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4K or not?

To go 4K or not, that is the question.

There’s growing consumer interest, and a fair amount of confusion, about the next generation of digital television known variously as Ultra High Definition or more simply 4K after the number of pixels that make up the screen. And the big question is: should I buy one of these new, more expensive sets?  Or should I wait?

It’s an important question. Not only for your wallet, but also for the consumer electronic industry, the cable, satellite, and streaming services that bring pictures into our homes, and for the movie and television producers who create the shows and programs we watch.

So your decision at Wal-Mart or Best Buy has a ripple up effect that impacts industries worth billions of dollars. How about that for consumer power!

If you think I’m kidding, remember 3D television? It was supposed to be the next new thing. Avatar and a slew of exciting 3D titles were packing us into movie theaters a few years ago and the television manufacturers rolled out models that could recreate that 3D effect in our own living rooms. But 3D was NO-D.   People – especially women – hated the clunky glasses and 3D failed. So when consumers speak, Vizio, Sony & Samsung, Comcast & ESPN, Hollywood and Bollywood listen.

So these entertainment, technology, and broadband giants are heavily invested in avoiding another 3D experience. When – or if – you buy 4K really is a billion dollar question.

My advice, and my answer after many years as a television producer and technologist is soon, but not quite yet. What you want is smarter, better pixels – not merely the greater pixel sets that are available today.

Rather than purely focusing on the screen, let’s look at the three separate aspects of how television is created, transmitted, and displayed. Because the creation and distribution issues directly impact when or whether you’ll have 4K programming to watch should you buy a new Ultra High Def set anytime soon.

First of all, Hollywood is already shooting many titles using 4K technologies. Episodic television is predominantly captured electronically and in resolutions that are actually greater than 4,000 pixels using a new generation of super 35mm imagers. For feature films, there is increasing acceptance of 4K with an expanding range of cameras and creative features. And directors and cost-conscious producers like the on-set flexibility and the ability to shoot take after take economically that electronic cameras deliver. Admittedly, most television shows are delivered in high-definition, not 4K, but the 4K masters are in the vault ready for re-editing and distribution. You have to feel sorry for Kodak: their sales of film stock have plummeted by more than 90% since 2006. So while film is not dead, an increasing proportion of movies and TV shows are 4K already.

That brings us to the second point: every television program, no matter how it is distributed, is delivered using some form of digital compression. Without compression, the amount of bandwidth necessary to deliver high quality pictures would make high-definition broadcasting impractical and choke the Internet. Whether it is MPEG2 – used by over-the-air and older cable systems – or MPEG4, which satellite systems and over-the-top services like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes use, digital compression is the technological sleight-of-hand that enables the python to swallow the elephant.

Advances in compression have made it possible to do more with less. For example, your Netflix picture is better, more detailed, and less subject to buffering than a few years ago because of improving techniques. But the additional complexity in a 4K picture demands more bandwidth– a lot more actually – than today’s infrastructure consistently delivers to most American households. If you want ultra-high speed data, move to Japan or Korea where it is routinely available; but not here. So at least two manufacturers, Sony and Samsung, have introduced proprietary 4K movie players to provide content for their displays.  The Blu-ray Disc Association is close to finalizing 4k technical requirements for their members, but you’re still a ways away from being able to walk into Costco to purchase either a 4K Blu-ray player or packaged media.

For the rest of us, including those buying sets with an even newer form of compression called h.265, there’s apt to be so much compression to fit into the available data networks that much of the advantages of 4K will be lost in translation. Still Netflix has announced plans to stream movies in 4K at what’s reputed to be 15 Mb/second. That’s four or five times faster than it streams today’s HD movies and if your set stutters or just plain freezes on today’s programs, there’s no way you can handle the demands that 4K streaming creates.

Time, technology, and competition will ultimately solve this bandwidth issue. A new generation of cable modems, able to combine multiple  data pathways, is on the way and will trigger a race among cable, Verizon, and Google to provide even more data to the home. But like the growth of high-definition television, 4K adoption is another instance of the proverbial chicken and egg problem. Providers will create the equivalent of data autobahns when there’s a sufficient number of 4K screens in subscribers’ homes. But the triple treat that drove HD adoption – live sports, drama, and Hollywood’s best movies – can’t be consistently delivered (outside those specialized movie players.) Remember my purchasing advice: soon, only not quite yet.

Lastly, let’s look at the displays themselves. When you’re nose-to-nose they are gorgeous, I admit. But most of today’s 4K displays are handicapped by adherence to video standards created a generation (or more) ago and many of the 4K advantages disappear when you’re 9 or 10 feet away from the screen (where many coach potatoes sit.)   At that distance, unless you have a truly giant screen you just don’t see the extra resolution that 4k offers.

Next, consider the range of brightness we see in nature: from the intense brightness of the glare shining off a lake to the darkness of the night sky far away from the city. Today’s television cameras actually do a pretty good job capturing that dynamic range between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks, but much of the television distribution infrastructure and a depressing number of 4K sets limit their dynamic range to standards that evolved in the fifties. It’s like making an iPhone have a rotary dial.

There are some who think that it’s time to say goodbye to this legacy of The Honeymooners-era. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and Dolby Laboratories have both thrown their weight into a extended dynamic range television and many who have seen Dolby’s technology, dubbed “Dolby Vision,” have been blown away. In its demonstrations, Dolby also incorporates a wider color range; though by far the greater bang-for-the-buck comes from the increased brightness and greater contrast that their technology unlocks. In addition, the EBU has endorsed a more exacting, more sophisticated standard for 4K video compression. It suggests a 10-bit video decoding requirement that would be a significant improvement over today’s 4K sets that contain more limited 8-bit capabilities. The move from 8 to 10 bit expands the color pallet from 256 choices to 1024 gradations. It’s like going from drawing with just a few hues of color crayons to creating a landscape with the super jumbo Crayola™ set. The EBU’s target for sets that support these improvements, along with others like higher frame-rate capabilities, is 2017/2018.

So what’s a consumer to do? If you’re a cinephile, by all means invest in one of these UHD sets. If you’re a technology enthusiast, become an early 4K video adopter. But understand the paradox of buying today. In the words of Dr. Joseph Flaherty, the CBS senior vice-president who pioneered many of  today’s television innovations, today’s television is probably the worst TV you could buy. There will always a better TV you can purchase next week.

To prove the point, at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show the consumer electronic industry announced an array of sets with brighter, more accurate colors, and improved decoding capabilities.  But the really important announcement was creation of a multi-vendor consortium to consider these gnarly behind-the-scenes issues.  Bravo!  Better a bit late than to ignore the confusion and the gaps.

So when you check out the latest sets, ask the sales guy: “does it support dynamic range and 10-bit color?” “What broadband speed will I need to produce the picture I see here?” “Other than the movie player, what network or service has announced a full menu of 4K programming that I can actually receive?”

Your parting message: “I’m not settling for half-baked 4K: I want smarter, better pixels, not merely more of them.”

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The TV Business

RIP:  Consumer 3D

Originally posted in August of  2010, this article turned out to be (regrettably) accurate about the difficulties in making 3D for the home a commercial success.

The incredible progress in shooting, transmitting, and displaying 3D television boggles the mind.  In just a few years since 3D splashed at Winter CES, consumers at home have witnessed brilliant coverage of FIFA’s World Cup, the NCAA Final Four, and marquee baseball events:  MLB’s All-Star game, and David Ortiz’s home-run derby power blasts into deep right at the Angel’s Anaheim baseball palace the night before.  We have a full-time 3D Sports service from ESPN.  The golden triangle of consumer electronics companies, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony are subsidizing first-generation production costs and LG, the scrappy competitor whose high-definition sets are showing up in more and more upscale hotel rooms, sponsored the NCAA Final Four in 3D.   Even more telling than the range of events has been the maturing of production techniques and technologies.  During the FIFA World Cup Final, virtually no eyeball-popping, vertigo-inducing, rip-the-eyeglasses off shots made it to the Cinedigm-equipped theater where I saw the production live.

All in all, a giant leap – if not for mankind, then at least for fans of the immersive experience that really good 3D can be.  Clearly the industry has taken to heart the cautions of SONY Picture’s Buzz Hays (who holds the title “Executive Stereoscopic 3D Producer for Sony Corp.”).  Says Buzz: “it’s incredibly easy to do bad 3D.   And it’s hard to do good 3D.”  The fastest way to turn consumers away in queasy dismay is to fill the screen with 3D gimmicks and screen gyrations; the television quickly turns into a live version of a theme ride more appropriate to Universal or Disneyworld.  Great if you’re a kid, not so wonderful if your adult eyes, inner ear, and brain have reached an understanding that only the third Scotch disturbs.

Note to all would-be 3D participants:  making the audience sick to their stomachs is not a good business model.

But having cheered for the progress, let’s look at a few issues that remain unanswered:

  • What happens when the subsidy music stops?   Whether the production costs are 1.5, 2, or 2.5 that of a conventional HDTV shoot, they aren’t at parity.   That ‘cost-no-more’ threshold was essential to drive the production transition from standard to high definition.  Just as with HD, the production costs need to plummet and the number of available sets in consumers’ homes needs to skyrocket.  In their attempt to create television receivers with higher perceived value (and selling price!), the consumer electronics industry is betting heavily on 3D to stem the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea drops in television receivers’ prices.   They’re also pushing on the technologists and hoping that NEP, Sony, Pace, and 3Ality will uncover a way of using something other than a pair of one hundred thousand dollar cameras at each camera position.  But while costs are coming down on the content creation side, as well as the second generation of displays and active-glasses, the cost issue is a tough one.
  • Will consumers accept wearing glasses to view 3D?  Sir Howard Stringer made the somewhat astringent observation that (paraphrasing) ‘we’ve been wearing glasses for years; what’s the big deal?”  Fair enough, so let’s not rehash the conventional ‘will customers tolerate the geeky-things’ argument.   But the moment one puts on the lenses, whether active or passive systems, the brilliant, vivid picture on Sir H’s brand-spanking new SONY 240hz, LED television goes nearly as dim as grandma’s old tube set.  Aren’t consumers forking over three thousand dollars going to ask: “how come the picture is so dark?”  It’s a short step to thinking “well, maybe we should wait until it’s fixed and a lot brighter like the HDTV we already bought last year.”
  • The other not-talked about issue regarding the glasses is the incidence of nausea and headache – particularly among women viewers.  Much was made of the Samsung public caution not to drink and watch 3D (or drive for that matter); somehow I doubt that this will really impact 3D SuperBowl keg parties next year.  But with women being the gatekeeper for any gadget for their homes, it’s hard to see anyone who got sick watching Avatar allowing their husbands to queue up at holiday time for a 3D set.
  • Directors and producers: let’s man up and admit that the traditional covering shot at midfield, midcourt, midpitch, whatever just doesn’t have much 3D pizzazz.  And you don’t need more than your high-school physics to understand that the further away an object is, the less your eyes perceive depth.  Sure, you see occlusion but not the degree of separation that you see for objects at arms-length.  So far, no director or producer that I’ve seen has been willing to scrap the master high shot; it’s too heavily ingrained in the television playbook.  But in the interest of seeing how it would work, would someone please experiment by shooting a contest with the lower, 3D enabled cameras as the primary story-telling vehicles and employ the high-shot for replays? (just the opposite of today’s conventional camera sequencing!)
  • As any King Kong fan knows, size matters. And whether it’s a 52” television for the home or a 40’ screen in a digital theater, the electronic equivalent of size: compression matters.  Not to be boringly technical, every current generation live 3D transmission scheme robs bits so that the stereo images (left and right cameras) can ultimately make it through progressively thinner pipes to get to the home or theater. There are better (and worse) schemes around, but too much compression (and too many standards-conversion steps) robs the pictures of their snap and vitality.  As with evolving production techniques, compression and transmission levels are a work-in-progress.   (Which is a polite way of saying that I’ve seen some good productions become bad productions because too many bits were lost in translation.)
  • Gamers’ rate-of-3D adoption, portable 3D screens (and any others) that don’t require glasses, and Hollywood’s love affair with 3D are all important factors that will impact the overall business, but for most of us, successful 3D television means ready availability of 3D sports, 3D Planet Earth-like productions, and a smattering of our favorite films in 3D.  It’s no accident that ESPN, closely followed by FOX, CBS, MLB, Sony and Discovery are leading the charge.   But even these sports and entertainment giants will have to face the reality that NO advertiser is going to pay EXTRA for a 3D commercial (an updated version of no advertiser ever paid more for the HD commercial) and that to be successful, tens of millions of 3D capable sets have to be sold, not the paltry five million that consultancy iSuppli estimates this year.

There is, after all, a reason why it’s called the television business.  In all the legitimate excitement about genuine 3D progress, let’s remember that for a mass medium to survive, there has to be a MASS.

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Heralding the Arrival of 3D Television

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Kidscreen, the international trade publication aimed at media professionals who create content for children, recently published an interview with Steve Jacobs on the dawn of 3D television.    Writer Gary Rusak concluded that 3D is “poised to land in living rooms around the world” based, in part on this comment:

“If people fall in love with the 3-D experience from packaged media, then I think you will see more experimentation among broadcasters with 3-D events of the month, or the week,” says Jacobs. “It took about 15 years for HD to become an overnight success – I don’t think 3-D TV will take that long.”

Click on the Kidscreen logo for the complete article

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Variety’s Annual 3D Conference

Steve Jacobs ran the International 3D Production Panel at Variety’s Annual 3D Conference.   Representatives from Walt Disney Studios, Sony, Cinedigm, Technicolor, and RealD.

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Sports Video Group Dsports Conference

Steve Jacobs moderated the Low Cost Production Panel at the Sports Video Group Dsports Conference. The final numbers are in, and SVG’s third-annual DSports Conference, dedicated to all things Internet, mobile, and beyond, drew 170 attendees during an informative Tuesday in New York City.

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