Ultra HD at CES: 'The Chicken and Egg Have Left the Barn'

LAS VEGAS -- This week at the International CES, there’s been plenty of comments that the “Ultra HD train has left the station,” while others warn there’s still a “chicken and egg” dilemma and success is dependent on the right combination of factors including set penetration, a delivery infrastructure and available content.

But speaking on one of several panels produced by the International 3D and Advanced Imaging Society, Stephan Heimbecher, head of innovation and standards at Sky Deutschland, got a big laugh when he summed up, “The chicken and egg have left the barn.”

Sky Deutschland jumped in early to start testing 4K broadcasting. “We back where HD was in its early days,” he said, noting that work is well underway though challenges still remain. And the difference from the HD transition is that this time, with the Internet, “everything seems like its transparent and everyone is watching us along the way.”

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“The success of 4K is going to be dependent on how successful we are in delivering the highest quality to consumers,” said Henry Derovanessian, senior vp of engineering at DirecTV. “There are different delivery paths, and there’s difference in quality. The bandwidth is not there to support all of it. ... We have fat pipes; we can deliver to home."

Sam Blackman, CEO of video processing software provider Elemental Technologies, acknowledged that it's a significant challenge” but predicted that “we’ll see HEVC (a 4K-supported compression scheme) very widespread in the next couple quarters.

“Elemental and other vendors have done some demos of 4K live events,” he said. “But what is happening behind the scenes is that hardware is transitioning to software, and so if 4K or high dynamic range is a requirement, service providers will be able to evolve to do that and they don't have to swap out their infrastructure like they used to. That’s a significant shift and a completely different paradigm than we have had in the past.”

3net CEO Tom Cosgrove addressed content creation, saying that “4K production gear is getting cheaper and smaller. Postproduction will take a little while to get there because there’s so much data.”

Grant Anderson, executive director at Sony's 3D Technology Center, pointed out that data is an issue not just in production but throughout the chain. "People are already drowning in data," he warned. "Not just the studio content but from user generated content. The workflow needs to be worked out to deal with these huge data streams."

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On the consumer side of the equation, Samsung senior marketing manager Dan Schinasi reported that Samsung is making “a significant investment in retail” to help educate consumers. "There will be Ultra HD demonstrations in every major retailer. There will also be web materials. And CES is doing a great job of drive buyers to see the new technology," he said.

He added that to generate interest at this early stage, “One advantage is that many displays can upscale HD to 4K and look very good, though the aspiration is pristine 4K. That’s ultimately where we want to go.”

But Peter Lude, past president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, warned that these sorts of options are creating consumer confusion. "People will see Ultra HD, but vastly differently quality. If the quality isn't there, that will turn consumers off," he said.

Meanwhile Phil McKinney, president of CableLabs, revealed that his company is already working on 8K -- another flavor of Ultra HD with a whopping 16 times the resolution of today’s HD-- in its infrastructure plans. Japanese public broadcaster NHK intends to begin test 8K broadcasting by the 2016 Rio Olympics, and McKinney said, “We’ll be getting ready for broad availability of 8K in Japan.”

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA