Transitioning towards the future of UHD

Steve Plunkett

Steve Plunkett

Ericsson’s CTO, broadcast and media services, Steve Plunkett, discusses 4K, High Dynamic Range and the future of Ultra High Definition TV.

This is an exciting period for the TV and media industry, particularly for the development of picture standards. Consumer demand for consumption of high-quality content has continually helped to drive major enhancements in image resolution, revealed in the transition from standard definition (SD) to high definition (HD) and now, to Ultra High Definition (UHD).

The role of High Dynamic Range (HDR) and High Frame Rate will also play a fundamental role in the next stage of innovation. When combined with suitable content, on a good quality screen, they deliver dramatic increases in picture quality. Many have argued the benefits of HDR outweigh that of 4K UHD – but together, they certainly offer a substantial improvement over HD. Yet history shows the process of migration will pose further challenges ahead.   

It took at least five years for HD content to emerge on major platforms such as Sky, affordable HD TVs to appear in the shops and for clear consumer interest in the format to be registered. The first wave of UHD TVs has been rapid in that regard – they are becoming increasingly standardised and affordable. However, content on broadcast networks is sparse and OTT UHD delivery, at about 25Mpbs per stream, is not a feasible option for many.

Standards for UHD-1 are largely established but to encompass 4K, HDR, Wide Colour Gamut (WCG) and immersive audio, we must now go through a similar (but more complex) learning curve to the migration of SD to HD to truly exploit the benefits of next generation UHD.

For instance, the use of High Frame Rate is content dependent and its benefits in quality (when compared to 4K UHD) are subjective. High motion content such as sport can really benefit from high frame rates to reduce motion blur; when you make side by side comparisons of the same content shot and displayed at 25, 50 and 100FPS, it makes the lower frame rate material look considerably inferior. However, for other content types the benefits are less pronounced and may invoke negative viewer sentiment because it looks too sharp and less cinematic.

Many content owners are now reaching their audiences through IP-based streaming to avoid the significant investments that accompany terrestrial distribution. Streaming makes a lot of sense both in the short and long term, certainly until the economics of broadcast distribution become desirable and audience numbers reach a satisfactory level.

But the big streaming players – such as Amazon and Netflix – are putting pressure on the rest of the industry to invest heavily in compelling content. They have positioned themselves as important sources of new and original content of the highest quality, both artistically and technically, while their audience sizes and commissioning budgets are the envy of many well-established broadcasters.

While it is not a zero sum game – we are seeing increasing partnership between new entrants and respected content producers of old in making great shows – traditional broadcasters are now playing catch up, perhaps because of their experiences with 3DTV. Whether this delayed start will prove sensible or a major setback will become apparent over the next few years.

Yet if we draw parallels between the successful migration of SD to HD, the ultimate judge will be the consumer, and their need for more distinctive and differentiated user experiences. If our industry can deliver substantial UHD content libraries, enable ubiquitous availability of 5G, and evolve DVB networks to provide adequate coverage and capacity, we will have the necessary tools to deliver the ultimate picture quality to the consumer of the future.

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