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NAB2006: Ultra HD a Wonder to Watch, Awkward to Produce

Even as newer media and re-purposed content began assuming larger roles at the NAB show last week, "all things HD" managed to hold its own in the buzz department, partly propelled by fast-emerging MPEG-4 AVC and other worthy advancements and products (see HD Notebook, April 27, 2006). And some attendees saw for themselves that there's even more to HD than meets the eye.

Although still at the R&D stage, NHK's Ultra HD Theater generated its share of "gotta-sees" -- and it earned its buzz the hard way. Since the exhibit had no incidental walk by traffic because it was tucked away in the back of the Central Hall of the LVCC, attendees had to first know it was "back there somewhere." The trek to the back of the hall was well worth it, but don't look for it at the retail level anytime soon.

Ultra HD is 7680 x 4320 (more than 32 million pixels) -- which is about 16 times the vital stats of 1080i. It's truly awesome eye-candy images projected on a 30-foot x 20-foot. screen begs the question: How much better can it get? Then again, that's probably what they asked 50 years ago with plain old NTSC analog. Ultra's lighting and depth of field is so stunning in some demo footage that it achieves 3D effects without 3D enhancements.

What makes a noticeable difference in the Ultra HD experience, however, almost as much as the video, is the intricately layered (nearly overwhelming) sound system of 22.2 channels. The audio is projected via three vertical layers of speakers: 9 on the upper layer, 10 at mid-range, 2 speakers (1 each, positioned halfway up each side of the screen), and the remainder of speakers below-screen.

While NHK is still working to make Ultra HD a more practical and affordable format, it said it already has the potential for various applications other than entertainment -- mainly medical and security. In a recent test relay in Japan, NHK was able to successfully transmit the signal about 260 kilometers by fiber optics.

"Image is everything and the image was spectacular," veteran HD producer Randall P. Dark told HD Notebook. "My first reaction was that I wanted to grab that camera and go shoot something. Then I saw the camera and equipment required to capture the images. Huge, awkward, cumbersome. It brought back memories of how it was when I was working in HD in the late '80s. However the images are always worth the effort. Over the next 20 years, this technology will evolve, mature and become user-friendly. If I were IMAX, I would be nervous," said Dark, co-founder and president of HD Vision Studios in Los Angeles.

There are reportedly only two working Ultra HD cameras in the world right now, requiring a specially built Astrodesign image processor (the VP-8400, recipient of a Mario Award last week from "TV Technology" magazine) that includes real-time chromatic aberration correction. NHK said its transmission data rates are 640 Mbps. (There is also a sort of middle-range HD format between "standard" HD and Ultra, known as "QFHD." See separate item in this edition.)