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IBC Focus Shifts From 3D to 4K

AMSTERDAM —At last year’s IBC, no less a 3D proponent than James Cameron warned against a forthcoming battle between 3D and Ultra HD. “We have a bandwidth bottleneck, and if we start going to higher spatial resolution it will be at the sacrifice of 3D rollout,” Cameron said. “So I see it as a little bit of an arms race right now.”

If it is an arms race, it’s one that Cameron has lost. While 3D services get cancelled on ESPN, suspended at the BBC, or cut back in turn, the momentum has shifted to Ultra HD – and 4K in particular – at fairly dizzying speed.

In 2010, more than 20 soccer matches were captured in 3D at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. No decision on a stereo 3D feed has yet been made for the Games in Rio next year. Meanwhile, Sony went to the Confederations Cup in Brazil examining the logistics of parallel HD and 4K productions over the course of three matches in Belo Horizonte.

So, where has this momentum come from? Several areas, not least of which is the rush of the manufacturers—both broadcast vendors and consumer electronics giants—to fill the gaping hole in their projected profits that was meant to be provided by their line of stereo 3D equipment for the next few years.

Hence the glut of eye-wateringly expensive TV sets that have been launched in the direction of the consumers this year, coupled with cameras and other gear aimed at broadcasters. With the likes of Snell saying that it would offer 4K functionality at no additional charge at NAB this year, there were signs that the ‘4K premium’ might be disappearing at a far more rapid rate than the HD one ever did. Then, of course, there is HEVC/H.265, the compression codec that promises 50 percent savings over H.264 out of the gate, with probably more to come down the line.

This is starting to make 4K possible in the current production and distribution chains, albeit with gaps that must be closed quickly for satellite companies to start hosting 4K World Cup transmissions next year, as several such companies intend.

On-demand giants like Netflix are looking at 4K with intense interest. The giants reason that 4K might give them some leverage with consumers, while the satellite and cable services catch up with 4K’s bandwidth requirements. As well, Sony is looking at launching its U.S. OTT service, Video Unlimited 4K, this autumn to complement its FMP-X1 4K media player. This 4K player has been in the shops since July and at the moment relies on pre-loaded content.

As far as production goes, it’s been a summer of testing and assessing, with both Wimbledon and the Confederations’ Cup featuring on the 4K slate. It seems to have gone well, too.

Sony shipped Telegenic’s 4K OB truck—the only one in the world to date—over to Brazil for a nine camera production to see how a mixed workflow of two-camera HD and seven-camera 4K would work. Reports are that improvements over the previous round of tests at U.K. matches in May were considerable, especially in attaching HD lenses to the units—considered essential for secondary shots to shave the costs of using 4K glass—keep focus, and move the data around the trucks, and in and out of the EVS machines.

The Wimbledon tests focussed on camera angles, shutter speeds and colorimetry. They also debuted a neat PR gimmick which likely will appear a lot more this summer. They placed tiny adverts—‘microtisements’— on the shoelaces and fingernails of British tennis player Anne Keothavong to show off just how high super-high resolution can go. Unfortunately, she got knocked out in the first round.

There is more to be done in this area, with sport producers voicing disquiet about both frame rates and the shallow depth of field that the large single-sensor cameras that dominate the 4K market produce. There is also the question of how you bring the wireless and ultra slo-mo technologies that modern sports OB finds essential to the 4K arena.

As to IBC 2013, as ever, the manufacturers are playing their cards close to their chest. So there is no news yet as to whether any of those questions will be answered. We do know that EVS Sports will have a 4K version of the XT3 production server, Grass Valley will add multilayer 4K to its Edius 7 NLE, and Gefen will be launching numerous 4K glue products at IBC 2013. So 4K will be shown expanding to occupy -- in an evolutionary manner—the niches in the production chain it has yet to fill.

The real 4K highlight at IBC 2013 could take place during the Conference, where a session titled ‘The Great Quality Debate: Do We Really Need to Go Beyond HD?’ (Saturday, Sept. 14 at 11 a.m.) could prove lively. This is a view gaining increasing traction from a section of the industry that questions public reaction to 4K. Reservations notwithstanding, Ultra HD 8K in the guise of NHK’s Super Hi-Vision is lurking in the wings and expecting to start broadcasting as soon as 2016.

Back to 4K and IBC: NHK’s annual visit to Amsterdam always provides an interesting benchmark for progress in the format. This year, visitors to its stand in the Future Zone can see the world’s first realtime encoder running under HEVC, as well as a new single-chip compact camera that sees the units becoming steadily more flexible and portable. With persistent rumors suggesting that Sony’s new replacement for its Xperia line of smartphones, codenamed Honami, is going to feature the ability to capture 4K video with a phone, it looks like 4K could be as ubiquitous in a mere couple of years as HD is now.