Posts Tagged ‘4K’

4k In The Desert

I’m writing this while sitting in the Day 2 session of the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat, which has become one of the leading cutting-edge technology conferences for those working in movie and TV production.

From its humble beginnings at the turn of the century, the Tech Retreat has outgrown two hotels and now attracts over 500 attendees each year. This year’s edition is being held at the Hyatt Resort in Indian Wells and featured a full-day super session on high frame rate / high dynamic range / high resolution imaging, followed by two and a half days of presentations on everything from file-based workflows to consumer TV viewing preferences, the next generation of ATSC (3.0), and a behind the scenes look at NHK’s operations center for their 8K coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

Did you know the adaptive dynamic range of the human eye is 1014, or about 46 stops of light? (I learned this on Day 1.) I also discovered that the fire department in Paris played an integral role in the Lumiere demonstration of 60mm projected images on a 30 meter-wide screen in 1898. (More on that later!)

And I also heard about viewer preferences for high dynamic range displays, along with the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of the UltraViolet online “locker” system for viewing movies and TV shows across a wide range of devices.

General sessions at HPA are packed wall-to-wall on Wednesday.

General sessions at HPA are packed wall-to-wall on Wednesday.

As might be expected, there is a lot of interest among attendees in the emerging crop of 4K TVs and displays. 4K has already made significant inroads to the post-production industry, but the end game remains uncertain: Is the best use of 4K to make better 2K digital files for movies, and improved 2K video for broadcasts? Do 4K displays beg for greater color bit depths, as opposed to the barely-adequate 8-bit system used for Blu-ray and digital TV? What are the challenges in building an end-to-end 4K production ecosystem?

How about displays that can harness the wide dynamic range that the newest high-end 4K cameras can reproduce? And what display technology shows the most promise for reference-grade 4K monitoring in post-production and color grading facilities? It’s clear that plasma is on the way out, based on sales trends for the past three years. Yet, LCDs still face major challenges in assuming the “reference” mantle. And OLEDs remain tantalizingly out of reach, due to continued yield issues.

And then there’s the “gotcha!” – delivering 4K content to the consumer. The MPEG4 H.264 codec can work miracles, but isn’t able to pack down 4K files small enough for existing terrestrial, satellite, and cable “pipes.” However, the emerging H.265 codec promises a further bit rate reduction of 50% over H.264. Will H.265 make 4K delivery feasible?

And what will we play 4K content from? Blu-ray discs? There’s certainly enough capacity in dual-layer blue laser discs, but there’s that 8-bit color limitation. How about hard drive or solid-state memory solutions, such as RED’s $1,500 4K media player? Streaming 4K seems out of the question for now, and digital downloads of 4K movies would certainly tax even the fastest broadband service providers.

In an informal poll of attendees after Day 1, a majority (at least 80%) indicated they believed that 4K TV was just another attempt by CE manufacturers to sell TVs, while a much smaller group (perhaps 20%) thought that 4K was a legitimate next step in the progression of content production. (HPA attendees also largely agree that 3D TV is dead and that “smart TVs” are yet another misfire on the part of Japan, Korea, and China.)

In my morning breakfast roundtable that focused on the struggles of the consumer TV industry, one comment was made that perhaps Apple’s long-rumored television product might use a 4K display (along with advanced gesture and voice control.) We also talked about the rapid decline in LCD panel and TV prices, and observed that some Taiwanese and Chinese manufacturers (Westinghouse, Hisense, and TCL) are already floating aggressive prices on 4K TVs; about $50 – $60 per diagonal inch in sizes up to 65 inches.

Clearly, 4K is coming. Just how fast and in what forms isn’t immediately obvious. There is talk of a need for standardization beyond what is happening in SMPTE and EBU groups, specifically focusing on high dynamic range 4K video with a wide color gamut that will display consistently both on cinema-grade projectors and across multiple brands of 4K consumer TVs.

In other words, it’s past time to stop worrying about being “backwards compatible” with legacy format and imaging standards developed for CRT displays, and blaze new trails for acquisition, post-production, distribution, and delivery of HDR UHD visual content.

Only then will the transition to 4K TV be worthwhile. And you can be certain that Tech Retreat presenters and attendees will be on the cutting edge as it happens…

(I almost forgot: The Paris fire department sprayed water on the Lumiere screen to make it translucent so that it could be viewed on both sides.)

 

This article originally appeared in Display Daily.

Goodbye, 2012. Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

This will be my last post for 2012. And what a year it’s been.

We were dazzled by 55-inch OLEDS at CES nearly a year ago that will not make it to market. We’ve seen record financial losses at some of the most venerated names in consumer electronics (Sony, Panasonic) and one long-time Japanese brand on the verge of bankruptcy (Sharp.)

TV sales continued their decline from last year, as did TV prices. It’s now possible to buy 42-inch LCD TVs for quite a bit less than $400. The obituary is being written for plasma, according to most analysts. (I agree.) Many LCD TV manufacturers and retail brands are now branching into (get this) LED lighting.

Viewing of traditional broadcast TV channels fell off the cliff this year, except at NBC. AMC is the hot channel now, and ironically,  they used to just run old movies with innumerable commercial interruptions. There is evidence that cord-cutting is gaining in popularity (it’s the economy, stupid!) and video streaming has supplanted sales and rentals of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. My gosh, Disney and Netflix are now partners in streaming!

The hot products this season aren’t TVs, although really big screens are dirt cheap and have seen a spike in sales. Digital cameras are threatened by smart phones, with 2012 shipments off by as much as 40% from last year. Now, we have DSLRs and point-and-shoots with built-in Web browsers, quickie image editors, and the Android OS. (I think that’s called a phone now?)

No, the hot product this year is the tablet. iPad, Surface, Nook, Galaxy, Kindle, take your pick – they’re all popular, and the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 50% of American homes could own at least one tablet by the end of the holiday selling season.

Interest in 3D has largely waned among the general public and TV manufacturers, contrary to what you may read on some die-hard 3D enthusiast Web sites. From all accounts, the 3D Olympics broadcasts found their biggest audience in the production trucks adjacent to the events in London.

So what’s the next big thing? Why, it’s 4K, otherwise known as Ultra HD (except at Sony, who always marches to the beat of a different drum). Never mind that there’s no content to watch; you can buy in for a mealy twenty grand. Or, you can wait until after CES and pick up one of the new Chinese 4K TVs for a lot less.

Prices for flash memory are dirt cheap, further depressing optical disc sales. You can buy 32 GB SD and Micro SD cards for all of twenty bucks now. That’s enough space to hold almost six two-hour 1080p movies, using MPEG4 H.264 compression.

We’re seeing a major shift away from value in hardware to value in software – content, apps, whatever you want to call them. Face it; “electronics is cheap!” And more and more of our gadgets are coming from China, which is evolving into the largest market for consumer electronics in the world.

Front projectors came under heavy fire in the commercial AV space, threatened by super-cheap and big LCD TVs. But they’re firing back by adopting lamp-less projection engines, using LEDs, lasers, or combinations of the two. The rear-projection TV category is officially RIP now, after Mitsubishi threw in the towel in late November. If it ain’t flat, consumers don’t want it.

You know things are nutty when Samsung and Apple seem to spend most of their time in court suing each other (and Google, and vice-versa), yet all three companies paired up to make a $500M bid for Kodak’s digital imaging patents. You remember Kodak, right? They once made photographic film, and cameras, and processing chemicals, etc. (Don’t remember them? You must be a Millennial.)

The industry is obsessed with the “second screen,” although they can’t quite define how it is used and how often. We’re obsessed with the idea that we can stream any movie or TV show we want, at any time and in any place, but continue to be surprised when the monthly bill comes in from Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and so on. And why is it that broadband speeds are so much faster abroad, in countries where the government often maintains the telecommunications infrastructure?

Despite claims that more airwaves are needed for wireless broadband (at the expense of UHF TV broadcasters), we found out the hard way during Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather that, more often than not, broadcast TV was the only reliable way to get news updates when the power went out, trees fell down, and buildings flooded. (Some lessons are just hard to learn!)

It’s been quite a year, and Ken and I have enjoyed trying to explain the significance of many of the developments that you’ve heard and read about. We’ll continue to do so in 2013 on an all-new Web site (same name) that should be somewhat easier on the eyes and faster to navigate.

Look for a launch of the new site sometime in mid-January, right after that annual exercise in electronic insanity that takes place in Las Vegas every year. Both Ken and I will have our usual coverage and analysis, and maybe we can even find a couple of gems amongst all of the electronic detritus that lines the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

That’s it for now. Have a safe and happy holiday season and a safe New Year. And in the wake of the Newtown, CT tragedy, remember to keep all the gadgets we lust after and “can’t live without” in perspective: It’s just a bunch of dumb wires and components when all is said and done.

There are more important things in life…

4K Presto Change-O!

Sony is headed for an unprecedented ninth straight year of financial losses in its television business, but pay no attention to that – look at this nice shiny thing over here instead! Yesterday, Sony announced they would begin shipping the 4K Ultra HD Video Player, a hard disk drive (HDD) media player that connects to Sony’s XBR-84X900 84-inch 4K LCD TV. The player will be pre-loaded with several full-length movies and a gallery of 4K video, according to the company’s press release.

Interestingly, the release also stated that the player is “…Available as a bonus loaned exclusively to U.S. customers purchasing the Sony 4K LED TV…” Apparently, you can’t buy one; you can only “borrow” it. Let’s read a bit more from the press release:

“Sony is a company of firsts, and this introduction of the first 4K technology platform continues that pioneering, innovative spirit,” said Phil Molyneux, president and chief operating officer of Sony Electronics. “We were the first to introduce 4K projectors to cinemas in 2005, the first to introduce a 4K projector designed for the home in 2011, and the first to offer a 4K upscaling Blu-ray Disc player earlier this year. Now, we’re the first to begin closing the content loop, offering native 4K content for the home and delivering the most immersive, awe-inspiring entertainment experience yet.”

And just how “awe-inspiring” will that experience be? The 4K movie offerings include the recent remake of Total Recall, a movie that was universally panned by critics (30% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site) and didn’t even make back half of its production budget.

You’ll also receive Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy!; another box office bomb that scored even lower among critics and made a brief appearance in theaters. Want more? How about Battle: Los Angeles, of which one RT critic said, “…… this humorless film (is) as unimaginative — and as exhausting — as you can get.”

The 4K bundle also includes Salt, The Karate Kid (2010), The Amazing Spider-Man, The Other Guys, Taxi Driver, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. I enjoyed the first three Spider-Man movies, but skipped this year’s re-boot. The rest of the movies gathered decent reviews, but from my perspective, there are only two true classics on the list – Taxi Driver and River Kwai.

Sadly, they can’t even stock their media player with movies worthy of 4K transfers, like their recently-restored Dr. Strangelove, which looks gorgeous in 4K. (Hey Sony, how about offering some Academy Award nominees and winners instead, like The Last Emperor, or A Few Good Men? Moneyball? The Social Network? Remember those?)

Sharp is also practicing misdirection. Thursday’s business newswires were buzzing with rumors that Sharp is in talks to sell shares of the company to Dell, Intel, and Qualcomm to bolster its balance sheet in return for a stable supply of breakthrough display technology.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sharp wants an investment of about $240M from both Dell and Intel, and a smaller investment from Qualcomm. The prize? Sharp’s IGZO (indium-gallium-zinc oxide) backplane technology, which makes displays lighter and thinner, increases pixel density, and improves energy efficiency. Any deal these companies would make with Sharp would guarantee them a corresponding percentage of the Sakai IGZO panel output.

Sharp’s negotiations with Hon Hai stalled a few months ago, and the latter company sees no point rushing to close a deal while Sharp’s market valuation is falling off a cliff. Ironically, Hon Hai’s reluctance is a contributory factor in Sharp’s share price dropping to bargain-basement numbers – trading last Friday for about 172 yen, a decline from well over 2,000 yen in 2008.

According to the WSJ story, Sharp President Takashi Okuda was quoted as saying that “Sharp is counting on IGZO to save the company.” However, Sharp’s struggles with low IGZO production yields are well-known, and the company’s cash reserves are rapidly dwindling.

It’s 4K or bust for Sharp!

So what do you say to the press?  Pay no attention to that; look at this shiny new thing over here instead! Sharp’s “shiny new thing” is a 32-inch 4K (3840×2160) LCD monitor that will go on sale in February for ¥450,000 in Japan (about $5,500 in USD). It uses the IGZO backplane, weighs about 17 pounds, and will include a pair of HDMI connectors and internal speakers, according to IDG’s News Service.

Note that this is not a 4K TV; just a ‘dumb’ monitor. But its price per diagonal inch is far below that of the 84-inch 4K TVs announced by Sony, LG, and Toshiba. Unfortunately, the screen size is too small to be of much value to the consumer market, which is why the company stated that they expect more interest from computer graphics professionals, the medical industry, and architects.

Both 4K announcements show that while both companies may be losing their shirts, they haven’t lost their technical mojo. Now, the question is how long before analysts, investors, and the press refocus on the elephant in the room: Profitability.

This article originally appeared on Display Central.

4K: HDTV Redux?

4K acquisition and display was the topic of a panel discussion I participated in during last week’s CCW / SATCON show at the Javits Center in New York City. My fellow panelists were technology guru and veteran video engineer Mark Schubin, and Larry Thorpe, senior fellow at Canon’s Imaging Technologies Group, and we gave attendees some useful perspective on what may be the next “gold rush” for television manufacturers.

Schubin’s comments pertained to just how much detail the human eye can perceive, and how contrast is often more important than viewing distance and screen sizes. (Did you know the average viewer sits about nine feet away from a TV, which measures most often between 40 and 49 inches in diagonal screen size? So much for 42-inch 4K televisions…)

He went on to add that perhaps the greatest benefit of 4K digital film and video production would be higher quality 2K HDTV delivered to the home, as 4K imaging sensors can capture far more detail than native 2K sensors because they have 4x the number of photosites.

Thorpe talked about the challenges of designing lenses for 4K cameras and illustrated that there are no lenses for 4K cameras with equivalent zoom ratios to today’s 2K camera optics – not an insurmountable obstacle, but a challenge nonetheless for camera manufacturers.

He also provided details about a live 4K broadcast earlier this of a baseball game in Japan via satellite links, using a nominal data rate of 120 Mb/s, and discussed how Fox Sports has used a pair of 4K Sony F65 cameras this season to assist NFL referees when they review challenged plays.

My comments were focused on the availability of 4K projection and direct-view displays, the majority of which are very large screens that present logistical challenges in the average home. I also gave the audience an idea of the bit rates involved in moving 4K content at high frame rates from source to display (how does 6 Gb/s per color channel at 3840×2160/60Hz with 10-bit color grab you?) and why this will be a headache for current implementations of HDMI and DisplayPort.

At the 2012 SMPTE Fall Technical Conference last month in Hollywood, I chaired a session on UHDTV, and the three papers presented detailed an 8K camera/projection system developed by NHK; a compact, 25-megapixel 70mm (4K) Panavision camera with flash memory, and an update on SMPTE standards for transporting ever-greater amounts of data as we move to higher resolution imaging and workflows.

Interestingly, the last presentation, made by John Hudson of Semtech Corporation, showed quite clearly that copper isn’t quite dead yet when it comes to high data rates, and that reaching speed as high as 96 Gb/s is clearly possible over short lengths of coaxial cable. (To be sure; there’s still plenty of work for optical fiber interfaces in broadcast and film production environments.)

Hudson talked about the SMPTE 32NF40 Multi-Link 3G Ad Hoc Group that is currently working to standardize doubling and even quadrupling of 3G HD-SDI interfaces towards the goal of achieving 6 Gb/s and 12 Gb/s uncompressed data rates, suitable for 10-bit and 12-bit 4K production workflows. He also pointed out that telecom switches capable of handling 6, 12, and even 24 Gb/s data rates are readily accessible and not cost-prohibitive.

In the consumer world, Hisense made some news when it announced three new 4K (3840×2160) edge-lit LCD TVs would launch at CES 2013. This new line, known as the XT-880 series, will be available in 50-inch, 58-inch, and 65-inch screen sizes. All three models will support active shutter 3D, come with Internet access (built-in WiFi), and are equipped with an ARM dual-core microprocessor running on Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich OS. (They even support gesture recognition and voice control!) No retail prices have been announced yet.

At CES, we’re likely to see a larger 4K TV from Toshiba, who is apparently going to source the 84-inch IPS glass that LG Display is selling to LG and Sony. Not so JVC, who confirmed to me that they have no interest in selling their 84-inch version of the LGD glass (PS-840UD) to consumers, save for high-end home theater installations. It’s more of a general-purpose 4K monitor for professional work. And we know Samsung will put the spotlight on their 85-inch 4K PVA LCD TV, which was announced two weeks ago but has yet to make its appearance in any kind of an “official’ press release photo.

Finally, I was asked by a friend in the TV industry regarding rumors that we’d hear about an updated version of HDMI, to be announced in Las Vegas. This version, which will allegedly be v1.5, will supposedly address the data transfer speed limitations of HDMI (currently capped at 8 Gb/s with overhead and 10.2 Gb/s with all overhead removed). Presently, HDMI is hard-pressed to show 4K content at frame rates higher than 30 Hz, which requires about 2.5 Gb/s per color channel for a 3840×2160 video stream).

If you hadn’t heard, there is a group of manufacturers working with Silicon Image on a specification for HDMI 2.0, which is intended to address a whole host of problems with the currently interface – not the least of which is its speed limit. One motivator for the upgrade to 2.0 is clearly DisplayPort, a competitive digital display interface targeted at notebooks and ultrabooks and which, at 17.2 Gb/s, is clearly fast enough to carry a 4K signal at 60 Hz with 10-bit color (about 6 Gb/s per channel). So a short-term ‘jump’ to HDMI 1.5 seems more like a Band-Aid right now, but you never know what the marketing guys at the big TV brands are yelling for.

JVC’s 84-inch PS-840UD will be available for home theater enthusiasts, but is really targeted at professional applications.

And speaking of DisplayPort, the Wireless Gigabit (WiGig) Alliance announced last Friday that it is now collaborating with the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) to define and refine a specification for 60 GHz wireless DisplayPort, using 2.6 GHz-wide channels available in many countries. So it’s entirely possible that we’ll be able to connect 4K displays without any cables at all by the time 4K content becomes widely available.

If you’ve spotted parallels between these developments and the early days of the transition to HDTV, you’re not alone. At present, there are (a) questions about what a “true” 4K resolution specification should be, (b) scarcities in cameras and production equipment, (c) bandwidth challenges to overcome, (d) high-priced displays that we know will become affordable quickly enough, and € competing interface standards.

The only thing missing is an optical disc format war, but with the Blu-ray format currently limited to 8-bit color, don’t be surprised if that conflagration breaks once again. Just like the good old days of HDTV…

 

This article originally appeared on the Display Central Web site.

What If They Gave A Party, But No One Came? – Pete Putman

In a recent AP news story, writer Ryan Nakashima details how, despite millions of dollars in advertising and promotion over the past 3+ years, American TV viewers have basically ignored 3D TV.

According to the story, “…fewer than 115,000 American TV homes are tuned in to 3D at any given time. That’s less than a hundredth of the 20.2 million-strong audience that watched television’s highest-rated show, NCIS, this week.”

The AP story details that The Nielsen Company can’t capture any significant data about the viewing preferences of this tiny group of viewers. It would also explain the complete lack of ‘buzz’ about Panasonic’s August 3D TV coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

Audience indifference to 3D TV is why DirecTV turned n3D, its barely two-year-old 24-hour 3D channel, into a part-time 3D network, carrying only the rare original 3D broadcast. And it also resulted in AT&T’s U-Verse system dropping ESPN 3D from its channel lineup, citing the high $10 monthly cost for the full ESPN package of channels.

Tom Morrod, an analyst with research firm HIS (formerly iSuppli), was quoted as saying, “There’s very little direct consumer demand for 3-D. They don’t see a value with it. Consumers associate value right now with screen size and very few other features.” That observation, along with consumer disdain for 3D TV, has been backed up by numerous consumer preference surveys. The demand for larger, cheaper TVs above all else is mirrored in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Last November, the Leichtman Research Group polled 1,300 viewers who had watched 3D TV. Of that group, 38 percent rated 3D TV ‘poor,’ as opposed to just 8 percent who rated it excellent. Those numbers have been pretty consistent in several polls since the first 3D TVs came to market in early 2009.

A story that appeared on the CIO Asia Web site earlier this week, offering preview coverage of the annual CEATEC trade show in Japan, stated that “…TV makers appear to be shifting away from years of emphasis on 3D, a technology that has failed to capture the imagination of consumers, even as an value-added offering.”

The emphasis was on the emerging crop of 4K TVs from Sony, LG, JVC, Toshiba, and others. In the story, analyst Keita Wakabayashi at Mito Securities stated that “TV makers weren’t able to use 3D to boost the prices of their sets, so it has just become a drag on their profits. 4K technologies have much more appeal, though at current prices just for the wealthy.”

This inability to capture any premium for 3D means that support for the format will just become a standard feature in most TVs that can be accessed through the user menu. What’s not clear is whether TV manufacturers will continue to supply active shutter or passive 3D eyewear with new TVs to take advantage of that function.

My thinking is that, in an era of squeezed profit margins and red ink, they won’t for much longer. 3D glasses will transition to an accessory item as manufacturers shift their focus to raising consumer awareness of 4K TV. Currently, the latter sets are quite expensive, hovering in the range of $20,000 right now. That’s about what a 50-inch plasma TV cost in the late 1990s.

But we know those prices will come down. NPD DisplaySearch analyst David Hsieh, in a September blog post, stated that 4K TVs will make it to market faster than large OLED TVs and at a more affordable price before long. The yield issues with large OLED panels that have stumped LG Display aren’t a problem with 4K LCDs, even with oxide TFT backplanes still waiting in the wings.

Hsieh states that both AUO and Chi Mei Innolux have shown they can manufacture 4K x 2K LCD panels using a conventional amorphous silicon process, and that a 50” 4K x 2K LCD panel with conventional backlighting is priced at $800, compared to $400 for a 2K 50” panel with slim (edge) LED backlight. He also cites a price of $5,000 for the 84” 4K IPS panel that LG, Sony, and Toshiba are currently using.

Your takeaway? Simply that 4K has a much better chance of stimulating consumer interest than 3D ever did. And I say this knowing full well that (a) there is no 4K content currently available for home viewing, (b) the infrastructure to deliver it over Internet connections doesn’t exist at present, and (c) the early crop of 4K TVs and projectors are just too expensive for the masses for now.

4K TV has a big advantage over 3D, though. It provides an immersive, life-like viewing experience that you don’t need glasses to enjoy, even if you have an eye disorder like 20+% of the U.S. population does. 4K is scalable across a wide range of screen sizes, from 24” on up. All of the mainstream projector technologies (HTPS LCD, DLP, and LCoS) already support it, as do the mainstream direct-view platforms – LCD and plasma. And OLED will, too – when it gets out of the starting gate.

From the content side, there are demonstrable advantages to those who choose to shoot, edit, and finish productions in 4K; particularly with live sporting events and concerts. One 4K camera can cover a wider range of the field and stage, and downstream image processing is used to ‘extract’ multiple 2K segments of the captured images for replays and cutaway views – resulting in a savings in equipment and labor costs. (This approach has already been shown by NHK using 8K cameras).

Those advantages, coupled with more affordable pricing, will drive 4K acquisition and production. That, in turn, will stimulate solutions to home delivery of 4K content, which will consequently light the fire under consumers for 4K TV demand. And all of those underlined qualifiers I listed three paragraphs back will disappear.

This won’t happen overnight – HDTV took 6+ years to become a mainstream production and viewing format – but it will happen. DisplaySearch is currently forecasting that 4K will account for 2% of LCD TVs in 2017 – five years from now – and 22% of the 50”+ TV market.

Most importantly, 4K TVs don’t have to contend with nearly four years of active vs. passive vs. autostereo format wars, battery-operated shutter glasses, film-patterned retarders, critical viewing angles, and half-resolution frame-compatible content; issues that have haunted 3D TV and turned off consumers.

No wonder there are all those empty chairs, unused party favors, and stale slices of cake over at the 3D TV party…

 

This story originally appeared in Display Daily 10/15/12.