By Thierry Fautier, Vice President of Video Strategy at Harmonic
At CES 2015, the message was loud and clear: Todayâ€™s television viewers demand a high-quality entertainment experience. Ultra HD (UHD) was one of the most prominent topics at the show, and for good reason. In late 2014, there were several UHD services deployed around the world, with UltraFlix and Amazon currently offering OTT UHD content on connected TVs, DirecTV launching a VOD streaming app exclusively for consumers with Samsung 4K UHD TVs, and Comcast providing UHD VOD streaming to customers with Samsung 4K UHD TVs, including premium content from NBC.
From a consumer device standpoint, the industry is ready for UHD, as weâ€™ve seen several TVs are capable of decoding UHD, with set-top boxes (STBs) expected to arrive in the second half of 2015. The grey area is lack of technology specifications and an underdeveloped end-to-end ecosystem for delivering UHD services.
A key challenge the industry faces with regards to UHD is the fact that there is no single specification for HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology. HDR describes any video format that supports much brighter signal values than â€œordinaryâ€ high definition does today. HDR improves the contrast, creating a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks. Ultimately, UHD content that is produced with HDR technology is sharper; therefore, it is attracting the attention of content creators, such as Warner Bros. and Netflix, both of whom have announced plans to release UHD content leveraging HDR technology.
The problem is there is no HDR standard, and there are currently five different groups working on this:
- The ITU is collaborating with Dolby, the BBC, Philips, and Technicolor.
- The EBU and DVB are working on recommendations for the use of HDR mainly for live broadcast applications, with the goal of finalizing a specification in 2015.
- SMPTE has defined the parameters required for the production of HDR content. The spec, known as â€œST 2036 for HDR EOTF and ST 2086 for Metadataâ€ has already been ratified.
- MPEG is defining what needs to be added to the existing HEVC standard to support various forms of HDR, with results expected in June 2015.
- In addition, Blu-ray is finalizing an HDR specification, in coordination with MPEG and SMPTE, based on a single layer, with hopes to be ready by Christmas 2015.
The Ultra HD Alliance was formed to unify these efforts. It is composed of companies from the Hollywood content creation sector, the world of TV, and pay-TV operators (i.e., Netflix and DirecTV), as well as technology companies (i.e., Dolby and Technicolor). The Ultra HD Alliance aims to come up with a single HDR specification and standard quality measurement for UHD TVs. In this regard, Netflix plans to launch a certification of the quality of streaming for HDR, starting with HD and eventually being extended to UHD.
This leads us to the issue of providing operators with an end-to-end video production and delivery chain for UHD services, for both live and VOD content. Harmonic along with a group of 40 other companies, have proposed to create an Ultra HD Forum that would take care of defining the ecosystem, covering all aspects of UHD production and delivery, including OTT, QoS, push VOD, nVOD, adaptive streaming, live, and on-demand. After various meetings that took place at CES, discussions are ongoing to ensure that the two groups work closely together.
Ultra HD is a technology that will revolutionize the world of video. The specifications are evolving but are not too far from being finalized. Between the work being done by the Ultra HD Alliance and Ultra HD Forum, the industry should be ready for UHD interoperability testing for the Rio Olympics in 2016 and nonlinear UHD services, delivered either OTT or on Blu-ray disc, with HDR and wide color gamut technologies in 2015.