The State of 4K and HDR 2017

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Panasonic supports HDR10 and HLG, but not Dolby Vision in its flagship TX-65EZ1002B, a 65" OLED. Sony’s 4K HDR TVs now support Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG. Also on board with Dolby Vision are TCL and Roku.

LG has gone whole hog in support of all four HDR flavors, including Technicolor’s, in its new top-of-the-line model. In return, Technicolor says it will use LG OLEDs exclusively as reference monitors for colorists working in facilities it owns.

Devices capable of playing back HDR are multiplying. Google’s Chromecast Ultra, Sony’s PS4 Pro, and Nvidia’s Shield TV streaming box are among the latest.

In Europe, the feeling is that HLG will assume priority in sports broadcasts with PQ being more popular for drama. In any case, the ITU standard recognizes both HLG and PQ and, crucially, enshrines the ability to convert between them.

“So if a Hollywood movie is delivered to a broadcaster in PQ, it can be converted to HLG for delivery, easily, and without damaging the output,” says Andy Quested, chairman of the ITU group responsible for its HDR standard.

Consumers need to be aware that the HDR label on a device doesn’t necessarily mean the representation of the image is really HDR.

“Some have a maximum light output of 1,000 nits, and some have 400 nits, which isn’t sufficient for HDR,” says Florian Friedrich, managing director at HDR testing service AVTOP and Quality.TV at CES. “It’s important that the TV can represent colors with luminance that are saturated at high levels, not just low levels.” 

The number of HDR formats will likely be whittled down. Retail marketing could become an issue. Vendors don’t want the added expense of incorporating more bits into their displays, and studios don’t want to have to keep mastering multiple versions, which they currently have to.

IP Production Comes of Age

Live sports continued to spearhead pay TV operator moves into 4K UHD with rapidly evolving IP and IT technology likely to prompt further investment.

“Probably the most significant shift in broadcast tech we’ve seen through 2016 has been the continued rise of the IP-enabled broadcast operations center,” says Rory McVicar, project manager of CDN EMEA at Level 3 Communications. “As this trend accelerates, Ethernet is increasingly being looked to as the common standard for broadcasters embracing OTT and multiscreen viewing.”

Vendors began the year aligned to different IP paths but gradually shifted behind the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS) aided by endorsements from Sony, Evertz Microsystems, and vendor trade body IABM.

What AIMS managed to demonstrate successfully last year was interoperability, with a showpiece working studio in HD at Belgium’s VRT being the year’s prime example. The actual impact on broadcasting of IP/IT has, however, been minimal in real terms.

“Most companies are either still in the planning stages or are yet to start formally thinking about IP, but there is definite forward momentum,” reports Adam Cox, senior analyst at Futuresource Consulting.

According to Futuresource’s “Video Server Market Overview” report, only 9 percent of video server ports were IP by the end of 2016 (up from 5 percent in 2015). The next key stage is toward the true separation of audio, video, and data signals along with synchronization information. This has been encapsulated as TR-03, which is being built into new standard ST 2110 currently winding its way through SMPTE with ratification not likely before 2018.

TR-03 itself is composed of a number of existing standards: RFC 4175 for video, AES67 for uncompressed audio, and SMPTE 2059 for clock synchronization. RFC 4175 is important as a means of reducing the volume of data transported since it will recognize and carry only active pixels, or the visible part of the video.

The work of the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA) is also significant in providing for the ability to plug in a device and make it known to the IP network and then have an open way for that device to describe all of the things it is capable of doing. AIMS has adopted AMWA’s Networked Media Open Specifications (NMOS) protocol, which will possibly be incorporated into SMPTE 2110.

Beyond even this, AMWA has begun exploring how NMOS will work in practice. Ultimately, this will lead to new specifications that will allow the industry to truly embrace data center and cloud technologies and feel confident relying on another company’s platform, hardware, and servers.

The question facing broadcasters is not whether to invest in IP—the move is inevitable, and the benefits from cost savings to greater editorial flexibility are compelling. The real question is whether or not to invest now.

“The economics of IP today make more sense at the enterprise level and probably do not yet stack up for smaller projects,” admits Tim Felstead, head of product marketing at SAM. “The industry has to make a case for IP beyond pure return on investment. IP is not swapping one technology for another. It offers a whole new approach to market.”

This also requires a shift in business model among vendors from selling expensive black boxes on premises (a capital expenditure for customers) toward a revenue-based model based on operating expenditures.

In other words, media organizations are being encouraged to rent or subscribe to services—playout, for example—running virtually in a data center.

“True adoption of IP will come when IP architectures are embraced to bring about all the benefits IP can provide,” says Futuresource senior analyst Adam Cox. “This is the next step, but we’re not there yet, and most of the industry won’t be there in 2017 either.”

4K Live Streaming

4K content still represents a lower percentage of streaming content compared with HD and even lower resolution video. For live, it’s still expensive from a computing standpoint especially if you want to support 4:2:2, HDR, and high frame rates, notes Telestream CTO Shawn Carnahan.

“Today’s 4K OTT levels are small but rapidly growing,” reports Ian Munford, EMEA director of product enablement and marketing, media services for Akamai. “Clearly there are a range of on-demand 4K movies available through various SVOD streaming services, but we are seeing many more live streaming events, particularly sports, taking advantage of online 4K delivery.”

While there are regional technology and infrastructure differences, in Q3 2016 Akamai reported that global adoption of broadband services over 15Mbps (capable of receiving 4K content) had increased 54 percent year on year to 22 percent.

The technical challenges to delivering live 4K OTT services center on improving the consistency and reliability of high bitrate 4K streams from ingest through to delivery—at scale. The challenge is multifaceted and requires different thinking throughout the workflow.

“If you can’t reliably ingest a live 4K video stream into a CDN, you can’t deliver a high-quality viewing experience,” explains Munford. “Likewise, if you can’t stream live 4K video consistently without buffering, then the viewer experience will be dreadful. Traditional streaming technologies use TCP as a transport protocol. This was designed to ensure reliability, but not deliver high-bitrate video, where bottlenecks in the internet may impact quality of experience.” 

The combination of ingest acceleration and delivery acceleration has enabled the delivery of live 4K sporting events online. Munford believes we’ll see a maturing of live OTT technologies in 2017, “specifically ... in areas such as live origin services, live transcoding, and 4K delivery.”

Level 3 also thinks 2017 may herald the true beginning of the upward curve, with consumers expecting greater quality in their streamed media. “The actions of content providers will further stoke this growth,” says McVicar.

On Nov. 12, UFC.TV claimed the world’s first global delivery of an event live in 4K at 60 frames per second. The SVOD eticket cost $59.99.

“We were very excited to showcase this on such a big stage,” says Chris Wagner, EVP and co-founder at UFC digital partner NeuLion. “I don’t know any other service other than UFC that is global OTT with a digital ticket in 4K/60. I don’t know of anyone else who has done this.”

NeuLion delivered the 4K show from Madison Square Garden as an HEVC stream in MPEG-DASH encoded in H.265.

This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Streaming Media magazine.

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