The transition from HD to 4K Ultra HD in the broadcast industry

Cast your mind back a few years. Can you remember what the transition from SD to HD was like? Was it painful? Was it daunting? Well, whatever it was, we might just be going through the same thing again with the transition from HD to Ultra HD. Or is that 4K? Well, that’s another discussion…

So what will the transition from HD to Ultra HD mean for the broadcast industry? First of all, let’s just establish where we are. Much like the evolution of HD, there’s some inconsistency between the broadcast and consumer worlds. Consumer manufacturers are rushing ahead to produce Ultra HD TVs and devices, and broadcast equipment manufacturers are also beginning to flood the market with Ultra HD compatible equipment, but in terms of actual broadcasting, it’s just not publicly available yet. And may not be for some time. It’s worth noting that both Eutelsat and ASTRA have announced the launch of Ultra HD transmission capability. We are one step closer though, since the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVBP) has approved the ‘DVB-UHDTV Phase 1’ specification for Europe. But it may be sometime before the likes of Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media roll out Ultra HD.

If we look further at the consumer and broadcast equipment manufacturers, it’s interesting to note though that some manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic have feet in both camps – consumer and broadcast equipment production. So in effect their influence on the emergence of new technologies and transitioning from one to another is huge. The broadcast arm is like the pace-setter for the consumer arm. Build up the profile of Ultra HD and create an artificial demand for it by producing the broadcast production tools to make it a reality, and there’s no choice but for the consumer world to jump on the bandwagon.

But that’s enough cynical talk. I’m sure there’s not a conspiracy going on…

Back to where we’re at currently. As mentioned, Ultra HD broadcast production tools – cameras, recorders etc – are now widely available. Ultra HD has been embraced as a way to shoot for digital cinema and is becoming a popular way to ‘future proof’ broadcast television. There are a couple of Ultra HD OB trucks out there – mainly backed by heavyweights like Sony. The cost of broadcast Ultra HD equipment is reducing and with the likes of Blackmagic Design – who seem to be at the current forefront of bringing Ultra HD to the mass market, designing extremely cost effective Ultra HD products – upgrading from HD to Ultra HD is now achievable. If you’re about to design any new broadcast installation – be it a new studio, OB truck, flyaway or post-production facility, you couldn’t not cater for Ultra HD. Or could you?

One of the big equipment costs for broadcast facilities companies is monitors. Ultra HD broadcast grade monitors are still very expensive. But like everything, they’ll come down in price. At the consumer level, Ultra HD TVs – when first released – started at an eye-watering £20,000 price tag. You can now pick one up for under £500! (Can’t guarantee it’s any good, though.)

So what’s likely to happen next? The costs of production – across the board – will reduce. Everything from cameras, to monitors to post production storage. The current lack of accepted standards needs to be addressed. Are we using 6G, dual link, quad link etc? And the all-important question of broadcast delivery needs ironing out. There are signs of continued growth of mass Ultra HD. Adoption of the standard by the likes of over-the-top services such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube has already begun and will continue to grow. It’s likely that most of the initial Ultra HD content is likely to be user-generated or delivered through these types of over-the-top services. Better compression and an agreement on acceptable compression standards will be paramount for distribution and delivery, be it for online, IP streaming or broadcast. HEVC – the successor to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, and more commonly known as H.265 – is looking like it’s becoming the go-to video codec for streaming Ultra HD and is used by OTT giant Netflix for example.

By the way, did you know that HEVC compression is capable of 8K Ultra HD? I can see the title of my next piece, “The transition from 4K Ultra HD to 8K Ultra HD in the broadcast industry” Doesn’t sound daunting at all…

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