Commentary: H.265 and 4K Ultra HD—History Repeats Itself?

In my latest Streams of Thought column, I suggested that consumers won't feel compelled—at least not by picture quality alone—to ditch nearly-new 720p or 1080p HDTVs for the even-newer 4K Ultra HD monitors being touted by consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers.

That hunch was confirmed by an extensive ehibit-floor walk through the recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show. While many exhibitors touted 4K, with wares ranging from CE devices to production gear, the jump in image quality didn't seem significant enough to justify the big spend for consumers, nor did the current crop of delivery products address several major technical hurdles for 4K broadcast use.

Not only are these hurdles significant when it comes to production and post-production solutions, but they don't even begin to address the frequency spectrum shortfalls needed for broadcasters to meet a goal of broadcasting more than half the over-the-air (OTA) digital channels. Today, most OTA channels are broadcast in 720p, meaning that broadcasters will have to increase their bandwidth budgets by 900 per cent (921,600 pixels per frame for 720p versus 8,294,400 per frame for 4K Ultra HD). This means for every nine current OTA 720p channels, only one 4K Ultra HD channel can be broadcast. And we think we have a frequency spectrum crisis today….

So if the lack of consumer enthusiasm—coupled with the challenges of production and distribution—are significant enough, is 4K Ultra HD dead on arrival? Not necessarily. It may take a few years to get to 4K production, and a few more to get to 4K distribution, but the drumbeat of progress means we will eventually arrive there.

Unlike camera manufacturers—where 4K, 5K, and even 8K shooting has been embraced as a way to shoot for digital cinema and "future proofed" television broadcast—CE and distribution equipment manufacturers don't see a half- or full-decade wait as good news.

So how does the CE crowd help accelerate adoption of 4K Ultra HD as a viewing standard, without risking the backlash from broadcasters that was faced a decade ago when an attempt was made to force through MPEG-4 Part 2 compression-based broadcast systems?

The answer, I suggest, is three-fold, with one part being a move to better-quality streaming. To get there, though, one has to consider exactly what it was about the MPEG-2 Part 2 fiasco that needs to be avoided this time around.

H.265 Image Quality and Bandwidth Savings

In the case of MPEG-4 Part 2 solutions, championed by Microsoft and others in an IPTV push in the mid 2000s, the lack of significant quality increase over MPEG-2 Transport Stream (M2TS) equipment was one key factor.

Like the H.265 claims of today, when compared to H.264 (aka MPEG-4 Part 10, AVC), the quality increase from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 Part 2 was only about 25 per cent better in terms of overall bandwidth compared to MPEG-2 compression.

It took a few more years until MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264) moved from the videoconferencing world into the streaming and broadcast world, but when it did, H.264 offered 75-100 per cent better compression—a compelling enough savings for broadcasters to allow them to show two 1280x720p HD channels in the space normally reserved for one 1920x1080 channel. Currently, H.265 proponents claim a 25 percent bandwidth savings, with a goal of 50% to be achieved in 12-18 months.

Timing

Yet the mismatch of trying to push MPEG-4 Part 2 wasn't only a technical one. The other issue was the timing of pushing MPEG-4 Part 2 so quickly after MPEG-2 equipment.

Broadcasters staunchly resisted being nudged towards MPEG-4 Part 2 only two NAB shows after MPEG-2 Transport Stream equipment was touted as the next big thing. At first, equipment manufacturers couldn't understand why MPEG-4 Part 2 was a bust when broadcasters had eagerly snapped up M2TS equipment. Then word began to trickle through the ranks that the bean counters wouldn't allow new purchases.

M2TS equipment was beneficial in the analog-to-digital OTA conversion, but broadcasters expected the new equipment to last longer than two years: after all, the analog equipment being replaced had lasted more than a decade, and was only jettisoned as the analog-to-digital broadcast horizon came into view.

Broadcaster weren't nearly as compelled to switch out MPEG-2 equipment for MPEG-4 equipment a mere two years later, a timeframe which didn't even allow the broadcaster's accounting department to fully write off the MPEG-2 equipment.

In the aftermath of that not-so-long ago NAB show where MPEG-4 Part 2 was trumpeted, equipment manufacturers were rebuffed both for a lack of quality as well as the standard amortization schedules that broadcast equipment is subject to. The timing of 4K Ultra HD equipment seems destined to meet the same fate with today's broadcasters, so CE manufacturers should consider a different approach.

Consistency of Delivery

Today's non-QoS viewing experience is much more akin to the highs and lows of available bandwidth and is a far cry from the "theater-like" experience we've come to expect from Blu-ray. For some streaming, much of which doesn't even come out consistently at 720p, I swear it often feel like even the weather gets in the way of a quality viewing experience (much like it does for those of us in the Southeastern part of the United States trying to watch satellite television when a big thunderstorm rolls through).

A personal example of the vast swings in quality of experience that one encounters while viewing premium content come from a set of off-line experiences I had over the course of one week a few years ago. On my way to the IBC show in Amsterdam, Delta Airlines was showing yet another installment of the Shrek movies on its on-demand, back-of-the-seat monitor entertainment system.

I hadn't seen the movie in the theater, so I decided to watch the movie on the six-inch screen. It was interesting, but not very compelling. Just two days later, however, I saw the same movie on a 7-meter screen (about 45 times wider than the airplane seat-back screen) that was perfectly dialed in with the latest 2K projector and an awesome sound system in the IBC Theatre. The experience—and connection with the movie due to the experience—was quite different, and I found myself laughing or reacting to scenes that just weren't that interesting on the small screen. For comparison, I also watched the movie on a 720p HDTV via DVD a few days later, and found the movie to be more interesting than on the plane, but not quite as interesting as in the IBC Theatre.

Is the moral of the story to watch everything at more than 120 inches of diagonal screen, along with a 10,000 watt sound system? Sure if you have the space and money to build out your own home theater. But the bigger moral, at least for the streaming world, is that quality of experience matters greatly, and we do a disservice to premium content by not addressing the last mile issue.

Sponsorship: An Answer To Quality Woes?

Which brings us around to the idea of how to increase streaming of 4K Ultra HD at a time when we can't even seem to get decent 1080p into consumers' living rooms.

My recommendation on how to best accomplish this is sponsorship of bandwidth and last-mile infrastructure. This radical idea, which I will cover in more detail in my next "Streams of Thought" column in the June/July issue of Streaming Media magazine, means the formation of a "desperate alliance" of sorts between the CE world and the studios on a scale so much bigger and comprehensive than UltraViolet that it cannot help but compel broadcasters and consumers come along for the ride.

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