As the International Space Station Beamed a 4K Image, Broadcasters Focused on the Future

Sam Blackman_two Astronauts - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Robb Cohen Photography and Video

At this week's NAB Show in Las Vegas, the conversation centered on the latest advances that are helping both film and broadcasting images become brighter, more detailed and ever-more lifelike. Attendees were treated to the first-ever live public 4K stream from the International Space Station, beamed down from 250 miles above sea level over the Pacific Ocean — a far-from-trivial undertaking by the NAB, NASA and Amazon Web Services and its AWS Elemental technology unit. And panelists discussed the newest developments in 4K resolution, high dynamic range (HDR) and high frame rates (HFR), debating how they can be successfully used in films and TV broadcasts in ways that can excite audiences.

While the first motion pictures to use high frame rates — the Hobbit trilogy and most recently Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — divided many audiences, the topic hasn't gone away. Speaking during a session about the next generation of television, Twentieth Century Fox CTO Hanno Basse said, “HFR is probably going to be a very important factor, though I think it will take time for the creatives to get their arms around the new tools." In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Bill Feightner, CTO of imaging technology developer Colorfront (and co-founder of Efilm), echoed, “Once we get past this polarization and look at the art, I think people will see how we can use these tools creatively."

As the technology for features, TV, virtual reality and other personal display devices continue to evolve, both men believe the future of entertainment will involve the use of variable frame rates — meaning the creative use of different frame rates based on the intent of a given shot or scene. "There are a lot of benefits to going to a higher frame rate," said Fox's Basse. "For instance, we are currently limited to how fast a camera can pan because of the frame rates. ... We have to combine the creative and the technical elements."

Perhaps most noteworthy, James Cameron and Jon Landau have expressed interest in the potential of variable frame rates as they move toward production of the Avatar sequels. Speaking with THR prior to the start of the NAB Show, Landau confirmed continued interest in variable frame rates as a creative tool, alongside advanced imaging capabilities such as HDR, which offers a wider range between the blackest blacks and whitest whites. On HFR, he commented that while Cameron and his team are still working out plans for the sequels, he "would not be surprised" if they involved HFR.

"The way I view HFR is that it’s a presentation format," said Landau. "You can pick the moments where HFR benefit you. I'm optimistic about not just HFR, but HDR. To see a movie in HDR is a whole different experience."

At the NAB Show, Hollywood's technical community seemed generally in step with a desire to create HDR content for both cinema and home entertainment. Formats such as Dolby Vision are already starting to be implemented, and HDR is currently getting more concrete attention from Hollywood than either HFR or 4K resolution.

On the broadcasting side of the equation, both NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith and FCC chairman Ajit Pai touted the benefits of the proposed "Next Gen TV" transmission standard, also known as ATSC 3.0 in their keynotes. ATSC 3.0 is a voluntary standard, which bridges broadcast and broadband, and may include advanced imaging characteristics such as HDRHFR and 4K, in addition to features such as emergency warnings and mobility.

The week's high-profile example of the potential of "Next-Gen" broadcasting was the Space Station live-stream demonstration. What looked like a mini-version of Mission Nontrol was installed at the Las Vegas Convention Center, working in conjunction with Johnson Space Center in Houston and the NASA TV hub in Atlanta.

The live stream featured a conversation between NASA astronaut and ISS commander Dr. Peggy Whitson and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, both on board the station, who spoke with Sam Blackman, CEO and co-founder of tech firm Elemental, which provides encoding technology on the ISS and at Johnson Space Center and which collaborated with NASA to deliver the live stream.

Moving forward, NASA will use this technology for experiments and diagnostics, as well as to give the public a better look at its work, according to Rodney Grubbs, NASA Imagery Experts Program manager and chair of the NASA Digital Television Working Group.

Added Dylan Mathis, ISS communications manager at Johnson Space Center: “As we go into deep space [and towards Mars missions], our link to Earth will get smaller. New compression technology [like that which was used for the live stream] will address this issue."

Said Blackman, "When you can demonstrate that you can deliver a pristine 4K image from the ISS, it shows that the hurdles [on the ground] are self-imposed. The technology is ready and the workflow is there. We need to make the economics favorable enough to move forward."

Indeed, perhaps the biggest take-away from the NAB Show is that while there's much cutting-edge technology and innovation on the horizon, it will fall on stakeholders, including those in Hollywood, to decide what consumers want and how to create workable business models to deliver it to them.

There is a lot of experimentation right now and very little standardization. Among the most immediate challenges facing Hollywood studios is the ever-growing number of versions of their content that will be needed for cinemas, TV and personal devices. As Ben Ritterbush, Fox's director of domestic digital cinema distribution, summed up during one NAB Show panel: "The sheer number of versions that you need to create are difficult to manage. [Digital] has overcomplicated everything."