at least have some idea of what the “infinity” is, and how we will get there.

As they say in the world of broadcasting, “Stay Tuned!”

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a CEDIA Fellow and contributing editor to Residential Systems in Sherman Oaks, CA.