So how ready are we all to plunge into the world of 4K?
Is 4K4U yet?
I am often dismayed by both professional and consumer manufactures who, in their rush to turn a profit, release products to ‘shaky’ standards that are just not ready for prime time or the end user, often turning us into unpaid Beta testers. Or as I often say “I can build it, but I can’t make it work”!
A Personal View of The 4K Professional Status
As a broadcast technologist, design engineer and home theater enthusiast, I probably have a different view on the world of 4K than many consumers and even other industry insiders, and 8K, well thats another post. The company I work for is literally on the bleeding edge of this technology and has installed a significant number of 4K A/V, sports and professional production environments, and I can assure you it is not really ready for prime time yet, especially live prime time.
Throughout my whole life I have been an early adopter and have recently realized that I was beginning to pay way too much, both financially and mentally, to become an unpaid Beta tester for new technologies. So after watching from the side lines the implementation and roll out of 4K in the professional live production world and reading the myriad of issues with consumer hardware I decided to wait this one out for a while. (Yes, I got caught with HDDVD too!)
4K production or even higher resolutions are not too challenging for film production and editing, and that even includes the high resolution graphics required to support these modern day sci-fi and action movies. These environments are NOT like broadcast and real-time productions and only require cameras, editing systems and graphics hardware that can support the very high bit rates required. All this hardware is readily available and allows movie makers the freedom to produce outstanding high resolution movies. The final production of each can be tailored during editing to meet the latest sound and video developments such as HDR (in its various forms), WCG (and its derivatives) and the various immersive sound formats.
Real time productions such as TV and sports have a host of much more complex issue to solve that involve the use of real-time transitions between IP streams and the overlaying of real time IP data for effects. This creates a large range of timing and other technical issues that can cause the systems to fail, often in a catastrophic way.
The above issues coupled with the fact that a single uncompressed 4K signal requires a 12Gb/s (12,000,000,000 bits per second) signal has resulted in uncompressed and compressed systems that are not compatible. This together with the fact that almost no existing broadcast production systems can support these bit rates requires expensive build outs of either entire facilities or ‘islands’.
Copper connections do not make for a close ally of these high bit rates so extensive use of 10G fiber was implemented. Unfortunately a single 10G connection cannot even support one 12G UHD signal, unless compressed, resulting in many such connections. Now we are moving to quad 10G (40G) fiber that allows up to 3 uncompressed signals to be supported per connection.
The move to an all fiber universe is still a long way off and one that I do not expect to see in my professional lifetime. So conversion between fiber and copper is going to be with us for a while yet.
The various manufacturers use both existing standards for the transmission of high speed audio and video data over networks and developed their own standards in order to create viable IP products. Rarely were these products compatible with other vendor’s solutions. For example there are several organization/vendors distribution formats, none of them directly compatible with each other, that are currently in use including:
- ASPEN – Adaptive Sample Picture Encapsulation – Evertz – uncompressed
- AIMS – Alliance for IP Media Solutions
- NMI – Network Media Interface – Sony – compressed
- NDI – Network Data Interface – NewTek – very compressed
- TICO Alliance – Tiny Codec – Grass Valley Group –compressed
- VSF – Video Services Forum
The issues described above forced the major broadcast standards bodies SMPTE and ITU to act and rationalize the ways these new systems were to exchange digital data including, video, audio, control data, device discovery and of course system timing.
Yes there are plenty, everybody has one!
So together with the deployment of this 4K technology, companies jumped on the band wagon with their developments and latest feature(s) or improvements to it. This is resulting in many items of both professional and residential hardware either not supporting the latest developments or, where possible, resulting in the need to be upgraded through software patches, etc. This has resulted in consumers buying large volumes of products that are out of date before they even unbox them. The lucky few bought products from very forward thinking manufactures that included hardware and firmware systems that could be updated to support what they envisaged were coming developments. Unfortunately, there is a real limit to this upgradability and I have been caught several times in this expensive trap.
Originally most broadcast and production manufactures created custom IP electronics in order to handle these IP streams as the available IT switches and their control were not suitable for routing and dealing with combined audio, video control and data streams. These switches are great for routing point to point IP signals but were not suitable for live work as the systems do not know EXACTLY when the signal would arrive, IP networking is inherently not deterministic nor was it designed to be so. This technology was therefore not readily suitable for handling and switching live signals. At least one of the original excellent custom IP designs, which has many commonalities with some of the new standards, still persists, and with the addition of Gateways and firmware upgrades will allow its interconnection to other systems.
4K technology is now becoming based more and more upon computer IT networking and high power commercially available computers. Where possible, and in order to keep costs down, commercial off the shelf (COTS) switches are used. These are switches that are mass produced for the IT market but often lack the specific requirements for this expanding A/V industry. There is now a significant mix of baseband SDI and IT solutions, a mix that is inexplicably moving towards all IP based topologies.
In order to achieve some level of interoperability between vendors equipment and resolve a significant number of technical issues a whole plethora of new standards have been, and are being released, from both the SMPTE and ITU professional broadcast standards committees. This is in response to the many technical challenges facing this technology. Some of these bodies and associated standards are listed below:
- IS-04-NMOS – Network Media Open Specifications – a bit like SNMP for hardware discovery
- DANTE – Digital Audio Network Through Ethernet
- AES 67 – IP audio
- IEEE 1588 – Precision Time Protocol – for timing IP video streams
- SMPTE 302 – Audio over SMPTE MPEGTS 2022
- SMPTE ST291 and ST2038 – Ancillary Data
- SMPTE ST 2022 – Basic IP stream standard
- SMPTE 2071 – Media Device Control
- SMPTE ST2059 – Systems timing
- SMPTE ST2110 – The most recent IP family of standards composed of many sub sections dealing with all aspects of IP stream delivery and management of hardware.
- ITU – BT or REC.2020 – UHD specification with standard dynamic range and WCG
- ITU – REC.2100 – High dynamic range standard
The white papers that describe in detail, the above standards, can be found online or purchased from the appropriate body.
While these standards continue to be rolled out several well known manufacturers of high end broadcast technology continue to wrestle with the technical challenges of realtime IP streams, their timing issues and use in live environments.
New 4K Consumer Hardware Standardization
As we are talking about 4K standards here is the new logo released at CES2017 by Eurofins – Digital Testing. This new logo was introduced to represent a new testing scheme that shows that the consumer product carrying it delivers; High Dynamic Range (HDR), Ultra-High Definition (UHD) and Wide Colour Gamut (WCG) simultaneously and accurately.
These new technical requirements have already been adopted by several companies including LG Electronics. Visit the Eurofins web site for further details and documentation.
So where does this leave us all?
- Film is good to go on its merry way – well almost. There is an excellent range of 4K and higher resolution cameras, and editing and graphics production hardware. That together with the current range of surround and immersive audio CODECS provide a stable platform for movie production.
- Production houses, sports and corporate A/V facilities continue to follow the 4K trend either because their business demands it or they seem to have just too much money!
- Cable deals with the distribution of its programming through its own custom systems. This allows them to provide good quality streaming of compressed 4K films and programming direct to their custom designed set top boxes. However these systems are still not fully baked and the HDMI interfaces and associated use of HDMI metadata is far from fool proof.
- Over The Air (OTA) television has just got to grip with HD and the current ATSC2 digital transmission standard. So now they have a whole new ATSC3 standard coming out together with 4K that requires them to rebuild there existing facility infrastructure. What I do not see yet is how it improves their return on investment (ROI). Other than if one TV station does it they will all have to do it in order to stay competitive and keep the eyeballs on their channel. Unfortunately ATSC3 is not backward compatible with ATSC2. That means a new TV and or boxes for viewers like you and me, who use OTA and not cable, and possibly new set top boxes for cable providers depending how this upgrade gets rolled out. I am also sure, just like in the early days of HD, many smaller broadcasters will just up-convert their HD to 4K…wow!! As of now I have seen no major move by any broadcasters to jump on this bandwagon. (but lots of sporting and production facilities have, are or will)
- The web and cell phones. Well yes, bandwidths to the home seem to be ever increasing, now up to 1Gb/s and with the advent of fiber distribution, only technology and costs will limit the size of this connection. In the near future cell phones are expected to reach peak download rates of up to 1Gb/s with the use of LTE-Advanced and 672Mb/s for HSPA+. Certainly for the foreseeable future UHD, HDR, WCG will be ‘fed’ to the hungry web clients as highly compressed 4K. Not 4K at all!! But there again I am a purist, I DO NOT CARE about convenience and I am generally too busy with life to sit at my desk or any other place and view a 4K anything on a 5” or 8” diagonal screen!
- Home TV displays, receivers and Blu ray consumers need to be very cautious and try to find out the full range of features the equipment you are buying currently supports and could possibly be upgraded to in the future. In particular:
- HDMI standards – (yes there is another upgrade on its way!)
- HDR standards – (DV, HDR10, HDR10+, HLG)
- Immersive sound standards – (Dolby Atmos, DTS-X and Auro-3D)
- WCG support – (REC709, DCI P3, REC2020)
- Home Projector enthusiasts like myself. Well, we have a lot of issues that need to be resolved for us as we look for cost effective native 4K projectors. These would include:
- Dynamic range and the correct support for various HDR EOTF curves
- Wide color gamut and its correct calibration to the relevant standards
So, ‘things they are a changin’, again. For me it has become a waiting game, definitely until next year. For broadcasters and production houses upgrades to 4K will occur as required by pressures from their respective industries and business models. However, I am sure that I will have retired before many take this leap!!
It may appear that I have a rather negative view of this whole 4K thing. Not so. I am buying into it cautiously, and I do realize that manufacturers have to turn a profit or we are all out of a job. It just continues to amaze me how equipment is released that is either already out of date before the purchaser opens the box, cannot be cost effectively upgraded, the vendor just stops supporting a product even though it could be upgraded and was designed to be so, or the product was never tested in the environment and workflow for which it was designed.
For consumers there are certainly some fine displays, receivers and players out there to support this impressive format including many, but not all, of the current video and audio standards. Projectors are still somewhat behind the TV display curve in terms of native resolution, handling HDR and supporting WCG. However, recently as seen at CES 2017, companies such as JVC, Epson and Sony have created significant improvements to their hardware to handle both HDR and WCG and support native 4K imagers. While companies like Panasonic and Oppo have released some excellent 4K players and now support Dolby Vision (DV). It is yet to be seen what other upgrades, like DV, HLG and HDR10+, can be accommodated by displays, projectors and top of the line players like the Oppo 203/205, with just firmware upgrades.
In the mean time I continue to collect 4K versions of movies in the vain hope that I will soon be able to view them. That is, if they were correctly authored and pressed!