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Thrilled ~ Comcast-NBC’s ‘8K’ Outlook

9/03/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

The last line of the specifications sheet
for Comcast and NBCUniversal’s demonstrations
of Ultra High Definition
(also known as “8K”) video off ers a tantalizing
promise.

“Retail: -2020” it reads; the initial dash is
presumably a typo for a teasing tilde symbol
(~), which means “about” or “approximately.”

Let’s hope that means this immersive 8K
display technology (33.2 million pixels) — which
delivers 16 times the video resolution of today’s
high-definition systems — might really be
available for home use within a decade.

Beyond my personal passion for the
coming wonders of the year 2020, media
programmers and operators have many
reasons to prepare for this immersive 8K
display technology. Its near-term impact
on 3DTV — and its longer-term implications for bandwidth
capability, plus production and reception devices
— are as overwhelming as the 8K image itself.

D.C. SHOWCASE

During the London Summer Olympics three weeks ago,
Comcast and NBCU set up a showcase of the ultra-HD
video/audio feed at their Washington lobbying office,
overlooking Capitol Hill. On display were specially produced
highlights from London, such as the Opening
Ceremonies, swimming and track events, produced by
Japan’s NHK and shot with specially designed cameras.
The 8K format, called “Super Hi-Vision” in Japan,
displays nearly 8,000 lines of resolution (actually 7,680
by 4,320 pixels).

The Washington demonstration, on an 85-inch screen,
was 8K’s only showcase in North America. NHK ran a halfdozen
similar demos in Japan and the United Kingdom,
some in public locations, via projection using screens as
big as 145 inches diagonally. Such demos hint at the possibilities
for theater-sized use of 8K technology. (Hollywood
is already rolling out 4K theatrical technology.)

Based on the 85-inch version in D.C., the pictures are
truly incredible, with images so precise that you can
identify individuals’ facial features in long shots of track
and field or swimming competitions, and even in the
Opening Ceremonies crowds.

I had seen an 8K demo at the Sharp Electronics
booth during January’s Consumer Electronics Show in
Las Vegas, but the “beauty shot” flowers, models and
landscape images screened there — typical of such
early-stage technology — were staid compared to the
dynamic motion of the Olympics scenes.

Now, after being duly impressed, let’s insert a tinge of reality
about 8K, and why the 2020 timetable is so fascinating.

Comcast/NBCUniversal Washington president Kyle
McSlarrow — a.k.a. the companies’ chief lobbyist —
acknowledged that the demo was “the start of a discussion,”
although he didn’t identify specific points or participants
in such upcoming conversations.

The team of NBC engineers who ran the
tech demo used a sizeable room filled with
hardware to feed the single big flat-panel
display. (“Pay no attention to the man
behind the curtain” comes to mind in such
situations.)

Typically such arrays — think of devices
the size of four large refrigerators (in black
of course), plus countless peripherals — are
promised to be reduced to the size of an iPod
within a few years. Understandably, earlystage
prototype demos require such juryrigged
gear and professional supervision —
so let’s factor in the development and
design process ahead.

Then there’s the 85-inch screen. No
one would acknowledge the source of the
high-quality display in Comcast’s office.
At CES last January, Sharp Electronics was the only manufacturer
that publicly showed an 8K display, although
Panasonic and presumably other manufacturers are preparing
for the 8K market when it materializes.

Another reality side note: Sharp seems to be teetering
financially, warning that it expects another year
of multi-hundred-billion yen losses. Of course, other
vendors will make the devices if and when there’s a
proven market.

Also noted: the bandwidth requirement for 8K exceeds
today’s broadcast spectrum capabilities, pending a spectacular
compression breakthrough. Hence NBC’s involvement
appears to be as a program supplier, not as a carrier.

NHK plans to roll out Super Hi-Vision in Japan by 2016,
and in the U.S., the Advanced Television Systems Committee
is evaluating the format for its ATSC 3.0 broadcast
standard, which is in the early discussion stages.

8K’s impact on 3D is most timely. With flagging interest
in 3DTV sets, often based on the inconvenience
and expense of glasses, several options are emerging.
Several glasses-free projects are underway, which may
alter the direction of the 3D opportunity.

Meanwhile, 8K’s immersive image — providing a
sense of dimensionality with its deep depth-of-field —
may offer an impressive alternative. Viewers are invited
to sit very near to the screen. The Comcast spec
sheet recommends an “optimum viewing distance” of
0.75 display height, which means less than a meter away
from the 85-inch screen. Of course, you can see the image
from yards back, but the close-up viewing of such
high-resolution quality truly puts you into the scene.

BANDWIDTH CONCERNS

For cable operators, the bandwidth issues are substantial
and are likely the core of McSlarrow’s anticipated
“discussions.” The images from London were captured at
a breathtaking 48 Gigabits and compressed to be carried
via the highest-tech “Internet 2” network at 350 Megabits
per second — a chunk that would gobble up the current
capacity of most cable lines. In fact, Comcast installed a
special, dedicated fiber link to carry the Olympics video
feed from the Internet 2 center in the distant Washington
suburbs to its Capitol Hill office, where it was decompressed
back to its 48 Gbps original quality for display.

And that’s where the 2020 timetable
becomes most intriguing for cable
companies and other network operators.
The growth of Internet video —
in all its manifestations, from Netflix
and Xfinity Streampix to whatever
streaming-technology services materialize
this decade — will compete
with the linear-TV options.

If 8K catches on — meaning affordable
monitors, sufficient content
and other factors — all systems will
have to capable of delivering content
to the digital viewers of the 2020s.
In turn, that means more network
management to accommodate the
scheduled 8K transmissions and the
on-demand viewing. That’s where
the mighty algorithms for bandwidth
allocation will be most needed.


HALFWAY POINT: 4K

The discussion will certainly continue, although it may
come in stepped phases. For example, the coming 2013
CES is expected to put a heavy emphasis on 4K technology
(a quarter of the intensity of ultra-HD), with the first
focus being put on standards.

The talks should be a stepping stone to the 8K platform
which, if Comcast’s tilde is correct, will be coming up very
soon too — maybe in time for the Summer Olympics that
come after Rio de Janeiro in 2016.


Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications
in Bethedsa, Md., and a blogger for
Multichannel
News. Read his blog at multichannel.com/blog.
September