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The State of 4K and HDR 2017
4K video is gaining traction and changing production workflows, but viewers aren't dazzled by higher resolutions, anymore: Look for HDR to have a bigger impact on consumers.

The question facing broadcasters is not whether to invest in IP—the move is inevitable and the benefits from cost savings to greater editorial flexibility are compelling. The question is when investment makes sense.

“The economics of IP today make more sense at the enterprise level and probably do not yet stack up for smaller projects,” admits Tim Felstead (right), head of product marketing at SAM. “The industry has to make a case for IP beyond pure return on investment. IP is not swapping one technology for another; it offers a whole new approach to market.”

This also requires a shift in business model among vendors from selling expensive black boxes on premises (a capital expenditure for customers) toward a revenue-based model based on operating expenditures.

In other words, media organisations are being encouraged to rent or subscribe to services—playout, for example—running “virtually” in a data centre.

“True adoption of IP will come when IP architectures are embraced to bring about all the benefits IP can provide,” says Cox. “This is the next step, but we’re not there yet and most of the industry won’t be there in 2017 either.”

UHD Live Production

BT Sport and Sky Sports made the strategic decision to adopt a hybrid UHD/HD production, down-converting HD from a 4K feed to streamline workflow, reduce on-site facilities, and minimise risk.

It should be remembered that all outside broadcasts are aired in HD, but barely a fifth of BT and Sky’s sports properties are currently being simulcast in 4K (Sky, for example, is airing all 124 English Premier League games and all 2017 Formula 1 races in UHD but little else).

OB suppliers investing multiple millions of dollars in upgrades to service client’s UHD needs faced a choice: go with the tried and trusted SDI and patch a signal from 4x HD-SDI cables or dive into IP.

Arena made the plunge and spent more than $25 million on three largely identical mobile units, the third of which is due on the road in Q1 2017.

The truck’s core is based on a Cisco IP router with a number of Grass Valley nodes as a processing platform, predominantly for multiviewing but also to perform vertically accurate switching. There are 48 x 40 GbE ports connecting each GV node and 230 x 10 Gig ports connecting all the edge devices.

“Historically, commercial off-the-shelf IP switches have been unable to perform vertically accurate switching like traditional SDI routers,” explains Phil Myers, EMEA Sales Engineering at Grass Valley, who helped advise on the truck build. “This is especially important in live applications where signals go directly to air, and where routers have traditionally been used as a backup to the production switcher. Switching that happens accurately within the vertical interval is also needed when a router is used for connecting secondary live feeds.

“Vertically accurate switching is a necessity in the broadcast environment. The video switcher by nature does it and if it doesn’t, you have a problem.”

Sky Sports is airing all 124 English Premier League games and all 2017 Formula 1 races in UHD, but little else. 

4K/UHD Live Streaming

Live 4K/UHD has made its mark in the U.K. with BT and Sky, in Canada with Rogers, and in the U.S. on select events through media partnerships with DirecTV.

4K content still represents a lower percentage of streaming content versus HD and lower resolution video. For live, it’s still expensive from a computing standpoint especially if you want to support 4:2:2, HDR, and high frame rates, notes Telestream CTO Shawn Carnahan (right).

“Today’s 4K OTT levels are small but rapidly growing,” reports Ian Munford (below right), EMEA director of product enablement and marketing, media services at Akamai. “Clearly there are a range of on-demand 4K movies available through various SVOD streaming services, but we are seeing many more live streaming events, particularly sports, taking advantage of online 4K delivery.”

While there are regional technology and infrastructure differences, in Q3 2016 Akamai reported that global adoption of broadband services over 15Mbps (capable of receiving 4K content) had increased 54 percent year on year to 22 percent.

The technical challenges to delivering live 4K OTT services centre on improving the consistency and reliability of high bitrate 4K streams from ingest through to delivery—at scale. The challenge is multifaceted and requires different thinking throughout the workflow.

“If you can’t reliably ingest a live 4K video stream into a CDN, you can’t deliver a high-quality viewing experience,” explains Munford. “Likewise, if you can’t stream live 4K video consistently without buffering, then the viewer experience will be dreadful. Traditional streaming technologies use TCP as a transport protocol. This was designed to ensure reliability, but not deliver high bitrate video, where bottlenecks in the internet may impact quality of experience.”

The combination of ingest acceleration and delivery acceleration has enabled the delivery of live 4K sporting events online. Munford believes we’ll see a maturing of live OTT technologies in 2017: “Specifically, this will be in areas such as live origin services, live transcoding, and 4K delivery.”

Level 3 also thinks 2017 may herald the true beginning of the upward curve, with consumers expecting greater quality in their streamed media. “The actions of content providers will further stoke this growth,” says McVicar, citing Amazon’s recently launched The Grand Tour in 4K.

On 12 November, UFC.TV claimed the world’s first global delivery of an event live in 4K at 60 frames per second. The SVOD e-ticket cost $59.99.

“We were very excited to showcase this on such a big stage,” says Chris Wagner, EVP/co-founder at UFC digital partner NeuLion. “I don’t know any other service other than UFC that is global OTT with a digital ticket in 4K/60. I don’t know of anyone else who has done this.”

NeuLion delivered the 4K show from Madison Square Garden as an HEVC stream in MPEG-DASH encoded in H.265.

In December, the BBC began experimental streaming over iPlayer of the UHD and HDR (in HLG) show Planet Earth II.

Dan Taylor-Watt, head of BBC iPlayer, says, “The extra quality HLG brings to Ultra HD needs to be seen to be believed. It’s still early days for the technology, but this experiment puts us in the best possible position once audience demand is there.”

4K Drives Large Screen Sales

Strong growth in display sales combined with increasing UHD content have helped cement 2016 as a “banner year” for 4K UHD, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Penetration of 4K screens into U.K. homes topped 1.68 million at the end of 2016, representing 10 percent of U.K. households, according to Futuresource Consulting, which predicts a rise to 27 percent by 2018.

Sky’s launch of the 4K-compliant Sky Q set-top box and Virgin Media’s new TiVo box V6 with the ability to play Netflix and YouTube 4K content will give 4K a push in the new year.

With the introduction of HDR into the production and transmission workflow, HDR-enabled screens are making their way to retail.

These are being badged Ultra HD Premium, a seal of approval that says the display meets the specifications agreed upon by the UHD Alliance, a group including Samsung, Sky, Amazon, and Warner Bros., to promote the new format to consumers.

For anyone with a Dolby Vision display, content is now available from Netflix, Amazon, and studios including Lionsgate. Manufacturers like LG have included Dolby Vision in their OLED and Super UHD LCDs, as have vendors like TCL and Skyworth.

LG’s flagship G6 TV is capable of playing back HDR with HFR content up to 120p, an achievement devised with the EBU and the BBC (although frame rates from U.K. broadcasters are pegged at 50p for a while yet).

In addition, vendors are keen to syphon UHD/HDR content to their products. Samsung, for example, has a partnership with Amazon and Netflix to offer HDR titles to its UHD TVs.

“Today’s consumer content technologies are rooted in the hyper-real and the interactive: 4K, UHD, VR, surround sound, megapixel, HDR, retina displays,” says McVicar. “Those watching live events at home want to feel as if they’re part of the action, which is why a high-quality viewing experience drives every aspect of the technology chain. As a result, home consumer electronics are primed for immediacy and representation of close detail.”

This article was published in the Spring 2017 European edition of Streaming Media magazine. 

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4K was always a format pushed onto the market by consumer electronics vendors, and the relative lack of consumer interest in the higher resolution along with distribution bottlenecks are restricting adoption