Friday, 7 February 2014

Futuregazing, part 1: The Road to Ultra HD

Ultra HD was the toast of the trade shows in 2013, and is a mistake waiting to happen in 2014.

February is a bit late to make predictions for the year, even if it still feels like the year has only just started. Instead, this year I thought I’d write about advances I’d like to see in the industry. These will probably arrive later than 2014, but I think they’re necessary, and sooner rather than later. Here’s the first entry.

The road to Ultra HD is paved with confusion.
Remember 3D? This was an example of the industry trying to push the consumer into buying stuff they didn’t want, and of the consumer refusing. Ultra HD was bandied around the trade shows in 2013 as the next big wave of change, and in doing so, it seemed that the industry had learnt nothing from the failure of 3D. How will Ultra HD avoid the same fate that befell 3D?

I think it’s interesting to re-examine that 3D was indeed a failure. Most TV sets that will be sold in 2014 in the UK will be 3D-capable. Most content that will be watched in the UK will not be 3D. Most of the summer blockbusters of 2013 were released in a 3D variant. Only one fifth of cinema tickets sold were for 3D movies. So if our measure of success is how the industry, from filmmakers to TV set manufacturers, was persuaded to invest in expensive re-tooling, the 3D lobby succeeded.

And because the infrastructure investment was made, I’m not sure that the lack of consumer interest actually matters. As long as the incremental cost of shooting continues to fall, and as long as consumers buy new TVs, content will continue to be shot for 3D because the infrastructure is out there and paid for. The business case is now about making use of an existing asset, rather than buying a new one. I can see the same approach happening for Ultra HD.

Let’s look at an example of a step-change in technology that was actually successful: the transition to HD. The introduction of HD required re-tooling and consumers to upgrade their in-home equipment, but both were willing to do so. Why? In the UK, the answer was because DTT was a newcomer, Freeview was disrupting the market, and all the market participants had to respond to this disruption with innovation. To put from the perspective of the customer, a new service offering that provided the most popular content, for free, incidentally at a higher quality, was worth buying a new STB (and calling out the aerial man). Even though the industry almost irredeemably confused the market with the whole 720p/HD Ready, 1080i/Full HD, 1080p nomenclature debacle.

So cable and satellite had to (pre-emptively) respond in kind, and the whole industry benefited. Legacy infrastructure was swapped out all along the chain, and equipment vendors made hay whilst the high-definition sun shone. Ever since then, the industry has been trying to force the sun to shine again. Unless the journey to Ultra HD is as compelling, then the story will be more 3D and less HD.

The journey to Ultra HD needs to be about filmmakers and equipment vendors learning to discuss the benefits of why it is better (increased resolution = 4x bandwidth, increased frame rate = 2-12x bw, increased dynamic range = 1.25-2x bw, better audio schema, increased bw demands of 10-96x) in a way that consumers will understand – buy a new TV/STB/faster broadband, and you’ll get better TV.

More in this series: part 2.

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