4k Production & TV

I was thinking recently about 4K (3840 x 2160) products for TV and in the monitor market. There is some scepticism in some areas about the importance of this high resolution and we’ve seen a wide range of forecasts for the TV market from other analysts. We think 4K is important. There are a couple of technology enablers that seem to have been missed by some commentators.

First, there is the issue of 4K content not being available. That’s accurate today, but the world of content production does not stand still and is going through its own revolution. This world was traditionally analogue, but then converted to digital with digital broadcast cameras and using interfaces including 3G SDI (not to be confused with 3G telecoms). The world of TV studios is being impacted by the arrival of much lower cost digital cameras, some based on SLR technology. We see that trend continuing – and there seems little let-up in the drive to higher resolutions there.

The video data has to be moved around in production, and here there is a real revolution on the way. Companies including Xilinx are developing their FPGA technology to allow very high bandwidth ethernet to be used for the delivery of video content, rather than SDI. We talked about this in a news story earlier this year – (Display Monitor Vol 19 No 16). The technology changes TV production fundamentally. SDI is limited to a range of 100M – 200M, so there is a need for Outside Broadcast (OB) facilities to deal with the multiple SDI feeds, edit them down to manageable bit rates and send them on for transmission. However, once the video is in the network, the OB van becomes, largely, redundant. TV companies can potentially simply have a high bit rate connection from motor-controlled cameras in a sports stadium or other site to a central control room. Combine this with very high definition cameras, and the costs of covering events, even with 4K, could come down radically.

A second issue is the bandwidth used for transmission. The next major codec – HEVC is the successor to H.264 AVC and moves things along in the same way that H.264 did to MPEG-2. HEVC is expected to half the bandwidth needed for 4K and the EBU showed very good demonstrations of early implementations of the codec at surprisingly low bit rates at the recent IBC event. HEVC can support 4K at the same kind of bitrates as the first MPEG-2 HD transmissions.

However, there is another change coming that will help. Earlier this week, production broadcast equipment company, Snell, said that where its products (switchers, routers, signal processors etc) could support 1080p production, they would be upgraded to support 1080p transmission of the video content (they currently output 1080i). A move to progressive formats is a significant step on the way to improving bitrates. Hans Hoffmann of the EBU has clearly demonstrated in the past that for the same level of visual quality, progressive scanning can use a lower bitrate – a key reason why the EBU supported 720P formats rather than 1080i.

This is a little academic, of course, as the reality of the market is that penetration of a feature is fundamentally a function of the cost of the sets, which itself is basically a function of the cost (to the set maker) of the panels. If, as an analyst, you think that 4K panels will retain a significant premium, then you have to believe that penetration will be low. If, on the other hand, you don’t think that panel makers will push prices up a great deal (and that’s my view), then you can see relatively high penetration.

To those that argue that ‘TV viewers won’t be able to see the difference’, I would recommend that they try to see the Toshiba 4K gaming demonstrations. Once consumers see it, they will want it. Even though the typical viewing distance makes the differences (vanishingly) small, I think people in store get closer to their sets than they would at home. They will see the difference. And just as store brightness helped LCD to conquer PDP, how people buy will be more important to sales than how they watch.

Of course, a lack of interfaces (we need a new HDMI) and HEVC decoder chips will slow real adoption of end-to-end 4K down (and there will be grumpy early adoptors who buy 4K sets with upscalers who are later unhappy that they can’t get ‘true 4K’), but that won’t stop set makers selling the sets.