The forecasts for 4K were a mixed bag at a panel entitled Are we ready for Ultra-HD? at Satellite 2015 in Washington. With a discussion focus mainly centred on the North American market, Michele Beck, VP North American Sales at Telesat, Richard Bullock, Strategic Product Manager of Fixed Contribution and Distribution Solutions at Ericsson, Steve Corda, VP Business Development North America for SES, Philip Goswitz SVP Space and Communications/ R&D DirecTV, and Peter Ostapiuk VP Media Product Management at Intelsat and Thomas van den Driessche, Newtec CCO, all shared their views on how and when 4K will roll out. “We seeing a bit of caution in the market: broadcasters in Canada made huge investments in launching HD, and taking the next step will also be a major investment. They are deciding whether to start in 4K or to leapfrog directly to 8K, and wait a few extra years,” is how Beck set the scene in Canada.
Bullock, taking a more international view, said “broadcasters are waiting for some of the standards to be sorted out. We saw a lot of activity leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, and things have slowed a bit for 4K. But we sold a 4K system to Tata Sky for the Cricket World Cup. That really took 4K to a new level.” He added: “I think in the next 12 months we will see things moving forward with the next wave of enthusiasm.”
Drawing a parallel with the rise of HD in the US, Corda pointed out that when HD launched, the first linear channel debuted four years after the first broadcasts, which were on-demand. “But the interesting thing is that virtually every new movie it now shot in 4K. So the programming is there, but we need the whole ecosystem to develop.”
DirecTV’s Goswitz highlighted the impetus that 4K has already built up: “it’s here, but this is what it’s like to be on the leading edge – people have different opinions, but all the major operators have stepped up and are doing something: We’re all stepping up to the new experience.”
“As we saw with HD, it’s important to have leaders {while] others are in a wait-and-see mode, “ commented Goswitz, adding: ” it starts with cinema, but to get widescale adoption, you need sports”
Ironically, it is precisely in the area of sport where some of the biggest challenges broadcasters face reside when it comes to 4K. Bullock cited some of the experiences learned by Sky when covering the British Open golf championship: “The way that each shot was captured, the camera positioning was critical, and capturing the movement of the ball as it moved towards the camera – they discovered some limitations in the lenses currently.”
It seems that the ideal way to broadcast sports in the 4K world is to leverage the best of HD with the best of UHD, and to toggle seamlessly between these within a broadcast. Corda explained how this ideal could work: “a close-up shot with not a lot of movement, say at a goal line in football, that’s a great Ultra HD shot, but if you can scale to HD to capture the wider field shot. UHD needs a different way of filming, and when we get that nailed, it will really demonstrate what Ultra HD can do.”
Observed Ostapiuk: “there’s a lot of enthusiasm for 4K internationally in the markets where there is competition, and new subscribers to be gained.”
What will really move 4K forward, said the panel, is consumers demanding the new enriched services, not technologists promoting their most recent tech breakthrough.
Van den Driessche reminded that consumers are motivated “to fill up their flat panel screens” and added: ”one of the reasons that we’re all cautious is that in the case of 3D, it was not driven by consumer behaviour.”
All panellists agreed on the need for costs in every part of the 4K production and distribution chain to be reduced. Commented Bullock: ”let’s face it, 4K is not cheap. A lot of broadcasters entered into this without realising the cost of setting up a service, not just in the workflow, but also in storing of larger files and producing of the content, [plus] you need two sets of camera crew to keep HD production going as well – it all adds up.”
Embracing HEVC at every point in the transmission path was also seen as a prerequisite for the stable, commercial viability of 4K. Bullock noted the growing excitement surrounding HDR (High Dynamic Range) camera technology which would increasingly be deployed in 2016, and he believes it will further spur 4K rollout. He predicted that HDR and 4K uptake in 2016 would create a two-year window for the adoption of 8K, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.