Advanced TV Technologies and the Hype Cycle
The TV industry (both the hardware business and the content/broadcast ecosystem) is facing a deluge of new technologies. Some are already here, others are on the horizon. The Gartner Hype Cycle is, despite some criticisms, a great tool for mapping technologies by their maturity. New technologies typically go through a number of phases before gaining maturity and widespread adoption. Not all technologies move equally fast, and certainly not all technologies ever arrive at the mainstream.
Of course, in the meantime technology, products and services have advanced and their maturity has increased. In this article I aim to give a comprehensive overview of the TV technologies and their maturity. I will distinguish hardware products from services, as their maturity and adoption can strongly differ.
In most of the developed world, analog TV services have become extinct. Many countries have already passed an 'analog switch-off' (ASO) where the last piece of spectrum used for analog TV has been reallocated to digital TV services, which can offer substantially more channels within the same bandwidth. On a global scale however they are still quite common. Many countries in Africa and Asia are still employing a hybrid analog/digital broadcast infrastructure, planning for a future analog switch-off.
It has become almost impossible to buy Standard-Definition television sets; the entry-level resolution may not have reached 1080p yet but 720p is more or less the minimum today. SDTV hardware therefore has reached a stage that is beyond the standard scope of the hype cycle – the cliff of obsolescence. That does not mean SDTV broadcast services have reached the same stage. Contrary, the majority of TV channels transmitted by satellite today is still in SD, reports by NSR Northern Sky Research, SES and Eutelsat confirm.
HDTV hardware has, 10 years after introduction, been firmly established in the market and has well reached the platform of productivity. Arguably it has even started moving beyond it, to what is sometimes referred to as the swamp of diminishing returns. HDTV content and broadcast services may not yet have fully displaced SDTV content but it has become ubiquitous, mainstream and its benefits undisputed. The production workflow for HDTV is also fully mature.
In most countries outside of continental Europe, widescreen TV has been adopted simultaneously with the introduction of HDTV or, a few years earlier, with Digital TV.
3D TV is an example of a service that may not complete the entire hype cycle. Some services have been set up, for example by Sky in the UK and ESPN in the US but they have been abandoned again before reaching mainstream adoption. While 3D TV hardware has become common, the broadcast services have not successfully crossed the trough of disillusionment. As a consequence, some of the major TV makers have dropped 3D support from their line-up completely as of 2016.
‘4K’ Ultra HD
Ultra HD TV services are still few and far between. In the UK, BT TV and Sky have commenced regular (weekly) sports transmissions. Sky Germany is about to do the same. In the US meanwhile mainly DirecTV broadcasts some sports events at irregular intervals in UHD resolution. Eutelsat carries about a dozen UHD channels – mostly demo channels, plus some special interest ones with fashion, documentaries.
4K content in the form of movies and series is becoming common on OTT VoD platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Vudu although not quite all new content is produced and delivered at this resolution.
Ultra HD TVs on the other hand are now in their fourth generation. They have moved beyond the initial teething problems and are rapidly displacing plain HDTVs in a growing range of display sizes, starting of course from the top.
In the press, there is an increasing amount of coverage that debates and doubts the benefit of increased spatial resolution, suggesting to consumers to look out for HDR instead or in addition to ‘4K’.
8K Super Hi-Vision
8K spatial resolution – twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 4K and in TV context officially called UHD-2 – has been defined almost at the same time as 4K but is in a very different stage. 8K TV and camera hardware are generally in the prototype stage. They may reach commercial production quite soon but will likely only see (limited) adoption for professional applications like digital signage. In Japan, a consortium of In Japan, a consortium of TV industry companies and the government plan to have 8K TV broadcasts by the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, but elsewhere in the world most stakeholders are not even prepared to start discussing standards yet, as it’s clear 8K will have an even greater impact on the whole TV production and delivery chain than 4K does. Consequently, 8K TV services are very far removed from daily reality.
Any mainstream press coverage of 8K TV tends to either suggest 8K is a bridge too far or that 8K is nearly here and so any investment into 4K equipment is wasted. In order to avoid a wait-and-see attitude with consumers, the industry would be wise to give little public attention to 8K or they’ll shoot themselves in the foot.
Color bit depth that’s increased from 8 bits to 10 bits per channel (i.e. per R/G/B subpixel) gives greater color precision which is very helpful with HDR video for avoiding artefacts such as color banding. Without HDR this color depth is not that important which is probably a reason why TV manufacturers don’t make much mention of it. For production of HDR content 10-bit color is established practice (it’s also part of the specification of the HDR10 Media Profile and one of the requirements in the UHD Alliance’s Ultra HD Premium logo program). For HDR TVs, the ability to handle input signals with 10-bit color is also a requirement for Ultra HD Premium branding and more or less standard by now but the extent to which these HDR TVs actually use 10-bit processing all the way up to the display panel is not clear.
12-bit color is common in digital movie post-production and distribution. At some point it may become available for consumer distribution too but that will not be the case in the foreseeable future.
Wide Color Gamut or WCG, like increased color depth, goes hand in hand with HDR. All HDR TVs use WCG and reportedly, as of 2016 most UHD TVs that do not feature HDR do actually use WCG. Because there is no WCG content other than HDR content though, there is no real benefit for consumers and no point for TV makers to ‘sell’ this feature by itself. There is very little media hype around WCG but from a technology maturity point of view, WCG can be regarded to be following the cycle together with HDR, for both content and hardware, while noting that WCG hardware is more widespread than HDR hardware.
I’m not distinguishing different color gamuts here but regarding everything beyond Rec.709 color space as ‘wide’, even though displays don’t come close to covering all of the Rec.2020 color space yet; they’re currently achieving between 90% and 100% of DCI-P3 color space; a clear case of the technology not living up to the expectations yet.
HDR – HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG
High Dynamic Range (HDR) video is certainly at the peak of the hype cycle where media attention is concerned. While ‘4K’ has been the buzzword in TV technology for a couple of years, HDR has taken over. Two technologies or rather standards – the SMPTE’s open HDR10 and Dolby Lab’s proprietary Dolby Vision – are available in the consumer market and supported with hardware as well as content. Another HDR standard, Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG, developed by BBC and NHK) is expected to reach the market in the coming months. The press is only just starting to pick it up in the run-up to the 2016 IFA and IBC shows, both taking place in September. Early reports suggest HLG support can be added to most HDR TVs through a simple software upgrade, so adoption may happen fast. Also on the production side (cameras, editing tools) HLG support is often a matter of upgrading existing hardware with new software, which means roll-out of TV services using HLG may soon outpace other HDR formats.
On the hardware side, currently HDR10 is most widely available. All or virtually all HDR TVs (all of which are UHD TVs) in the market support HDR10, including Sony’s and Samsung’s. Some models, notably LG’s, support Dolby Vision in addition to HDR10. Vizio started out with Dolby Vision only but has added HDR10 support with a software update.
Concerning content, all Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs with HDR so far (which seems to be most of the titles) support HDR10, none support Dolby Vision – yet. A key reason is probably that the authoring tools for HDR10 were ready while those for Dolby Vision were only announced at NAB2016. Moreover, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) has defined HDR10 as a mandatory HDR format for both discs using HDR and players, while Dolby Vision and Philips’ HDR solution were declared optional.
Regarding stream content, both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video started out with HDR10 only and more recently adding support for Dolby Vision. Only Vudu employs exclusively Dolby Vision for HDR movies.
Apart from a trial here and experiment there, no HDR broadcasts exist yet. The Ultra HD Forum’s guidelines for UHD Phase A (2016) specify the use of HDR10 or HLG for broadcast TV, so hopefully transmissions will begin soon. Announcements may happen at IFA or IBC.
The fact that several competing HDR technologies exist could deter consumers. Some sensationalist media report about the situation suggesting a format war is imminent but that’s scaremongering, really. TV sets, Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs, OTT/ABR (Adaptive Bit Rate) video streaming apps and the services behind them all have the possibility to support multiple HDR standards.
HFR denotes High Frame Rate. In a cinema context that means 48fps instead of the regular 24fps, but in the TV/video ecosystem it means 100 or 120 fps, as opposed to the current 50 and 60 fps frame rates. Standardization of HFR could likely happen around 2018, and the AV press has hardly picked up on this buzzword yet. Of course that could change if a TV makers decides to start spreading the message. LG for instance has announced an HFR demo for IFA 2016.
Like with most of the innovations listed here, the hardware market will likely run well ahead of the introduction of actual services. At this point however both are at the very beginning of the hype cycle.
The H.265 (HEVC) video compression technology is finalized, implemented and deployed in the market, but not as widely yet as its predecessor H.264 (MPEG4-AVC), and even that is not universally used yet. Some operators are still using MPEG2-encoded channels because they’ve postponed investing in H.264 set-top boxes, perhaps hoping to skip right to H.265.
Here’s a technology where its use for TV services is not trailing the adoption in hardware by a long distance. That’s because when the installed base is there, using the codec provides immediate economic benefits, by making space for more channels in the same bandwidth through improved compression (and occasionally affording a little better quality).
What’s tempering expectations about H.265 is ongoing uncertainty about the licensing prices, although the worst shock is over now the HEVC Advance license pool has moderated its demands.
Organic LEDs form a display technology that delivers fabulous contrast and consumes relatively little energy. While this is not generally know, Samsung is a major manufacturer of OLED screens, but only for mobile devices – smartphones and tablets. After Samsung, Sony and Panasonic had given up on production of large-size OLED panels, LG is the only one to continue. Apparently they have figured out how to achieve decent yield rates. LG’s OLED UHD TV sets are now in their third generation and getting rave reviews. LG also supplies minor quantities of OLED panels to other TV brands such as Panasonic, Loewe and Metz.
Some brands shunning OLED panels have turned to ‘Quantum Dots’ or ‘Nanocrystals’ as a method for achieving Wide Color Gamut and HDR, notably Samsung. Lots of UHD TV models using this technology are available in the market and, like OLED, getting very positive reviews. Since Quantum Dots displays are based on LCD technology requiring backlighting, the black level is not as deep as with self-emissive OLED displays. Peak brightness on the other hand is significantly higher.
QLED is a term coined for electroluminescent quantum dots, which promise to combine the perfect black level and efficiency of OLED with the color performance of QD LCD/LED displays. QLED technology is still in development. If its proponents are to be believed we may see commercial products launched in 2018. For now, it’s at the very beginning of the hype cycle.
FALD is short for Full Array Local Dimming, a technology that adjust the LED backlighting of an LCD display in a number of zones that’s far greater than the single zone used in conventional ‘edge-lit’ LCD displays, though far smaller than the number of pixels (about 8 million) in a UHD screen. There is no fixed number for it. Typically it’s dozens or hundreds. The trend is upward, although some TV makers refuse to disclose how many zones they’re using exactly.
Although most innovations that the Ultra HD Forum deals with are video technologies, audio gets attention too. The generically described ‘next-generation audio’ (NGA) is required to be more immersive than the 5.1 and 7.1-channel surround sound formats that have been used since many years. In practice this means it will use object-based audio, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. With (Ultra HD) Blu-ray Disc and OTT VoD these audio formats are already used. For (live) TV broadcast, guidelines (and, presumably, workflow tools) are still in development, although some pilots have already taken place, during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony for instance.
DVD, Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray
Mainstream consumer perception seems to be optical discs for video distribution are quickly being displaced in the market by video streaming. For SD and HD resolutions, this is largely true. Consumer expectation then may be that for Ultra HD this will be the same but the bandwidth required is far greater and available infrastructure likely to be a bottleneck, even in many developed areas, for years to come. Netflix recommends an average sustained bit rate of 25 Mbps for ‘4K’, with a minimum of 15 Mpbs. Vodafone even requires a 50 Mpbs connection.
Ultra HD Blu-ray was developed to deliver high-bitrate video without any dependence on online connections. The format can handle bitrates of up to 128 Mbps. Players from various CE brands are available since early 2016. At the same time, movies on this format have started to get released by all the major studios except Disney, and even they are probably going to lend their support to this format in the near future.
Blu-ray (HD) in the meantime has, in 10 years time, established itself as a mass market consumer product, although it has not replaced DVD (SD) as successfully as DVD replaced VHS tape before it. DVDs has reached a significantly higher market penetration and to this day movies typically get released on DVD as well as BD
Yoeri Geutskens has worked in consumer electronics for more than 15 years. He writes about high-resolution audio and video. You can find his blog about Ultra HD and 4K at @UHD4k.
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