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4K UHD Update - April 2014

This blog provides an update on several aspects of the 4K Ultra-HD technology and what's new for 4K/UHD video sources.

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Blu-ray 4K/UHD -

A recent presentation at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual show was on the subject "Blu-ray Disc Evolution".  This was presented by representative from Sony Creative Software and included a brief discussion on the future evolution of  the Blu-ray Disc to support 4K/UHD video. The most recent "official" statement from a representative of the Blu-ray Disc Association (the BDA controls the Blu-ray Disc standard) was made early in 2014, where it was stated that the timetable was to complete the standard for Blu-ray Disc 4K/UHD (I'll refer to this as BD-UHD) in late 2014 and it was said there should also be the first players and movies in that same timeframe.  However, the Sony presenter said that unofficially it looked likely that the roll-out for BD-UHD discs and players will be for the holiday shopping season next year (i.e., 2015).  He indicated that most likely BD-UHD will use 3-layer discs with a capacity to store approx. 100 GB of data (3 layers with 33 GB per layer), or twice what is possible with today's Blu-ray discs (2 layers with 25GB per layer).  He also indicated that there are still many technical details to be worked out before the new standard can be finalized.  The bottom line is according to this Sony representative, we are still perhaps a year and a half away from the actual availability of BD-UHD players and the discs (i.e., movies) to play on them. The technical working group that has been tasked by the BDA with drafting the BD-UHD standard now has many members, representing the interests of many different companies.  The technical details for such new consumer electronics technologies are frequently driven by not only the desire to support certain specific features and the ability to satisfy certain performance goals, but also by a desire, on the part of the companies involved, to gain acceptance of the technologies for which that company holds the patent.  This was in part why we had the competing Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD formats back in the 2006/2007 time frame.  In that case, certain of the patent holders for DVD  technologies wanted to extend that format to support HD and in doing so continue their revenue stream that began a decade earlier with the introduction of DVDs.  The companies that created the original Blu-ray Disc standard had less financial stake in the DVD format and preceded to create a new high definition disc format using newer technologies for which these companies held certain of the key patents, and would thus become a revenue source for these companies.   Given that at least some of those that are tasked with creating the technical standards for BD-UHD also desire to create a future revenue source for their respective company,  it is easy to see why reaching agreement on a new industry standard can become a very lengthy process.

Hollywood's Position on Consumer 4K/UHD

In the past it has seemed that the consumer electronics companies have attempted to push a reluctant movie industry to accept new technologies.  However, for the introduction of UHD it appears that the major Hollywood studios are playing a more aggressive role in being a advocate for the more advanced capabilities of UHD.  MovieLabs, which is a joint venture of Disney, 20th Century Fox,  Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Brothers, has issued a "Specification for Next Generation Video - Version 1.0".   The following quoted and summarized material is Copyright © 2013, Motion Picture Laboratories, Inc. The stated goals of this specification are

 "Provide consumers with entertainment content at the highest quality technology allows."

"Preserve the artistic intent of the content creators throughout the distribution pipeline to the maximum extent possible."

"Provide integrated, extensible and future-proof solutions."

"Provide incentive for manufacturers of display and player devices to compete in the marketplace with clearly differentiated products."

The specification does qualify it intended role by saying:  "This document is intended solely as a guide for companies interested in developing next generation video products.  Each MovieLabs member company shall decide independently the extent to which it will utilize, or require adherence to, these specifications." The specific technical requirements put forward within the MovieLabs specification are summarized below:
  • Minimum resolution for UHD is 3840 x 2160 pixels while there is an option for digital cinema 4K format with 4096 x 2160 pixels.
  • The UHD player is required to pass through the video at its native resolution
  • The required frame rates for 2D are from 24p up to 60p with 96p, 100p and 120p being optional
  • The required frame rates for 3D are 48p (24p per eye), 96p (48p per eye) and 120p (60p per eye).
  • The reqired color space is CIE XYZ, which is wider that the ITU rec. 709 color space used with HDTV but not a wide as the color space that ITU has recommended (rec. BT2020) for UHD.
  • UHD Players would be required to support a wide dynamic range for use with displays capable of providing both high peak brightness and high contrast ratios (i.e., with very deep blacks).  The target would be to support displays capable to producing peak whites with 10,000 Nits and blacks with 0.005 Nits for an overall contrast ratio of 2,000,000 : 1.
  • The UHD content provider would provide metadata on the recording that would be output by the UHD player to the UHD display to indicate the "chromaticities, the peak luminance and white point of the reference display used to master that video".  It would then be up to the UHD display to apply a mathematical transform, as needed, to adapt the video to the display's video gamut capabilities.
  • The target encoded bit depth would be at least 12-bits while 4:2:0, 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 chroma (color) sampling would be supported.  The specification does note:  "MovieLabs and its member studios are studying the impact of color sampling in 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 format.  4:4:4 might yield some advantages in encoding efficiency."
The contents of the MovieLabs specification, as summarized above, indicate to me that the movie studios are serious about the transition from today's HD formats to UHD as a higher quality format for delivery of movies to the consumer.  The MovieLabs specification, is one of several documents that are providing guidance to the developers of UHD systems, equipment and services.

Update on 4K/UHD Related Standards

The status of the Blu-ray UHD standard has already been discussed above. HDMI 2.0 - The HDMI 2.0 standard was released in Sept. 2014 and I have discussed its 4K/UHD capabilities in a few of my previous blogs (including the one from Oct.  2013 - Click HERE).  The initial HDMI 2.0 implementations are now available in certain consumer electronics products.   Some examples include:
  • Pioneer is how shipping AV Receivers with HDMI 2.0 inputs and outputs supporting the full 18 Gbps bandwidth allowed by the HDMI 2.0 standard;
  • Monoprice is now offering Redmere active HDMI cables that support the full HDMI 2.0 bandwidth;
  • Panasonic is offering flat panel UHD TVs with full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 inputs; and
  • Sony offers a more limited implementation of HDMI 2.0 with inputs on their flat panel UHD TVs and 4K/UHD projectors that only support a 10.2 Gbps bandwidth.
Many manufacturers have already announced products with full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 support that are expected to begin shipping in  mid-to-late 2014. One point of confusion related to HDMI 2.0 was a statement by the HDMI organization, at the time of the HDMI 2.0 standard release, that exiting 'high speed" HDMI cables will be compatible with the new standard.  Given the higher data rates allowed with HDMI 2.0 vs. HDMI 1.4 (18 Gbps vs. 10.2 Gbps) many had assumed that existing high speed cables would have issues at longer lengths.  However, it turns out the HDMI 2.0 specification calls for a different signaling technique for the mode where data rates above 10.2 Gbps are used and this new signaling technique is expected support similar maximum cable lengths, when using passive high speed HDMI cables, while operating at 18 Gbps as compared to the older signaling technique operating at 10.2 Gbps.  However, many older active HDMI cables (that include a internal chip) will probably not work with HDMI 2.0. h.265/HEVC -  High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) seems to be the UHD encoding technique of choice for many upcoming services.  I  have discussed HEVC in several previous blogs.  While the h.265 standard was released in Jan. 2013, it only provided support for the more basic versions of UHD.  An amendment has been developed that extends HEVC to provide support for such things as greater bit depths, higher frame rates, and high fidelity chroma sampling schemes.  Also it took nearly a year for the various companies that hold patents related to HEVC to agree upon a licensing/royalty package that more easily facilitates commercial implementations.  There are now several companies offering products with HEVC decoders and many more products will be coming out over the next several months.  However, I have not seen any consumer products announced that are specifically said to include support for the enhanced HEVC features from the amendment to the h.265 standard.

4K/UHD Video Streaming & Download Services

Netflix is using HEVC for the coding of UHD content streamed to a new generation of UHD Smart TVs (or outboard players) and several manufacturers have announced products capable of receiving the Netflix UHD streams.  Existing Netflix players and Netflix equipped smart TVs are limited to HD and new hardware is required to use the UHD streaming service.  The Netflix UHD streaming service recently went online and with the Netflix exclusive series "House of Cards."  The Netflix subscriber must have an internet service with at least a 15 Mbps download speed in order to get the UHD service.  Back at CES in Jan. 2014, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Vizio announced UHD Smart TVs for release during 2014 that include built-in support for the for Netflix UHD streaming service. Amazon is adding UHD video streaming to their Instant Video services.  Amazon is using HEVC coding and Samsung announced, back at CES in Jan. 2014, that their new UHD Smart TVs will also support the Amazon UHD streaming service. Youtube (owned by Google) is using the Google developed VP9 UHD coding, instead of HEVC.   So far the available Youtube UHD videos can only be delivered to a UHD TV by using a 4K/UHD capable PC as the streaming video player.  However Sony, Panasonic and LG demo'ed prototype UHD Smart TVs at CES in Jan. 2014 that offered support for the Youtube UHD steaming video service. Samsung is also planning to offer what they call a "UHD Video Pack" that is a hard disc drive based box that comes preloaded with a few UHD movies and documentaries and additional movies will be available for download later on. So what about getting streaming video on a 4K/UHD projector for viewing in a home theater.  Several months ago Sony began shipping their 4K/UHD player, model FMP-X1, for their own "4K Video Unlimited" download service and at CES in Jan. 2014 they announced a next generation player, model Sony FMP-X10, that should be available this summer.   The FMP-X10 includes a built-in 1 TB hard disc drive for storing 4K/UHD movies/video from Sony's 4K Video Unlimited download service and also adds HEVC decoding along with support for the Netflix 4K/UHD steaming video service.   The FMP-X10 should be compatible with both the Sony 4K/UHD TVs and the Sony 4K/UHD projectors (models VPL-VW600es and VPL-VW1100es). Many of us expect, or at least hope, there will new 4K/UHD home theater projectors announced at this year's CEDIA Expo in September.  We may also hope to hear about some new 4K/UHD video players for steaming and/or download services that are not tied to just a single manufacturer's UHD display or projector.  Also perhaps there will be some information offered on the status and plans for Blu-ray UHD.  If Blu-ray UHD is a 'no show' at the CEDIA Expo in September then perhaps its debut will have to wait until the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2015.  The reason I emphasize Blu-ray UHD is it will likely be the 'gold standard' source for 4K/UHD video and audio from 2015 forward into the next decade.      

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