Posts Tagged ‘HDR’

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

As I write this, it is the morning of Day 2 at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat. This annual conference brings together the top minds across a wide range of disciplines in the media production business. Cameras, lenses, codecs, displays, file formats and exchanges, content protection, archiving – they’re all here, as are representatives from the major studios, TV networks, software companies, colleges, universities, government agencies, and standards organizations.

Many of the sessions over the past few days have focused on next-generation television – specifically, capturing, editing, and finishing 4K images. Hand-in-hand with these additional pixels comes high dynamic range (HDR), which was prominently featured at CES in January. There’s also a new, wider color space (ITU BT.2020) to deal with, along with higher frame rates (how does 120 Hz grab you?).

I present a review of the Consumer Electronics Show every year at HPA (which now stands for the Hollywood Professional Alliance), and try my best to cram as much as I can in half an hour. Obviously, HDR was a big part of my presentation. And the overemphasis on HDR at CES provided a nice contrast to the presentations at HPA – at CES, it’s all about marketing hype, while at HPA, it’s all about engineering and making things work.

It was a full house for this year's Tech Retreat - as usual!

It was a full house for this year’s Tech Retreat – as usual!

The average Joe may not understand much about “4K TV” or Ultra HD, but there is definitely more than meets the eye. At CES, an announcement was made about the new UHD Alliance, a partnership of TV manufacturers (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic), Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox), and other interested parties that include Netflix, Dolby, DirecTV, and Technicolor.

All well and good, but you need to understand the primary function of this Alliance is to promote the sale of Ultra HD televisions. And right now, television sales haven’t been as strong as they were five years ago. (The introduction of Ultra HD did boost sales a bit in 2014, which may have provided the impetus for the UHD Alliance.)

So here are a few of the problems with transitioning to Ultra HD. First off, not all of the pieces are in place for implementing add-ons like HDR, wider color gamuts, deeper color, and higher frame rates. It’s nice to talk about these features in conjunction with Ultra HD, but the mastering and delivery standards for HDR 4K movies and TV programs haven’t even been finalized yet.

Color is a particularly tricky issue, as LCD TVs with LED backlights render colors differently than LCD TVs equipped with quantum dot backlights. And OLED TVs require their own look-up tables as they are emissive displays, not transmissive. As far as frame rates go, consumer TVs generally can’t handle anything faster than 60 Hz and in fact prefer incoming signals to match up to one of four harmonically-related clock rates.

Next, there is a new version of copy protection coming to your television in the near future. It’s known as HDCP 2.2, and will ride along on an HDMI 2.0 connector. It is not backward-compatible with current versions, and you may be surprised to learn that early models of 4K TVs don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. So there is a real compatibility problem lurking in the shadows if you are an early adopter.

You may be wondering where 4K Blu-ray content will come from. The first Ultra HD BD player was shown at CES, and you can expect those to show up late in the 4th quarter of this year. Suffice it to say that they will be running HDCP 2.2 on their HDMI outputs! Media players will also have to adopt version 2.2 if they are to access movies and other protected content.

Getting back to HDMI: Although version 2.0 was announced in September 2013, it’s pretty scarce on Ultra HDTVs. Most current-model sets I’ve seen have one or two HDMI 2.0 inputs, and as I just mentioned, many of those don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. HDMI 2.0 is also speed challenged; with a maximum clock rate, it can’t support signals beyond 3840x2160p/60 with 8-bit RGB color.

Because of that, some UHDTV manufacturers are quietly adding DisplayPort 1.2 inputs to their products. Some of these interfaces are intended for connections to proprietary media players, but others are available for connections to set-top boxes, computers, and laptops. DP 1.2 can support 3840x2160p/60 with 10-bit RGB color as it has a much higher clock rate.

In summary, it’s all well and good that UHDTV is here, and initial sales are encouraging. But the plane isn’t finished yet, even though some of us want to fly it. The HPA presentations I’ve heard and seen the past two days clearly point out all of the back room details that have to be addressed before the media production, editing, mastering, and delivery ecosystem for UHDTV is ready to roll…

CES 2015: Upon Further Review…

There’s so much to take in at the International CES every year that you need a few weeks for it all to sink it. I posted my recap of the show earlier this month. Now, I want to expound on a couple of trends I saw in Las Vegas you need to watch. (Let’s move over to the referee’s TV to look at a reply.)

First and foremost is Ultra HDTV. No matter what you think of this next step in television viewing, it is coming, and nothing will stop it. The vast number of Ultra HD models shown at CES by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese manufacturers is all the proof you need. So is the aggressive discounting we’re now seeing on Ultra HDTVs, leading up to the Super Bowl.

Doubting Thomases like to drag out 3D TV as an example of a paradigm that never shifted anything. Not the same thing! 3D was beset by high buy-in costs, competing viewing systems, and a lack of compelling content. (Plus the fact that over 20% of the population can’t even see 3D correctly.) Eventually, Joe Six-Pack judged 3DTV to be an expensive, overpriced, and overhyped gimmick. And he was right.

Ultra HD is different. There are no competing standards for viewing 4K content. You can watch 4K on an LG or Vizio 65-inch TV just as easily as on a Sony or Samsung 65-inch TV. And so many manufacturers are in the 4K game that prices are falling like a stone. You can now buy 48-inch and 50-inch Ultra HD sets for less than $1,000, and 55-inch sets aren’t much more expensive.

Big screens. High dynamic range. More colors. Is this your next TV?

Big screens. High dynamic range. More colors. Is this your next TV?

Hand-in-hand with 4K came some new wrinkles. High dynamic range (HDR) was a topic much bandied about at CES, and now we are seeing multiple TV brands supporting it, usually by incorporating quantum dot (QD) backlight technology or modifying the pixel structure of LCD panels to add more white pixels.

QDs also bring with them expanded color gamut rendering, pushing way beyond the CRT-based ITU BT.709 color space in use today. (OLED TVs, like LG’s new lineup, can also display billions of colors.) Now, we can approximate what’s shown in movie theaters by covering the minimum DCI P3 color space – and more.

High frame rate (HFR) technology is also an integral part of UHDTV. It can refer to rates as low as 48 Hz and as high as 120 Hz. The higher rates would come into play with televised sports and concerts, not to mention virtual reality and gaming. At the lower end of things, 48 Hz could be used to master movies, a la “The Hobbit.”

Finally, the cost of making LCD panels has dropped so low for a myriad of reasons that the incremental difference between fabricating and cutting 2K (1080p) and 4K versions of a 65-inch panel is insignificant. Given the low profit margins – or zero profit margins – in making large 2K glass, it makes more sense to abandon 2K and focus on 4K entirely. And this is exactly what large Chinese panel manufacturers like TCL decided to do over a year ago.

When you see Ultra HD content displayed with full color sampling at high frame rates, you know this is a totally different experience than HDTV. The latter is limited by the BT.709 color space and a handful of frame rates, plus 4:2:0 color encoding. And many HDTVs use 8-bit LCD panels.

Not only that; a display equipped with just 1280 horizontal and 720 vertical pixels is still considered “HD.” Not so with Ultra HD. If it doesn’t have at least 3840 horizontal and 2160 vertical pixels, it ain’t Ultra HD. And that’s why we really should think of Ultra HD as “next-generation television,” and not just “4K.”

Make no mistake about it; Ultra HD will be in wide use very quickly as people begin to understand the benefits it brings to the table. The rapid decreases in retail prices brought along by slower TV sales and competition from the Chinese will only hasten this process.

Like Toyota says:

Like Toyota says: “Let’s Go Places!”

Now, the other trend: At CES, the UHD Alliance was announced. This is a consortium of TV manufacturers (Panasonic, Sony, Samsung), content producers (Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney, Netflix, and DirecTV), and technology companies (Dolby and Technicolor).

Each has substantial skin in the 4K game: The first three obviously want to sell more televisions, while the studios are looking for more outlets for digital content. And Dolby wants more companies to adopt its high dynamic range Dolby Vision technology, while Technicolor is a player in mastering and distribution.

All well and good, except that not all of the pieces of the 4K “puzzle” are in place yet. SMPTE is still debating, discussing, and moving to adopt a wide range of standards for UHD-1 (up to 3840×2160) and UHD-2 (4096×2160 and above) televisions that touch on data rates, interfaces, frame rates, and color spaces. Similar work is also happening at the ITU.

Without standards in place, anyone can write their own rules for authoring and distributing 4K movies and TV shows, and incompatibility becomes a problem. We don’t even have a 4K Blu-ray player yet – the standards for that format were just adopted and announced at CES, but we won’t see the players and discs until much later this year.

Right now, the most logical path for 4K content distribution is through digital downloads and streaming, although you’d need sustained 15 Mb/s data rates on your Internet connection to make that happen. But Netflix is streaming several shows in 4K. Comcast is getting ready to launch a 4K channel. Other providers such as M-Go and UltraFlix are also providing movies and TV shows via streaming service to Sony, Samsung, and Vizio Ultra HDTVs, plus Nanotech’s Nuvola media player.

Ultra HD also brings along a new version of copy protection, HDCP 2.0. It’s ever more rigorous than 1.4, because it wants to see a secure key exchange in about 20 milliseconds – or it shuts down. (The pro AV dealers and installers are going to LOVE that!) By extension, HDCP 2.0 is incompatible with older versions of HDCP. So that may create a problem for consumers who buy a new 4K TV.

I’ve often said that CES wouldn’t be complete with a raft of announcements about associations, alliances, and consortiums. They’re all well and good, but many are motivated simply to kick up sales of a particular technology or product. The UHD Alliance would be wise to move slowly as standards bodies complete their work so that Ultra HD will be a success. No reason to rush here!

Okay, you can restart the game clock…

CES 2015 In The Rearview Mirror

After all the PR hype and anticipation, the 2015 International CES has come and gone, leaving me to edit over 1500 photos and a bunch of videos and sift through stacks of press releases to see what was really significant about the show…and what was just fluff.

Before I drill down to make my top picks, I should point out some trends that have been building for a few years. We all know that the majority of our electronic gadgets (phones, tablets, home alarm systems, televisions, computers, cordless phones, and so on) are manufactured in China and Southeast Asia.

Still, the expanding CES footprint of Chinese brands (Haier, TCL, Hisense, Changhong, Konka, Skyworth) takes some getting used to. So does the shrinking footprint of former Japanese powerhouses like Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba. There is a profound shift in power happening in the CE world as the center of gravity moves farther away from Tokyo and Osaka past Seoul to Shenzen and Shanghai.

Another unmistakable trend is the decline in prices for a wide range of CE products. “Connected health” was a big deal at least year’s show, but is there really any news to be found in $60 Fitbits? Or $149 home security systems? Or $125 32-inch televisions?

Speaking of televisions, they are becoming less important in the overall scheme of things with each passing year. 4K Ultra HD was all the rage last year – this year, everyone had 4K televisions, and many models were equipped with quantum dot backlights for high dynamic range. Of course, there was no shortage of curved televisions in all sizes.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung's booth.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung’s booth.

 

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

 

The facts are these: Changhong and TCL can make a large, curved 4K LCD TV with high dynamic range just as easily as Sharp, Samsung, and Panasonic. In some cases, the LCD panels used in these TVs are all coming from the same factory.

Samsung made a big splash this year with their S UHD television line, but they’re using quantum dots just like anyone else. LG showed both quantum dots and their new M+ technology that adds white pixels to an LCD matrix to boost brightness. TCL is selling QD-equipped TVs in China and expects to launch them on these shores this year.

Perhaps surprisingly, LG decided to make a big push for OLED technology, unveiling five new Ultra HD models at the show. While the Chinese also showed OLEDs (as did Panasonic), LG appears to be “all in” with their white OLED technology, claiming manufacturing yields as high as 70%. Well, someone’s got to pick up the torch that plasma dropped in 2013.

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood - flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you're feeling warped!).

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood – flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you’re feeling warped!).

 

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

 

For many of these manufacturers, appliances and white goods are taking on a more important role in contributing to the bottom line. The margins are better on high-end refrigerators and washer-dryer sets for the likes of Samsung and LG, even though consumers don’t turn them over as often as televisions. For Panasonic, beauty products are an important income stream.

Cameras and camcorders are still holding their own against mobile phones, surprisingly. I entered the CES arena equipped with both a new Samsung Galaxy 5 phone and a Panasonic Lumix ZS40 camera. While the Galaxy 5 does take some great pictures under ideal conditions, it was no match for the 30:1 optical zoom lens (Leica glass) on the Lumix – the latter allowed me to shoot under, around, and over people to get the photos I needed.

Speaking of mobile phones and tablets, there wasn’t much news to be had at the show. LG showed its updated LG G-Flex 2 and Samsung had a crowd around its Galaxy family of phones and tablets, but there just wasn’t the “BYOD buzz” we’ve seen in previous years. The 5” to 5.5” screen size seems to be a sweet spot for phones now – 6-inch models were scarce in Vegas.

LG's G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5

LG’s G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5″ screen.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

 

Connecting all of this stuff together made for a more compelling story from my perspective, especially as far as wireless technology goes. I saw more demos of wireless video streaming, wireless appliance control, wireless security systems, and wireless display connectivity at CES than at previous shows.

The 802.11ac channel bonding protocol is becoming increasingly important for making this stuff work in the 5 GHz band. And the wide-open spaces at 60 GHz are starting to attract everyone’s attention – having 2 GHz channels to play with is a lot more appealing for making high bitrate connections than fighting the congestion at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

Display interfaces are getting fast – a lot faster – and relying on compression for the first time. And now we’re starting to see the boundaries blur between small, high-performance mobile display interfaces and full-sized versions, which leads me to wonder why we need so many versions of HDMI and DisplayPort in the first place.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing number of automobile manufacturers who set up shop in the North Hall every year. It reminds me of the New York Auto Show, with the likes of Hyundai, VW, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Audi showing off their latest high-tech “connected” automobiles that can do everything from mirror your smartphone’s display to recognize speech commands, navigate flawlessly, and even drive themselves.

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn't even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn’t even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way...)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way…)

 

And there were plenty of alternatives to gasoline-powered engines to seen, from BMW’s i3 electric car to Toshiba’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. All equipped with Bluetooth, 802.11, Sirius, and in some cases, user-customizable dashboard displays using flexible displays (important to survive vibration and G-forces).

Quite a bit to take in over three and a half days! What follows is my list (in no particular order) of significant products and trends I spotted in Vegas. Let’s see if they hold up as the year progresses:

High Dynamic Range – as usual, a hot new technology makes its appearance at the show and quickly becomes a buzzword. HDR Ultra HDTVs were shown by numerous manufacturers at CES; none more prominently as Samsung, who made HDR the centerpiece of their Monday press conference with their S UHD line. Virtually all of these TVs use quantum dot technology to boost image brightness and color saturation, and only one (LG) had an alternative path to HDR with M+ technology.

HDR is a key part of the transition to next-generation television. So are wider color spaces, high frame rates, and increasing resolution. Looks like everyone’s getting into the game, including the Chinese. Interestingly, I saw only one demo of Dolby’s HDR technology in the TCL booth (Vizio also has it), so it appears many homegrown solutions are in the works for HDR displays.

LG Display's 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

LG Display’s 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

 

OLEDS Are Back – at least as far as LG is concerned. Seven new Ultra HD OLED TVs were rolled out at CES with sizes ranging from 55 inches to 77 inches, and one of them can flex back and forth from flat to curved surface mode. A partnership with Harman-Kardon should ensure better audio quality than you hear from typical super-thin televisions. (There were even two models featuring bases made from Swarovski crystal!)

With the demise of plasma, videophiles are still looking for displays that can give them the magic combination of deep blacks, saturated colors, and wide viewing angles. Right now, OLEDs are the only game in town, but they’ve proven to be tricky to manufacture with acceptable yields. LG Display seems to have overcome that barrier with these models (which use IGZO TFTs for pixel switching, by the way) and it will be interesting to see the uptake as 2015 winds on.

Super MHL Is Here: The battle for fastest display interface shifts back and forth between Silicon Image and VESA. DisplayPort fired the first salvo with their introduction of version 1.3, raising the maximum data rate to 32 Gb/s and introducing Display Stream compression for the first time. Now, the MHL Consortium has fired back with Super MHL. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and in its first iteration, allowed transport of 1080p/60 video over the 5-pin micro USB connector found on smartphones and tablets.

But Super MHL is different – it is a full-sized connector with 32 pins and matches the data rate of DP 1.3. The CES demo showed a Samsung 8K display being driven through Super MHL. How would anyone fit this on a mobile device? Does it replace HDMI 2.0? (It’s a LOT faster and uses DS compression, too.) So many questions to be answered…

Wait - isn't MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Wait – isn’t MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Hmmm...apparently they did give MHL

Hmmm…apparently they did give MHL “the juice.”

 

Talk To Me: Conexant showed a demo of voice control for TV set-top boxes (change channels, bring up program guide, set DVR recordings) that was leap years ahead of their demo from 2013. This system works exceptionally well in noisy environments and can be used to control other devices, such as room lighting, thermostats, and security systems.

Conexant is looking to sell their technology as a system on chip (SoC) to a wide cross section of manufacturers. The trick had been reliable speech recognition in all kinds of high and low noise environments, something that doomed Samsung’s voice control TVs back in 2012. It appears they’ve finally pulled it off, but the focus has shifted away from TVs to set-top boxes this time around.

I’ll Be Watching You: The EyeTribe of Denmark showed an amazing eye tracking and control system at ShowStoppers that can operate tablets and phones and costs all of $99. Yep, you read that right! While Tobii’s impressive demos have focused on laptops and gaming systems, EyeTribe has gone after potentially the biggest market for eye tracking. How many times have you wished you could operate your mobile phone while your hands were full?

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It...)

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It…)

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! Available without a prescription.

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! (Available without a prescription.)

 

Faster Video For All: Giraffic had an intriguing demo of optimizing and speeding up video streaming rates over conventional TCP/IP networks. And it had nothing to do with adaptive bitrate streaming, using H.265 encoding, or AVB protocols. What Giraffic is doing is changing the nature and frequency of HTTP requests. This is the best way I can explain it: Imagine you just sat down with a big piece of chocolate cake and want to eat it as quickly as possible. If you take big bites, you’ll be chewing for a while and some pieces may get stuck in your throat.

But if you start with very small bites (like crumbs) and keep shoveling them in quickly, you’ll finish the cake just as fast – or perhaps faster – than the conventional way of eating. And that’s what Giraffic does – it keeps nibbling at the video stream to ensure continuous delivery, even with 4K content. The company claims they can achieve streaming throughput 200% to 300% faster than conventional video streaming, with no freeze-ups and annoying “buffering” warnings.

4K Blu-ray: Okay, we’ve been waiting for this for some time now. And 4K video streaming has already begun at Netflix and Amazon. But Ultra HD BD is finally out of the gate, although you won’t see it until the fourth quarter of this year. Streaming rates will be on the high side of 100 Mb/s with single and dual-layer discs available. (And yes, high dynamic range will be a part of the equation!) Panasonic showed their prototype of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player at the show. The question is; with all the enhancements coming to streaming, does optical disc matter anymore? Time will tell…

Here's Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

Here’s Panasonic’s prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

 

Now THERE'S an LCD shape you don't see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth...)

Now THERE’S an LCD shape you don’t see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth…)

Circular LCD Displays: This was a breakout year for oddball sizes of LCDs, particularly in the Sharp booth where automotive displays were shown. (LG Display also exhibited circular and curved LCD displays.) Given the drop in TV prices and Sharp’s ever-dwindling market share in TVs, the market for automotive and transportation displays may be a better bet, long-term. Especially given the company’s leadership in implementing IGZO TFTs, which are important for brighter displays with lower power consumption and higher pixel density.

USB Type-C Connectors: VESA had an excellent demo of this game-changing connector, which has a symmetrical design (no need to worry about which way you’ve plugged it in) and can multiplex DisplayPort 1.3 video with high-speed data. USB 3.1 Type-C is seen as the next generation of USB connectors for mobile and portable devices, and by itself, it can move serial data at 10 Gb/s.

SiBEAM Snap Wireless Connectivity: Silicon Image has revived the SiBEAM name (they bought the company in 2011) and implemented their 60 GHz wireless display connectivity into a close-proximity variant. You simply bring two Snap-equipped devices together (like a smartphone or tablet and a matching cradle), and voila – you’ve established a full bandwidth data and display connection that can run up to 12 Gb/s. Plus, the connector can be used for wireless charging.

SI is showing integrated Snap transmitter and receiver chips that would replace USB 2.0 or 3.0 connections. Clearly, they are also targeting USB interfaces that support DisplayPort 1.3 (see USB 3.1 Type-C) and trying to move away from physical display connections. (This was one argument against using MHL to connect to televisions.) But if they’re successful, what happens to MHL? And now that Super MHL has been shown, what happens to conventional HDMI? Stay tuned..

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

It's 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive....

It’s 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive….

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

 

Super-wide, high resolution desktop monitors: Seems like everybody had one of these at the show. HP, Dell, LG Display, Samsung, and others showed 27-inch widescreen displays with “5K” resolution (5120×2880 pixels). These monitors also support wider color gamuts and use 10-bit panels (a necessity, given all the 10-bit RGB images they’ll be asked to display). What’s surprising is how inexpensive these monitors are – HP’s Z27Q version will be available in March for just $1300.

Toshiba Glass: The jury’s still out on whether Google Glass is a hit or a bust (I’m leaning toward the latter). But Toshiba, who recently retrenched their television operations to Japan, is all-in with a line of enhanced glasses that employ a tiny projection module to show images on the lens surface. This has been tried before – Epson’s Moverio VR glasses have tiny QHD LCD panels embedded in them – and it remains to be seen if the public will buy into the idea. They do look stylish, though. (And there’s even a pair of safety goggles in the line.)

I’ll close out this report with a few passing thoughts. First, it’s impossible to miss the trends of mass-produced, cheap consumer electronics that are increasingly showing up at CES.  Next, there is hardly any new technology debuting at the show that multiple manufacturers have in short order (and that includes the Chinese).

Whereas voice recognition was big a few years ago, gesture control took its place the past couple of years. But now that Omek (bought by Intel) and PrimeSense (bought by Apple) are absent from the scene, voice recognition has come back. My new Galaxy 5 phone has Samsung voice on it and it works reasonably well. However, it appears that consumers just haven’t jumped on the gesture recognition bandwagon yet.

Remember 3D? I almost got all the way through this report without mentioning it. A few companies still showed it, such as LG, Toshiba, HP, Hisense, Changhong, Ultra D (digital signage), Panasonic, and some gaming companies. Likewise, Google TV was gone this year, replaced by Android TV in such places as the Sony booth. Aside from program guide searches, I’m not convinced that the average TV viewer needs a Google search engine or Android OS on their TV. But I could be wrong.

Cute little guy, isn't he? (Where's my fly swatter...)

Cute little guy, isn’t he? (Where’s my fly swatter…)

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

 

Remember drones? I almost managed to skip them as well. There were so many at the show, ranging from behemoths that idled in place overhead while we visited tables at Digital Experience to pocket-sized models with built-in cameras that could zip unobtrusively over a crowd under the control of your smartphone. (I’m waiting for the first pocket-sized EMP generators to appear next year – like electronic bug-zappers.)

Finally, after a day full of press conferences during which there was only about 30 minutes of actual, usable news, I’d like to see a temporary moratorium placed on the words “innovation,” “big data,” “stunning,” “cloud,” “ultra” anything, and in the Chinese booths, “happiness.”

The only thing stunning about Vegas is how expensive cab rides have become. True happiness can only be found at Big Daddy’s Barbecue outside the Central Hall (dee-lish!). “Big Data” should be the name of a blues band, or at least the harmonica player. (Maybe Big Data and The Cloud?)

And I’m sorry, but a floor-mounted pet camera and toothbrushes that sync up to video games are not “innovation.” Cute, yes, but no innovative. (Although the self-powered skateboard I saw that can run up to 16 miles might fall into that category…)

Digital In The Desert: The 2014 HPA Tech Retreat

I’m writing this while sitting in the third day of the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat, which is one of the top technology conferences anywhere and which attracted well over 500 attendees this year to the Hyatt Indian Wells Resort in the Palm Springs area.

I’ve been attending the Retreat since 2002, and it has grown by leaps and bounds since then. In addition to a rich, 3 ½ -day program of technical presentations, there is a mammoth demo room where manufacturers can show off the latest in video compression, camera, editing, post, color correction, storage, display, and interfacing products. Some products that are introduced at the NAB Show actually have their “sneak previews” here!

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

HPA president Leon Silverman kicks off the 2014 Retreat program.

Presenters and attendees come from all walks of life and from around the world. We’ve had representatives of U.S. Canadian, and British TV networks, IT companies like Cisco and Google, Hollywood studios (Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony Pictures), and well-known hardware and software manufacturers including Sony, Canon, Dolby, Adobe, Miranda, Belden, and NVIDIA. NHK, IBC, the EBU, SMPTE, and a host of domestic and international technology and professional associations are all well represented here.

The informal, ad hoc approach of the Tech Retreat contrasts with more structured and traditional technology conferences, and there are numerous opportunities for sidebar conversations, meeting, and networking. If you have a question about technology, there’s a very good chance someone at the Retreat has the answer.

There were several hot topics this year. UHDTV (4K) was one of them; so was the next-generation of file distribution and storage systems (clouds) and the move to IP-based facility interconnects instead of traditional copper serial digital interfaces.  This is a hot-button issue right now for post facilities and on Thursday morning, we heard about different ways to do it from Axon (AV Bridging), Evertz, Belden, and Cisco, along with the BBC. (Belden’s Steve Lampen pointed out in a humorous talk that coaxial cable is still faster than most people think and rumors of its demise are premature.)

A Tuesday panel focused exclusively on “second screen” trends and generational differences in how media is accessed and consumed – and how broadcasters and studios need to adapt their business models to satisfy the demand that Gen Ys have for anywhere & anytime content delivery. The “I want it when I want it, where I want it” paradigm was supported and contradicted by metrics from SAP, Nielsen, and (believe it or not) a representative from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Of course, the issue of video compression came up. A presentation on YouTube streaming proved a bit controversial when the presenters hinted that Google’s “free” VP9 codec might actually work as well if not better than the emerging HEVC H.265 platform, an assertion that was immediately challenged by Matt Goldman of Ericsson, an industry veteran who is well-versed in codec science and who later called for an independent, non-biased comparison test of both codecs.

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to

Over 500 attendees made their way to Indian Wells this year to “drink from the fire hose.”

I took the stage twice on Wednesday. First out of the gate was my annual review of the Consumer Electronics Show, which covers a lot of ground in 30 minutes including Ultra HD TVs, curved displays, curved phones, HDMI 2.0, DockPort, 4K streaming products, gesture control, wireless, body sensors, and near-to-eye displays. (Plus 4K washers and dryers, Bluetooth underwear, connected cars, and grumpy cats.)

I followed that with an in-depth look at the new generation of small, fast, and dense signal interfaces found on tablets, phones, cameras, and ultrabooks. Examples included Mini and Mobility DisplayPort, Mobile High-definition Link (MHL), Micro HDMI, SlimPort, and DockPort. I also discussed the HDBaseT standard for multiplexed signals over structured wire,  and showed a few interesting applications for these connections including smartphone game controllers and smartphones that dock into notebook computers and provide CPU and video card functions.

Another unique feature of the Tech Retreat is the breakfast roundtables. These are held on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings before the main program kicks off. Banquet roundtables are set up with a number that corresponds to a list of topics outside the room. Show up, grab some breakfast, and enjoy an ad hoc, moderated discussion about that topic – or change the topic.

The scope of topics will amaze you. Here are a few examples of the 34 breakfast roundtables that were conducted on Thursday:

On-Set Workflows: Faster, Better, Cheaper  

4K = Four Times the Measurement Opportunities

Next-Generation Display Interfaces: the Conversation Continues

Cloud-Enabled Workflows: What Works, What Doesn’t

Should ITU-R Add 119.88 (Hz) as a Frame Rate to BT.2020?

Performance and System Requirements for a Reference Display

Deep Color Encoding: 12-bit Equivalent with Just 8 Bits

Conference organizer and industry veteran Mark Schubin likens the Tech Retreat to “drinking from a fire hose.” That’s how much information is available to attendees. You can absorb as much or as little as you want, and see some cool demos along the way.

There’s still a day left of the conference, but I’m writing this during the “Better Pixels: Best Bang for the Buck?” session, featuring speakers from Dolby, ETC, NHK, and the American Society of Cinematographers, along with Schubin. The question is this – do we really need more pixels on the screen (i.e. 4K or Ultra HD), or is a combination of high dynamic range and wider color gamuts a better approach to improving high-resolution displays and ultimately televisions?

Dolby, which bought Brightside Technologies’ high-dynamic range IP some years ago, is aggressively pushing for high dynamic range and the higher color saturation that comes along with it. Their argument is that HDR is a better fit to human visual systems, and a discussion has repeatedly come up about the interest of consumers in HDR TVs. (They’re talking about thousands of nits of brightness.)

I’d posit that the real challenge to selling HDR is the plummeting cost of large TVs. You can readily buy 55-inch LCD TVs with quite a few bells and whistles for less than $600, so just how much of a premium are consumers willing to pay to add high dynamic range? (Needless to say, such TVs would also be equipped with next-generation illumination systems, like quantum dots.)

My guess is that consumers would only tolerate a slight price increase to get HDR, as the benefit would be lost on most of them. Numerous studies have shown that consumers (at least, in the U.S.) prefer big, cheap televisions. They don’t care about 3D, and are ambivalent about “smart” TV functions for the most part. Both of these features have either become standard or seen a dramatic drop in price in the past four years.

If the Tech Retreat sounds intriguing, you should pencil it in on your calendar. Next year’s Retreat will be held from February 9 to February 13, and registration closes out very quickly – within a couple of weeks. For more information, go to http://hollywoodpostalliance.org/?page_id=5978.

NAB 2012: The Show It Is A-Changin’…

This was my 17th trip to Las Vegas to see what once was one of the world’s largest trade shows. Back in 1995, NAB was clearly focused on broadcasting, mostly the digital kind. The ATSC Grand Alliance had a major presence back in ’95 as the United States began its tentative steps towards an all-digital broadcasting system, and there was no question that terrestrial (over-the-air) television was the king of the hill.

 

Today, that’s all changed. The digital transition has come and gone. Cable TV has supplanted traditional broadcasting on the throne, with Internet-delivered ‘over the top’ video sitting next in line. Broadcasters are under fire from (of all people) the FCC, who wants to take back more UHF TV spectrum to solve a mostly imaginary wireless broadband crisis.

Canon's enormous booth was at the center of all the Central Hall action.

 

Gone for the most part are the NAB ‘megabooths’ once erected and staffed by Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Ikegami, Hitachi, and Toshiba. Back in 1995, Sony had exhibits both in the Las Vegas Convention Center and Bally’s Hotel and a multi-million dollar budget to support them. Most of these companies have more modest representation these days as the center of gravity in the electronics world shifts to Korea and China.

 

The profound influence of the consumer electronics world can clearly be seen as you walk the aisles at NAB. Smaller, compact, and higher-resolution camcorders have replaced the $50,000 – $100,000 behemoths of 17 years ago. iPads abound, both in individual booths and attendees’ backpacks. Videotape recorders (VTRs) have all but vanished, replaced by solid-state media recorders and ultraportable hard drives.

 

The south hall of the Las Vegas Convention center, which didn’t exist except on a blueprint in 1995, now dominates the action at the show. Hundreds of small, ‘who dat?’ companies are set up in small stands and hawk their storage area network products, cloud workflows, MPEG encoders, fiber optic connectivity systems, and umpteen-million Mac-based edit, color correction, and audio mixing products.

For some odd reason, RED's 4K LCoS projector was behind wired, breakproof glass.

 

The old names are still there, though. Some have even beefed up their presence, like Canon. Panasonic once occupied the entire mezzanine level of the central hall, but has ceded half that space to other companies. Sony still occupies a big chunk of the rear central; hall, but is also slowly retrenching over time.

 

Here’s why: Back in the middle of the ‘90s, the typical broadcast/production camcorder shot standard definition to tape and cost anywhere from $10K to $50K, depending on bells and whistles. A good reference CRT video monitor would set you back at least $25,000, and tripods, fluid heads, gyroscopic mounts, robotic platforms, and teleprompter heads were all priced accordingly.

 

Today? I have a Nikon CoolPix 8200 that can shoot 1080p/30 movies, 16 megapixel stills, offers multi-zone focus and image stabilization, comes with a 10x optical zoom lens, and records everything to a 32 GB flash drive. The price? All of $220.

Yes, Black Magic Design is in the camera business now. What's next - an Ikegami MPEG4 encoder?

 

And there you have it. Products that once cost in the tens of thousands of dollars now are available with far greater performance for hundreds of dollars, or at least a couple thousand. Want to buy a 4K JVC camera? It will set you back about $5,000. How about a reference plasma monitor? Try $4,000.

 

You can do teleprompting on an iPad now, and pick up a remote-controlled helicopter rig for your Canon digital SLR (which also shoots 1080p video) for about $500 – $700. Or grab a compact cinema camera with 13 steps of dynamic range and 2.5K image resolution for $3,000.

 

Of course, most of this stuff is available on the Internet. There barely was an Internet back in 1995 (remember the dial-up days?), and you had to go to a dealer to buy any of this gear. B&H wasn’t the national powerhouse it is now (yes, they had a big, long booth at NAB, right behind Sony) and production companies often had to take out loans to get the newest, latest goodies.

 

Nowadays, your gear can pay for itself in a few productions. And the barriers to creating and distributing content have largely disappeared, limited only by the speed of Internet connections. ‘Content management’ was a popular expression this year, as was ‘cross-platform delivery.’ Conventional TV broadcasting is still around and trying to re-invent itself, but there are clearly many ways to package and deliver video content that don’t involve traditional media distribution.

Yes, you can actually edit 4K content on the go now. But first, you've gotta go out and shoot it...

 

Will NAB survive? Sure, because it has a sweet spot on the trade show calendar and has successfully changed with the times. Those incredible shrinking booths have been replaced by the likes of Ericsson, Avid, Black Magic, Grass Valley, Harris, Evertz, Ross Video, and a host of other manufacturers whose offerings are platform-agnostic. (Can’t say that about the TV and radio transmitter folks, though…)

 

After wandering the floors for three days and delivering a presentation on the management and distribution of HDMI signals (wait – you can actually manage HDMI?) at the Broadcast Engineering Conference, I managed to find a few interesting products here and there. To the list!

3D TV at home is a piece of cake! That is, as long as you have a broadband connection, and a TV antenna...

 

RED, the makers of those cool video production cameras, apparently had some extra time and money on their hands and decided to roll out a laser-powered digital cinema projector. The design is based on a 4K LCoS light engine developed by HDI (High Definition Integration) back in 2009. Apparently RED acquired the company a year or so ago, and now wants to get into the projection space. No brightness specification was given, but the signage indicated it could light up a 15’ screen and would retail for less than $10,000. The demo showed some promise, but there are lots of things that still need attention (high black levels, low contrast, color accuracy, etc).

 

It sems Black Magic Design has gotten bored with developing interface boxes. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for their new digital cinema camera, which offers 13 stops of dynamic range, a 2.5K pixel sensor, SSD recording, and support for EF lenses. It’s also compatible with the Thunderbolt display/data interface, and the suggested retail price is $3,000. Quite a crowd gathered around this demo!

Be careful where you walk when wearing Epson's MOVERIO AR glasses!

 

You had to crawl all the way to the back of the south hall lower to find them, but Epson made the trip worthwhile with a demonstration of their Moverio augmented realty (AR) eyewear. These glasses contain two small full-color LCD panels in the middle of semi-transparent goggles, allowing you to see normally and watch projected images at the same time. (Kind of a ‘Watchman’ effect.) I’ll be curious to see if these take off, given the adverse physiological reactions that have occurred with earlier attempts at AR (Google Sony’s Glasstron spectacles).

 

Tired of running heavy-duty HD-SDI cables to your otherwise-lightweight 1080p camcorder? Amimon showed a better way to hook up with their demo of a wireless 5.8 GHz HD-SDI transmission system, based on their clever wireless HDMI chipsets. The latter can already move 1080p/60 video and multi-channel audio over a 40 MHz bandwidth, so adapting it to 3G HD-SDI was a piece of cake. Their tests in the South Hall pushed a signal out to at least 300 feet before dropout.

 

Around the corner, Intel made up for their lack of Thunderbolt products at CES by unveiling a suite of Thunderbolt connectivity ‘solutions,’ including a 4K mobile editing package that used a Lenovo notebook PC, a pair of Samsung and Apple LCD monitors, two compact Promise four-bay RAID drives, and an AJA iOXT interface box that breaks out USB, HD-SDI, and HDMI ports.

 

Other companies featured in the Thunderbolt ‘goodies’ showcase included Black Magic Design (UltraStudio video I/O box, Thunderbolt to bi-directional HD-SDI and HDMI), MOTU (analog and digital video recorder with Thunderbolt interface), LaCie (compact portable hard drives), Rocstor (KROC 2M desktop RAID storage with Thunderbolt), Seagate (GoFlex portable Thunderbolt adapter), and Sumimoto (optical fiber Thunderbolt cables). Think Thunderbolt is catching on? (Duhhhh!)

Cables? We don't need no stinking HD-SDI cables!

 

Samsung KBS figured out a clever way to transmit 3D content over ATSC digital TV channels: Send the left eye images as usual, and transmit the right eye images over a standard broadband connection, encoded as MPEG4. All that’s needed is a constant data rate of 6 Mb/s to make it work, something that may be a piece of cake in Asia but is still uncertain even with normal broadband connections on this side of the pond. But the concept does work nicely.

 

Panasonic has swallowed up Sanyo and their enormous projector line (now, that will give anyone indigestion), but their big news at the show – besides a 4k camera system – was a 20,000 lumens projector that weighs all of 95 pounds. By way of comparison, my old Sony 7” CRT projector could barely crank out 200 lumens and tipped the scales at 140 pounds. The PT-DZ21K uses a three-chip DLP engine and its native resolution is 1920×1200 pixels (WUXGA).

 

Around the corner, Canon showed its REALiS WUX5000 5000-lumens LCoS projector. This is the brightest Canon projector yet and offers WUXGA (1920×1200) resolution. No 4K version is in the immediate future, but just around the corner, Canon showed a prototype 4K 30-inch LCD monitor using IPS technology. It certainly had lots of image detail, but needed some help with black levels. Given the company’s strong commitment to full-frame CMOS video sensors and 4K cameras, neither product was surprising.

Believe it or not, he's actually 'popping' a virtual balloon. (Seriously!)

 

It wasn’t a shipping product, but the National Institute of Communications and Technology (NICT) in Japan showed a prototype 200-inch autostereo rear-projection display. This demonstration used 200 individual JVC D-ILA projection engines, each with full 2K resolution, to light up 200 different 2K resolution views in narrow vertical bands. A special Fresnel lens integrated the views and the barrier crossings weren’t as apparent as I would have expected.

 

Next door was a demonstration by NICT of a ‘virtual’ balloon to show the possibilities of haptic (touchscreen) technology. Using a special stylus, you tapped an image of a balloon to enlarge it, and then stroked the balloon to make it squeak and feel the rubbery texture through the stylus. You could even pop the balloon and smell a perfume contained inside. Way cool!

 

ATTO was one of many companies supporting the Thunderbolt interface with SAS/SATA RAID drives, not to mention Fibre Channel and 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections. Their Desklink products are compact and provide plenty of storage capacity. The company’s ThunderStream interface can even supported embedded storage.

 

Adtec rolled out a few new MPEG encoders. The EN-91P is a 1080p AVC (H.264 MPEG4) encoder that can be used for 3D and has an optical fiber input, while the EN-20 is a dual-input MPEG2 encoder with Dolby AC3 encode, DD5.1 passthrough, ASI output, and an up-converted QAM output for RF-modulated transmission systems.

3D Glasses? We don't need no stinkin' 3D glasses!

 

Dolby showed an autostereo 3D LCD monitor that uses lenticular parallax barrier and was developed jointly with Philips. This monitor was used to show clips from Hugo and the 3D effect was clearly visible, although not as intense for off-axis viewers and not as punchy as active shutter or even passive shutter 3D. No word on pricing or delivery.

 

JVC’s 4K camcorder ($5,500) may be one of the best deals out there. The GY-HMQ10 uses a ½-inch CMOS sensor with 8.3 million pixels (3840×2160) at 24, 50, or 60 frames per second. It comes with a 10x zoom lens and optical image stabilization.  Believe it or not, the GY-HMQ10 comes with four HDMI output terminals, which can also be used to drive four discrete monitors at 1920x1080p resolution.

 

Last but not least, goHDR demonstrated high dynamic range video on a SIM2 HDR47E LCD monitor, similarly equipped for HDR signals. (The technology is owned and licensed by Dolby Labs.) goHDR is a spin-off of the University of Warwick in England and has produced a few HDR short films using a camera manufactured by SpheronVR, a competitor to ARRI who is also shipping HDR cameras.

Panasonic's PT-DZ21K projector is so bright, you can light a match just by holding it in front of the lens. (I'm KIDDING!)

 

High dynamic range video, also demonstrated by Dolby with its PRM4200 42-inch reference monitor, is quite something to see after watching garden-variety BT.709 video on a steady basis. The range of tonal values from deep black to pure white approaches what we see in everyday life, particularly in deep shadows where detail usually vanishes on a video screen.

 

It’s not practical yet to broadcast HDR – the data rates would require enormous bandwidth – but you may soon see it in movie theaters, along with high frame rate (48 Hz and up) content. Eventually, there will be a way to get it into the home, assuming HDR technology gains any traction in a world that seems otherwise obsessed with watching video on laptops, iPads, and even phones.

 

Hmmm….a high dynamic range iPad. Now, there’s a concept! Listening, Apple?