Forget HDTV, Because Ultra-HDTV Is On the Horizon

Flat screen TV

As broadcasters debate how to transition to the newest technology, James Cameron insists 3D "is more important the long run."

Television fans who just bought a new High Def TV, brace yourselves. Ultra-High Definition Television – with up to 16 times the picture information of today’s HDTV – is on the horizon.

But while UHDTV is picking up interest among the world’s broadcasters, there is still plenty of debate about how to make a potential transition, how it will impact digital cinema, and whether 8K could come to rival 3D--an idea that 3D proponent James Cameron rejects.

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Those topics were all debated at the International Broadcasting Convention, which wrapped up in Amsterdam on Sept. 11,  just a few short weeks after the International Telecommunication Union agreed on two levels of UHDTV, officially setting a worldwide standard.

“We’ve seen a shift this week. There are [more broadcasters] that think this is just around the corner,” Sony Europe head of AV media Olivier Bovis said.

In fact, at IBC, Sky Deutschland CEO Brian Sullivan announced support for UHDTV and revealed that his company is already working on an Ultra-HD project in Germany.

So what exactly is Ultra-HD? The two levels of Ultra-HD, as agreed upon, are not resolution-specific. But, effectively, the first level could be viewed as one that supports 4K, the resolution-level that digital cinema is currently moving towards. The second, higher level 2 is the equivalent of 8K resolution, which is 16 times greater than today’s HD.

Broadcasting level one would be easier than level two because the required bit rate is much lower.  Additionally, 4K production technology is becoming readily available. IBC showcased a growing number of 4K cameras, monitors and video cards—as well as consumer displays. Sony showed a test of 4K live transmission via satellite, demonstrating that this capability is an achievable technical goal.

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Of course, change of this size comes with many hurdles, including getting the economics in place and meeting consumer demand. Some parts of the world have not yet completed a transition to HD. So a potential change will not take place overnight, although activity is starting.

European Broadcast Union technical deputy director David Wood, who chairs the ITU committee that created the recommended UHDTV spec, told The Hollywood Reporter that many broadcasters view the move from HD to 8K as too great a leap and think it is prudent to start with 4K. He added that Korea plans to begin test broadcasts of level one next year.

Most of the attention to the 8K version of UHDTV is coming from Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which is developing a level two-ready 8K UHDTV system called Super Hi-Vision.

NHK, BBC and Olympic Broadcast Services teamed up for a test and demonstration of Super Hi-Vision during the recent London Olympics. At IBC, NHK showed dazzling 8K clips of the Opening Ceremony on an 85-inch 8K LCD prototype display from Sharp. Panasonic is also coming to the table with development of a 145-inch 8K plasma display.

This week, NHK’s research arm received IBC’s highest honor, the International Honor for Excellence. Accepting the award, NHK president Masayuki Matsumoto cited the realism of the 8K coverage of Usain Bolt’s gold medal-winning 100m race, saying,  “You would have thought the world’s fastest man was going to run right into you.” 

NHK intends to start test broadcasts of Super Hi-Vision in Japan by 2020. But NHK Research senior manager Masakazu Iwaki told THR, “We have confidence that we will move faster.”

He added that NHK’s plans to go directly to 8K involves economic considerations. “We don't have the budget” to transition to 4K, and then again to 8K,  he said.

Iwaki said the broadcaster is considering future events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup for additional testing. (Sony and Brazilian television broadcaster TV Globo have already tested 4K by lensing Rio’s Carnival in the format; Brazil will be site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and Rio is the host city of the 2016 Olympic Games).

There has been some discussion about how 8K might naturally create a 3D look, which would free TV viewers from having to don special glasses. “UHDTV has the wind in its sails, and 3D seems to be stuck in the harbor,” industry vet and consultant Patrick von Sychowski said of what he is hearing in the community. “Going against (UHDTV) is that most living rooms aren’t big enough for an 85-inch TV.”

“You are not comparing apples with apples,” said Cameron, a major 3D proponent. He made a stop at IBC with Vince Pace, his co-chair in 3D venue Cameron | Pace Group, and said, “3D is more important [than UHDTV] in the long run. The resolution will always improve, but getting the production paradigm down to how you shoot 3D at the source is critical.”

Turning to the potential impact on theatrical exhibition, some pointed out that Ultra HD’s 8K resolution—along with support for high frame rates up to 120 frames per second—could put pressure on digital cinemas to up the ante.

“Cinema has always been challenged by competition in the home,” Cameron said. “We’ve got to push for higher resolution and higher frame rate standards. The only reason I have been hesitant in the past is that there was a bandwidth bottleneck for a while and I wanted stereo first. Now that stereo is entrenched, we are talking about improved resolution in 3D.”

But of the nascent 3D broadcast market, he said, “I am a little concerned about the bandwidth bottleneck—especially when broadcasters are fighting for bit rates against mobile. I wouldn’t want to see the emergence of 3D slowed down by higher resolution.”

David Monk, CEO of the European Digital Cinema Forum, said 8K doesn’t make economic sense for cinema. “In theaters, to appreciate that value, you would have to have gigantic screens and not so many seats,” he explained. “That is not a good economic proposition.”

But one insider told THR: “Cinema has to step up and keep pace. Large screens and high frame rates (HFRs) is where theater is going.” Underscoring that message, there have been rumblings that several Hollywood directors are looking at supporting HFRs in future productions.