CES 2014: Thomson Video and MStar Also Demo 4K HEVC Streaming

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4K TVs, some with a curious curve, are everywhere at the 2014 International CES show. What few people are talking about is how viewers will get ultra HD content to those sets. Offering a demo in a hotel near the Las Vegas Convention Center, Thomson Video Networks and MStar Semiconductor suggest that the solution is closer than many are saying.

The demo shows 4K HEVC video -- encoded to 12Mbps, 25fps by Thomson using its ViBE VS7000 -- streamed via a local DLNA server to a large screen TV using pre-production MStar HEVC-enabled chips. This is the result of two years’ effort in HEVC decoding, says Philippe Notton, vice president of the set-top box business unit for MStar U.K. The demo TV runs an Android operating system. Notton say U.S. consumers will see sets capable of decoding 4K HEVC streams on the market this year.

The primary challenge for MStar was increasing the memory bandwidth, adding wider buffers. It also needed to increase memory bandwidth and boost the processing power.

“After two days of CES we have more requests for 4K HEVC than expected, which means that 4K HEVC technologies will arrive on the market sooner than people might have thought,” Notton says.

The big surprise for 4K HEVC TV isn’t that it’s coming this year, but that it should be affordable to most consumers from the start. While premium TV brands will offer sets at premium prices, Notton says that inexpensive Chinese TV makers are rapidly catching up and will offer lower cost models from the start. This will increase competition and drive all prices down. The cost for the extra memory needed for 4K HEVC is minor, and that cost will be absorbed by the TV makers, he says. At the start there will be big margins, but low volume. Costs will fall quickly.

The rush to 4K TVs is industry-driven, not consumer-driven, Notton admits, with Netflix and some U.S. operators leading the charge. Consumers don’t know what 4K content is and aren’t clamoring for it. Viewers comparing HD and UHD video might not see the difference.

After a morning of viewing streamed 4K HEVC video, this reporter has learned that it doesn’t automatically look amazing. Some clips looked strong, but some looked like poor 720p. Home buyers will have even more variables in the equation, and since HEVC is adaptive many won’t get a true UHD experience. The key will be the amount of bandwidth to the home, says Claude Perron, vice president and chief technology officer for Thomson.

“4k will remain a challenge to the home using ADSL technology,” Perron says. “If you have fiber, no problem.”

The closer a home is to an ADSL base station, the better quality it will get. That isn’t something most consumers will know, but Perron says the beauty of adaptive bitrate is that it will all be transparent. HD quality will definitely be possible for most homes.

The next challenge for UHD TVs will be adding support for 60fps video, says Notton. That will dramatically increase video quality, although it will double bitrates and require new encodes, plus chips will need to be designed with even more memory. Not far on the horizon, he says this also might appear this year.

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