Will 2014 Be the Year of 4K?
What will 2014 hold for the advancement of 4K? If the recent IBC 2013 in Amsterdam is any indication, 4K technology, for TV and film, is here to stay. Skeptics can point out that, not long ago, 3D was the darling of new technologies. But it's worth noting that, though stereo 3D is out of favor, it hasn't disappeared, still a go-to technology for Hollywood blockbusters like Gravity and restorations (see Jaws and The Wizard of Oz).
IBC 2013 pushed 4K down the road, with 4K TV distribution demonstrations and partnerships, new cameras and other new products. Prognosticators can now set their sights on NAB 2014, but all signs point to higher resolution 2014.
NEW 4K CAMERAS
With the RED Epic, Canon Cinema EOS C500, Blackmagic Design's 4K Production Camera, and Sony CineAlta F65 (at 8K) and CineAlta F55, there is no shortage of 4K cameras. But now there are more of them. At IBC 2013, Sony unveiled two new 4K cameras aimed at cost-effective 4K production, and Panasonic released more details about the upcoming 4K VariCam.
Sony unveiled two new cameras at the prosumer/consumer end of the spectrum: the PXW-Z100, an entry-level professional camcorder priced at under $6,500 that offers image sampling at 4:2:2 10-bit is a ½-inch single sensor 4K camcorder with a fixed 20x lens. The PXW-Z100 relies on Sony's XAVC recording format (first used for the CineAlta F55) and uses MPEG-4 AVC/ H.264 compression for HD (1920x1080), QFHD (3840x2016) and 4K (4096×2160) content.
Sony's new PXW-Z100
Sony also introduced a 4K consumer-level camera, which is likely to be used in at least some prosumer applications. The FDR-AX1, priced at under $4,500, records in the XAVC-S format, which uses MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 Long GOP for video and linear PCM for audio compression and saves files in an MP4 wrapper. Although the two Sony 4K camcorders won't be available until the end of 2013, optic maker Zunow showed a prototype of a wide angle adapter for them.
The Sony FDR-AX1
Panasonic, which had already stated it would develop a 4K version of the popular Varicam camera recorder, went to the next step at IBC, saying they would "prioritize" said-development… with a launch of sometime in 2014. Panasonic plans to "speed the development" of the 4K VariCam by using large-scale integration chip technology with AVC-Ultra. The proposed 4K VariCam is slated to support 4K from 24p to 100/120p. Panasonic also stated that the new Ultra P2 cards will ship in conjunction with the 4K VariCam. The 256GB Ultra P2 cards will have the same form factor as today's P2 cards, with a high speed PCIe interface.
Will Panasonic have both the 4K VariCam recorder and Ultra P2 cards ready for NAB 2014? Nobody is currently making any promises or projecting any dates.
BROADCAST IN 4K
Much has been made over the fact that our current TV broadcast industry is simply not ready for 4K. No one came up with a solution to over-the-air broadcast of 4K TV, but at IBC 2013, numerous companies partnered to launch a variety of UltraHD satellite channels and demonstrations of 4K content distribution via satellite. Eutelsat Communications, in partnership with video compression provider ATEME, plans to launch what the company calls the first UltraHD satellite channel in Europe. The channel operates at 50p, is encoded in MPEG-4 and transmitted at 40 Mbit/s in four Quad HD streams. The transmissions are uplinked to the Eutelsat 10A satellite from its teleport near Paris.
Intelsat, BT Media and Broadcast, Ericsson, Sony and Newtec banded together to capture and transmit a multi-camera sports event in 4K TV. The demonstration utilized three 4K Sony cameras and mixers to cover a premier league rugby match in London on September 15. Ericsson AVP 2000 contribution encoders and RX8200 advanced modular receivers encoded and decoded the four 3G-SDI feeds in real-time. BT Media and Broadcast, which produced the event, used MPEG-4 AVC compression before transmitting the signal as 100Mbps video to Intelsat at BT Telehouse West. Intelsat uplinked the signal to Intelsat 1W (with Newtec's M6100 Broadcast Satellite Modulator equipment), sending a 4:2:2 10-bit, 60 fps 4K signal to IBC visitors.
Spanish satellite operator HISPASAT – which provides services to Latin America, Spain and Portugal – unveiled its new Ultra High Definition (UHD) satellite TV channel, HISPASAT 4K at IBC 2013.
Also at the show, satellite operator SES introduced its plans to expand UltraHD services to Europe, Latin America and Africa. The company demonstrated UltraHD in partnership with Sky Deutschland and Harmonic to Humax and Technicolor UltraHD consumer set-top boxes, connected to a Sony 4K TV screen. In another demonstration, SES and Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute broadcast UltraHD content in the new HEVC standard, but at higher frame rates.
AJA Video Systems made a strong 4K statement at IBC, previewing its Io 4K, which connects to any Thunderbolt 2-enabled device and offers an additional Thunderbolt 2 port for daisy-chaining other peripherals such as displays and storage. AJA stressed that its Io 4K also integrates with "leading post-production and delivery tools such as Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Creative Cloud, AJA Control Room, Telestream Wirecast 5 and more to be announced." Io 4K, which will be available when the new Mac Pro ships, includes 4x bi-directional 3G-SDI, 4K HDMI I/O, backwards compatibility with existing Thunderbolt hosts, and real-time 4K to HD down-conversion for HD-SDI and HDMI monitoring among others.
Io 4K supports the latest 4K and UltraHD devices for capture and output with realtime high-quality scaling of 4K and UltraHD to HD for monitoring and conversion.
AJA also unveiled TruZoom, a combo software and external joystick controller that drives AJA's Corvid Ultra video I/O platform that allows the user to scale any 16:9 region within 4K frames to HD in real-time. HD extraction from a 4K image has been put forward as ideal for sports broadcasts; AJA is marketing it for "live event production, professional AV, and digital film" in addition to sports.
AJA Video Systems President Nick Rashby noted that, "TruZoom has already been proven in critical on-air broadcast environments, including the MLB Network, which was very pleased with its performance during the baseball Division Series playoff games." Features include support for High Frame Rate (HFR) and 4:4:4 workflows; ability to work with real-time signals, or recorded uncompressed files; and instant real-time playback and interaction at the highest quality. In addition, all parameters are key-frameable.
TruZoom software with external joystick controller is available for just under $10,000. A RAW Debayer firmware option is available for just under $2,000. TruZoom runs exclusively with the AJA Corvid Ultra and requires at least one TruScale option card. Corvid Ultra is priced at just under $8,000 and each TruScale option card costs just under $3,500.
In the arena of Mini-Converts, AJA also released several new Mini-Converters; the 4K2HD downconverts 4K 3G-SDI to HD-SDI and HDMI 1.4 simultaneously, and can be used for HD monitoring with 4K cameras. Supporting 4K (4096x2160) and UHD (3840x2160) input signals, 4K2HD enables simultaneous HD-SDI and HDMI output from 4K, downscaled at high-quality to HD. Additionally, a "pixel for pixel" center cut of the original 4K/UHD frame is supported for camera focus checks. 4K2HD also supports the latest 4K/UHD 50/60fps high frame rate input formats, which then output as 25/30fps to HD. The 4K2HD Mini-Converter is highly configurable via the supplied AJA MiniConfig software for Mac and PC.
The AJA 4K2HD downconverts 4K 3G-SDI to HD-SDI and HDMI 1.4 simultaneously
Also new in the 4K arena from AJA is the KUMO v3.0 firmware update, which enables Dual Link, 4K and Ultra HD support in its KUMO family of compact SDI routers. The new firmware also supports ganged dual and quad port routing, which will enable Dual Link, 4K and Ultra HD workflows.
Blackmagic Design also came out with a number of new Ultra HD products, building on the UltraHD workflow demonstrated at NAB 2013.
ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K
At NAB, the company introduced the ATEM Production Studio 4K Ultra HD live production switcher. New at IBC was the ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K, priced at $2,495, which offers 10 independent 6G-SDI inputs each with frame sync, built-in DVE with zoom, scale and rotate, 4 upstream chroma keyers, 3 independent aux outputs with front panel control and a larger media pool that holds both still frame graphics as well as motion video clips. Three new 4K Mini Converters (Mini Converter Optical Fiber 4K, Mini Converter SDI-to-HDMI 4K and Mini Converter SDI Multiplex 4K) are all priced at $495 and are compatible with SD, HD and Ultra HD equipment, automatically switching between video formats.
Mini Converter SDI-to-HDMI 4K
4K possibilities were prevalent elsewhere on the floor. Adobe demonstrated 4K workflows with Speedgrade CC and Premiere Pro CC; Assimilate showed Scratch 4K workflows; AMD showed 4K workflows with Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Blackmagic Design's DaVinci; and Bluefish444 also showed 4K workflows with Premiere Pro CC, Assimilate Scratch and other products. Elsewhere, Marquise Technologies demonstrated uncompressed 4K color grading.
The lack of a 4K monitor has been one of the Achilles' heels of the UltraHD workflow, and there was some – but not much – progress at IBC 2013, with most of the products planned for 2014. Blackmagic's SmartScope Duo 4K, a dual 8-inch LCD rack monitoring with built in broadcast- accurate waveform monitoring moved the needle forward by including 6G-SDI for Ultra HD support.
But Sony and Panasonic are still at the prototype phase. Sony's 4K 56-inch OLED monitor was demonstrated in a black curtained off space as it was shown at NAB 2013. The company intends to launch the monitor "sometime next year."
Panasonic also showed its prototype 4K monitor, which the company intends to release by the end of 2013; the BT-4LH310 will be a 31-inch 4096 x 2160 resolution LCD monitor for studio or field use. The 4LH310's 4K 10-bit IPS panel will offer native 4K resolution, a wide viewing angle, and can accurately display ITU-R BT.709. The LCD monitor provides multiple inputs including HD-SDI, 3G-SDI and HDMI; and a 3D look-up table (LUT) among other features.
If you have been wondering what 4K is good for, a visit to IBC will not put you entirely at ease. It's great that we've seen satellite transmission of a 4K feed. Now we know it's possible. But is it probable? How many consumers in the targeted regions (Africa, Latin America, Europe) have 4K TVs? And how many will make the switch for the occasional sports program? It's the chicken-and-egg scenario familiar to anyone who went through the SD-to-HD transition. Remember how long that took?
For feature films, 4K capture has worked and will continue to be used for select projects, while everyone downstream struggles to gerryrig the workflow. Although an increasing amount of 4K gear is now available for post, post house owners must be asking themselves who's going to pay them to add 4K gear to their debt Can it even be amortized before 6K or 8K comes down the pike?
I'm not asking any questions that haven't already been posed; I ask them to show that we still don't have answers. At their October 2013 annual meeting, SMPTE will hold a technical symposium on "next generation imaging formats." Maybe a group of engineers can plot out an ideal roadmap. But the best standardization on the planet still won't resolve the issue of how business people will make the switch in these never-tougher times.
In principle, I love the idea of more resolution – I've seen 4K projected and it looks awesome. Maybe we'll all be 4K one day, and maybe it will take less time than it did to move to HD. But the road ahead is full of potholes and is anything but straight and narrow. For now, I think I'll stay home and watch my perfectly nice 2K TV.