Quadruple video upgrade advances towards your TV set

20 Apr 2016

Digital video resolutions are relentlessly algebraic, as shown in this diagram. The "high definition" video standards of the early 20th century – 720p and 1080p – remain valid, as does "standard definition" (what we used to simply call "video"). But 4K, aka ultra-high-definition television (UHDTV), is the new standard, and it is dragging everything in the video supply chain – content, hardware, delivery methods – upward and onward.

Simply put, at a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, a 4K display is four times the size of a 1080p display. At 8.3 million pixels, the resolution is exceptionally sharp.

The 4K format has interesting options. As you have the equivalent of four HD screens, displays can be enlarged to gargantuan proportions and maintain excellent resolution, making 4K a premier choice for outdoor presentations.

Split-screen programming acquires new functionality. In an interview with Daniel Tang, CTO, fixed network product line for Huawei, he said that early adopters of 4K will include pubs and bars that show sporting events. "You could watch more than one game on the same screen," said Tang, "with a separate picture-in-picture highlighting a star player."

Streaming the beast
Live-streaming HD is more bandwidth-intensive than SD, but 4K is another beast altogether. According to Wikipedia, "High Efficiency Video Coding [aka H.265] should allow the streaming of content with a 4K resolution with a bandwidth of between 20 to 30 Mbps." Tang said that 50Mbps is a more realistic figure, while 100 Mbps is "ideal." Huawei recently launched a 4K streaming video offering during its Big Video Summit in Indonesia.

The standard for video coding/encoding, or codec, is a factor in determining requisite bandwidth. Tang said that the H.265 codec is now widely available. Competition includes Google's VP9 codec and V-Nova's PERSEUS codec.

The Huawei CTO said his firm supplies H.265 chipsets for set-top boxes with "high adoption in Asia, which will hopefully also occur in the USA & Europe."

Islands in the stream
Even if everyone standardizes on a single codec, the streaming environment remains problematic. For example, said Tang: "It's easier for telcos to engineer their networks end-to-end than OTT players like Netflix."

While 4K enthusiasts will upgrade to essential HDMI 2.0 cables, "the home networking environment also a problem," according to Tang. He said that home Wi-Fi networks are a weak link, and: "there's no perfect solution. Operation on the 5Ghz band works, but coverage must be carefully designed."

There's no stopping progress
They still sell VCDs in Hong Kong, but can you remember the last time you played one? DVD survived its initial region-coding SNAFU (which, among other things, stuck Australia and South America in the same region-code) and remains strong. The Blu-ray format trumped its rival (HD-DVD) for the 1080p optical disk crown.

But increasingly, consumers prefer streaming video. Cineastes buy optical disks for extras like audio commentaries and other extras, but the Korean drama/House of Cards TV-drama crowd cares only about subtitles in their preferred language. Streaming is the way forward – even though 4K video-via-disk will be introduced and will of course find some level of adoption.

Tang has no doubt about 4K's future. "Within five years," he said, "30-40% of content will be 4K."

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