NAB 2016: Thoughts and Afterthoughts

I’m back from my 22nd consecutive NAB Show, and it’s always a worthwhile trip. NAB isn’t quite as large or crazy as CES, but it’s still sprawled out enough to require three full days to see everything. (Except that you don’t have to fight the insane crowds that fill the Las Vegas Convention Center in January.)

This year’s theme was “Unleash!” or something like that. I never was completely sure, and it sounded more appropriate for a competition of hunting dogs anyway. But the crowds came anyway (over 100,000 for sure) to see everything from 4K and 8K video to live demonstrations of the new ATSC 3.0 digital broadcasting system, a plethora of small 4K cameras, the accelerating move to IP infrastructures instead of SDI, and video streaming to every conceivable device.

My visit to the show had a threefold purpose. In addition to press coverage and checking out product trends for customers, I also delivered a presentation during the Broadcast Engineering Conference titled “Next Generation Interfaces: Progress, or Babylon?” The subject was a new wave of high-speed interfaces needed to connect 4K, 5K, 6K, and 8K displays (DisplayPort, HDMI 2.0, and superMHL, not to mention Display Stream Compression).

Besides hundreds of exhibits, there are the pavilions. Trade shows LOVE setting up pavilions to showcase a hot technology or trend. Sometimes they’re a bit premature: In 1999, the show featured an enormous “streaming media” area in the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center stuffed full of startup companies showing postage-stamp-sized video, streaming over DSL and dial-up connections. All of those companies were gone a year later.

In addition to the Futures Park pavilion – which showcased NHK’s 8K broadcasting efforts and ATSC 3.0, and which was mysteriously stuffed all the way at the back (east) end of the upper south hall, where few people rarely go – there was the Sprockit startup pavilion in the north hall, near the Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality pavilion (more on that in a moment).

This setup was useed to capture HDR and SDR images of the model, stream them to the roof, and link via 18 GHz microwave to Black Mountain...

This setup was used to capture HDR and SDR images of the model, stream them to the roof, and link via 18 GHz microwave to Black Mountain…

 

...where the images where coded as HEVC H.265 4K signals and broadcast on UHF channel 50, back to the convention center. (Introducing about 14 seconds of latency along the way...)

…where the images were coded as HEVC H.265 4K signals and broadcast on UHF channel 50, back to the convention center. (Introducing about 14 seconds of latency along the way…)

There was also a demonstration of ATSC 3.0 in the home, located at the upper entrance (west end) of the south hall. Outside, Nokia set up a concert stage and had entertainment each day, all day long, streaming the performances into the VR/AR booth for viewing and listening on appropriate headgear.

To set the table and see just how much the industry has changed in a little over 20 years, the “hot” broadcasting formats in 1995 were Digital Betacam (two years old), DVCPRO, and a new HD format called D5. Non-linear editing was just getting off the ground from the likes of Avid, Media 100, and Boxx Technologies. A decent SD camera for studio and field production cost about $20,000, and HD was still very much in the experimental stage – the new Grand Alliance HD format was heavily promoting the format, model station WHD in Washington was conducting trial broadcasts, and there was no such thing as 720p/60/59.94 just yet.

The standard connectors for video? BNC and RCA for composite, with BNC doubling for the serial digital interface (SDI) connection. VGA was the connector of choice for PCs, and component video was tricky to implement. Tape was the preferred recording media, as optical disc hadn’t made its public debut yet. “High resolution” on a graphics workstation was around 1280×1024 (SXGA), a “bright” LCD projector could crank out about 500 lumens with 640×480 resolution, and the Internet was still a mystery to 90% of attendees.

We all know how the intervening years played out. TV broadcasters are now in the middle of a channel auction, and we may lose more UHF spectrum (in 1995, UHF channels ran from 14 to 69), possibly as much as 60 – 80+ MHz, or 10 – 14 channels. Demand for optical disc media is very much on the wane as streaming and cloud services are picking up the reins.

You don’t see very many transmitter and antenna manufacturers at the show any more, and when you do, their booths are pretty small. There’s been consolidation in the industry with antenna maker Dielectric shutting down a few years ago, then getting bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and revived (just in time for the auction!). Harmonic recently purchased Thomson, which explains the big empty booth where they should have been.

Z3's DME-10 is a super-tiny H.264 encoder for IP streaming.

Z3’s DME-10 is a super-tiny H.264 encoder for IP streaming.

 

Vitec's H.264 encoders aren't much bigger!

Vitec’s H.264 encoders aren’t much bigger!

And the biggest booth at the show doesn’t belong to Sony, or Panasonic, or Imagine (Harris). Nope, that honor goes to Canon, showing you that there’s still plenty of money to be made in video and still cameras, optical glass, and camera sensors. In a sign o’ the times, Panasonic’s once-enormous booth, which occupied the full width of the central hall mezzanine, has shrunk down to about half its original size.

NAB now is all about “anytime, anywhere” content creation, mastering, storage, and delivery. The concept of broadcasting is almost quaint these days (ATSC 3.0 notwithstanding) as more and more viewers avail themselves of faster broadband speeds and opt for on-demand streaming and binge viewing of TV shows.

Brands like Netflix and Amazon are stirring the pot, not ABC and NBC. (Most of the TV shows in the top 20 every week are CBS programs.) YouTube now offers a premium ad-free service (ironic, since ten years ago it was a place to share videos commercial-free). And this year’s “3D” is virtual reality (VR), backed up by augmented reality (AR).

Nokia's VR camera has 8 super-wide-angle lenses and 8 microphones. And I'm sorry, it DOES look like a high-tech hair dryer...

Nokia’s VR camera has 8 super-wide-angle lenses and 8 microphones. And I’m sorry, it DOES look like a high-tech hair dryer…

 

That is a lot of stuff to put on your head just so you can escape reality, isn't it?

That is a lot of stuff to put on your head just so you can escape reality, isn’t it?

Not clear on the difference? VR presents a totally electronic “pseudo” view of the world, which can be represented by custom video clips or generated by computer graphics. AR takes real-world views and overlays text, graphics, and other picture elements to “augment” your experience.

Google Glass is a good example of augmented reality – you’d walk down the street and graphics would appear in the near-to-eye display, showing you the location of a restaurant, displaying a text message, or alerting you to a phone call. Oculus Rift and Samsung Galaxy Gear are good examples of virtual reality, immersing your eyes and ears in imaginary worlds with large headsets and earphones.

I’ve tried VR and AR systems a few times, and the eyewear works- but it’s heavy and quite bulky. And the multichannel spatial audio is also impressive, but I have to strap headphones over those enormous headsets. In fact, the biggest problem with VR and AR right now IS the headset.  Galaxy Gear and other systems use your smartphone as a stereo display (you can do the same thing with a simple cardboard viewer), but the resolution of your smartphone’s display simply isn’t fine enough to work in a near-to-eye application.

After you wear a VR/AR headset for a while and stand up and take it off, you may find your sense of balance is also out of whack and that you momentarily have some trouble walking correctly. That’s another example of a spatial disorientation problem caused by the disconnect between your eyesight and other senses.

If some of these problems sound familiar, they should. We heard much the same thing during the latest incarnation of 3D from 2008 to 2012, particularly from people wearing active-shutter 3D glasses. During the roll-out of 3D, it became apparent that as much as 25% of the general population could not view 3D correctly because of eye disorders, spatial disorientation, incompatibility with contact lenses, and other problems.

Boland's selling the 55-inch LG Display RGBW 4K OLED as a broadcast monitor.

Boland’s selling the 55-inch LG Display RGBW 4K OLED as a broadcast monitor.

 

Fusion is selling the same monitor as a

Fusion is selling the same monitor as a “reference” broadcast monitor and multiviewer. (Sony’s got it, too!)

Back to reality! Here are a few more interesting things I saw in Las Vegas:

ATSC 3.0 is ready for its day in the sun. A consortium of interest groups recently petitioned the FCC to make that happen, and based on the demos at the show, it has a fighting chance to ensure broadcasting sticks around for a while. For current TVs, some sort of sidecar box will be required. But you’ll be able to watch 4K (Ultra HD) broadcasts with spatial audio and stream broadcast content to phones, tablets, and laptops, too.

8K Real-Time HEVC Encoding was on display in the NTT and NEC booths. For those counting, there are 7680 horizontal and 4320 vertical pixels in one 8K image, and both companies had demos of 4:2:0 video streaming at about 80 Mb/s. Recall that 8K has 16 times the resolution of 1080p full HD, and you can see that a ton of computational power is required to make it all work.

HEVC Encoding was also in abundance on the show floor. Vitec had some super-small contribution H.265 encoders, and Haivision brought out a new Makito H.265 portable encoder. The Fraunhofer Institute had an impressive demo of contribution 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut encoded at 16 Mb/s, resulting in picture quality that would rival an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc streaming six times as fast.

The Fraunhofer Institute demonstrated 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut at an amazingly low 16 Mb/s. Image quality was spectacular (and yes, they did encode pieces of falling glitter in the video!).

The Fraunhofer Institute demonstrated 4K video with HDR and wide color gamut at an amazingly low 16 Mb/s. Image quality was spectacular (and yes, they did encode pieces of falling glitter in the video!).

 

Samsung will make its dynamic tone mapping scheme for HDR available to anyone who wants to use it - and has submitted it to SMPTE as a candidate HDR format.

Samsung will make its dynamic tone mapping scheme for HDR available to anyone who wants to use it – and has submitted it to SMPTE as a candidate HDR format.

 

Technicolor demonstrated their

Technicolor demonstrated their “HDR interpolated from SDR” process, and it works better than I expected.

Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays are gaining ground on LCD for studio and broadcast operations. Three different companies – Boland, Sony, and Fusion – were showing Ultra HD “client” and “reference” monitors based on a 55-inch RGBW panel manufactured by LG Display. Sony, of course, has 30-inch and 25-inch models, and some of the older 25-inch glass is being used in monitors made by companies like Flanders Scientific. Newer OLED panels use 10-bit drivers and can reproduce HDR signals with a wide color gamut.

High Dynamic Range was very much on people’s minds at NAB 2016. Dolby showed its Dolby Vision proprietary HDR system, and Technicolor privately demoed its dual SDR/HDR workflow and distribution scheme. Samsung was an expected visitor to the show floor – their booth featured a side-by-side comparison of SDR and HDR with dynamic tone mapping, a system they invented and will make available openly to anyone. It’s also a candidate for SMPTE HDR standards.

Super-fine pitch LED display walls are the next big thing, and I mean that – literally. Leyard, who bought Planar Systems last year, had an impressive 100-foot diagonal “8K’ LED video wall (no mention of the dot pitch, but it had to be around 1.2mm) that dominated the floor. An industry colleague remarked that the brightness and size of this screen would be sufficient to replace cinema screens and overcome reflective, contrast lowering glare. (Plus kick the electric bill up quite a few notches!)

Leyard also had a prototype 4K LED display wall using .9mm dot pitch LED emitters and not far away, Christie showed its Velvet series of LED walls, with dot pitches ranging from as coarse as 4mm (remember when that used to be a fine pitch?) to as sharp as .9mm. Top= put all of that into perspective, the first 42-inch and 50-inch plasma monitors that entered the U.S. market in the mid-1990s had a dot pitch of about 1mm, and 720p/768p plasma monitors were about .85mm. How far we’ve come!

Words don't express how spectacular Leyard/Planar's 100-foot 8K LED wall looked. You had to be there. (Next-generation cinema screens, anyone?)

Words don’t express how spectacular Leyard/Planar’s 100-foot 8K LED wall looked. You had to be there. (Next-generation cinema screens, anyone?)

 

Panasonic had a cool 8K

Panasonic had a cool 8K “solution,” consisting of a 55-inch 8K IPS monitor and recorder/player. Still thinking about which 4K gear to buy? Get with the program!

 

NEC and NTT both showed real-time 8K encoding using HEVC H.265. (Have we moved past 4K already? Wow...)

NEC and NTT both showed real-time 8K encoding using HEVC H.265. (Have we moved past 4K already? Wow…)

 

For just $2,000, this box will let you copy HEVC H.265 2K and 4K video to as many as 25 SD cards at once. How do they do it?

For just $2,000, this box will let you copy HEVC H.265 2K and 4K video to as many as 25 SD cards at once. How do they do it?

And there’s still very much a place for AVC H.264 encoding. Z3 had a super-tiny DME-10 H.264 encoder for streaming over IP, as did Vitec. Matrox unveiled their Monarch Lecture Capture system (also based on H.264), and NTT had an impressive multistream H.264 / IP encoder/decoder system out for inspection. Some of these boxes would actually fit in your shirt pocket – that’s how small they’ve become.

Of course, the wizards at Blackmagic Design were at it again. This time, they showed an H.265-based recorder/duplicator system that can write 25 SD cards simultaneously with HEVC 2K and 4K video and audio – just plug ‘em in, and go! Over at the Adtec booth, the Affiniti system held the spotlight. This fast, “universal” bus for encoders and decoders is designed to be configured and maintained by anyone with minimal technical knowledge. It uses an SFP backplane, an approach more manufacturers are taking to keep up with the ever-higher speeds of 4K and UHD+ data.

Finally, I just had to mention the “world’s smallest 8K display,” as seen in the NHK booth. Yep, it measures just 13 inches diagonally and has an amazing pixel density of 664 pixels per inch (ppi). This display, made by the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Company of Japan, has a resolution of 7680 by 4320 pixels and employs a top-emission white OLED layer with color filters.  (Really???)