Ultra-HD Risky Crossroad

The transition from HDTV to Ultra-HD TV is at a risky unsettled crossroad. Should your customers cross now or later?  And when they act; Which direction should they take?  The answer is fraught with evolving specifications that could jeopardize their expectations and investment.  Yet the answer can also lead to an awe-inspiring home theater experience well beyond HDTV.  Before we address the question, let’s take an inventory of the unsettling evolving issues.

An element of the anxiety originates in the terms that have been used to describe video resolution beyond HDTV. This includes Ultra-HD, Super Hi-Vision, 4K, and 8K. For a time, the term Ultra-HD encompassed 4K, 8K, and twice HD resolution.  This issue has been resolved by the Consumer Electronic Association.

The CEA has officially defined Ultra-HD as video with a resolution of 3840 pixels per line x 2160 lines with a 16:9 aspect ratio.  In addition, an Ultra-HD television must have a least one digital input capable of managing 3840 x 2160 pixels.  This also involves a new HDMI specification.  More on that later.

The CEA seemingly resolved the confusion regarding resolution.  Yet some still refer to  Ultra-HD as 4K because 3840 pixels is almost 4000 pixels.  But Ultra-HD is not 4K.   4K is the Digital Cinema Initiative specification for digital movie theater cinema. The DCI defines 4K as:
– A picture with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio or Scope presentation with 4096×1716 pixels.
– A picture with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio presentation with 3996×2160 pixels.
The DCI standards are only relevant to our Ultra-HD TV conversation in regards to color.  More on that later.

Note: Do not confront customers with the misuse of the terms Ultra-HD and 4K. AV Pros should simply continue to correctly refer to TVs with 3840 x 2160 resolution as Ultra-HD or UHD. Customers will eventually catch on.

Three Conditions
The CEA definition is a welcomed clarification. But fulfilling the ultimate promise of Ultra-HD TV is dependent on three conditions.
1. Support for the essentials: HDMI 2.0a, HDCP 2.2, HEVC
2. An upgrade path: HDR, the C.I.E. REC 2020 Spec
3. Prep for Virtual Reality.

The Essentials
HDMI 2.0a
It is generally known among AV Pros that HDMI 2.0 is required to pass an Ultra-HD source at 60 frames per second to the TV screen.  HDMI 1.4 will not ‘make the cut’.  This includes video switching via an AV receiver or AV preamp/processor.  However a new version, HDMI 2.0a, is on the scene.      The ‘a’ in 2.0a designates support for HDR formats. (HDR will be discussed later.)  The essential point: Although HDMI 2.0 meets the minimum essential requirement; HDMI 2.0a will be the prerequisite for maximizing performance in the near HDR future.

HDCP 2.2
The next essential is HDCP 2.2 (high-bandwidth digital content protection).  This is an issue for early Ultra-HD adopters.  Many initial Ultra-HD TVs did not include support for HDCP 2.2.  This holds true for AV receivers.  HDCP 2.2 encrypted Ultra-HD video will not pass to the TV screen without HDCP 2.2.

HEVC
The final essential is HEVC (high efficiency video coding).  As HDTV’s MPEG4, HEVC squeezes Ultra-HD video within the limited bandwidth of our video media.  It’s a decode prerequisite for source components such as the Ultra-HD Blu-ray player, media servers, streaming boxes, plus broadcast off-air, satellite, and cable TV.

Compression Notes:
1. HEVC has potential competitors: Google’s VP9, Mozilla/XiPh Daala, and Cisco’s Thor.  However it appears they may be limited, if used, to Internet streaming and personal computers.
2. HEVC has also proposed to replace the current MPEG4 audio partners of ACC and Dolby AC3 with MPEG-H and Dolby AC4.  The decoding will take place in the AV receiver, AV pre/pro, or source component.

Upgrade Path
Customers are justifiably concerned about product obsolescence.  Postpone their appointment with the recycle bin with a TV that supports High-dynamic-range (HDR) formats, and the C.I.E. REC 2020 specification.  This duo will dodge the bin while delivering more visible improvement than the increased resolution from HDTV to Ultra-HD TV.

HDR Formats
HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a moniker for several encode/decode digital formats that expand the range of luminance (the brightest light to the darkest black) well beyond HDTV or an Ultra-HD TV without HDR support. This isn’t about increasing the number of pixels.  HDR makes every pixel better via a broader palate of color, more shadow detail, and stunning contrast.  It produces a more life-like picture.

An HDR enabled TV is needed to reproduce a decoded HDR formatted video source.  The actual decoding takes place in the source component (Blu-Ray player, media server, cable box).  An HDR enabled TV is simply a TV capable of reproducing the dynamic range of the decoded HDR source.

There are several competing HDR formats: Dolby Vision, BBC, Philips, Technicolor, and VIDITY formerly called the Secure Content Storage Association.  The Blu-ray Disc Association has already announced support for Dolby Vision and the Philips formats. No format has yet been adopted for broadcast. Dolby has acknowledged that live broadcasting in Dolby Vision is currently not possible, though the company is working on it.  But Technicolor has successfully completed a HDR broadcast test.  Keep tuned for more news.

C.I.E. REC 2020 Specification
In 1931 the C.I.E. (an international commission on illumination) quantified a standard for the color range of human vision.  It is referred to as the C.I.E. ‘color space’.  As a reference; The HDTV C.I.E. REC 709 spec can reproduce 35.9% of the color space.  The DCI (digital cinema initiative) P3 reference covers 53.6%.  The new C.I.E. REC 2020 specification, (a pillar of HDR formats), increases color space coverage to 75.8%.

In addition to expanded color space, REC 2020 adds the frame rate option of 120 frames per second. To date (Oct 2015), we are still waiting for Ultra-HD TVs with HDMI 2.0a support that can handle up to 60fps let alone 120fps.  Vizio announced a TV that will offer HDMI 2.0a and it ‘may’ support 120 fps; it might even arrive on the sales floor by the end of 2015.

The fundamental upgrade point: HDR formats provide for the implementation of the C.I.E. REC 2020 Specification.  And the C.I.E.120 fps option opens a gate to the ultimate UltraHD future of Virtual Reality.

Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality (VR) is the portal to the AV frontier. Consumer head-set prototypes are currently focused on the high-end gamer. But the technology has the potential to expand into the arena of large screen TVs.   In there lies an upgrade path to an ultimate Ultra-HD TV home theater experience.

Virtual Reality is more than pixel counts, color space, and frames rates. VR developers have engaged an understanding of how our brain works.  They are employing a slice of science that sort of hacks the human brain. Consider this Virtual Reality scene.  You’re standing at the edge of a VR cliff. You attempt a virtual jump.  But you can’t.  You can’t because VR has targeted and stimulated your brain with specific flashed patterns of light that initiate your involuntary response to survive.  You can’t step forward even though you know it’s not real.  It’s simply amazing.

To date, the best of Virtual Reality uses an AM-OLED 90 fps display headset feed by a fast powerful computer.  So, how does a headset based product apply to a large screen TV?  Well, the headset doesn’t. But an off-shoot of VR technology does.  It’s called Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a limited field of view version of VR aimed at gamers and commercial applications.  Some prototypes have moved this version of VR from the headset to the small video screen of a smart phone or tablet.  Although it is not as encompassing as VR, AR still creates an immersive experience. If Augmented Reality is successful; it is then reasonable to predict a future where AR exploits a 100 inch UltraHD REC 2020 full color space 120fps OLED TV. And that my friend puts the ultimate Ultra in Ultra-HD TV.

Ed, will you please answer the question?
OK …the risky evolving Ultra-HD issues have been identified.  Let’s address the question. Should your customers cross now or later?  When they do, which direction should they take?  The answer rests in the three conditions.  Each supports a different path of risk and performance.  Select a path that aligns best with your customer’s product-cycle-lifestyle: ‘early adopter’, ‘patient enthusiast’, or ‘family budget AV buff’.

If your customer is an early adopter; select a TV that supports HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and the D.C.I. P3 color space specification.  That’s as good as it gets so far. Early adopters understand (at least they should) that their TV is headed for an early appointment with the recycle bin.  That’s OK.  By definition early adopters are eager to move on and buy the next better product.

If your customer is the patient enthusiast, ‘pull the trigger’ when support for HDR and the C.I.E. REC 2020 color spec arrives.  Confirm the essential of HDMI 2.0a.  If they can wait for a TV that supports 120 fps; then the door to Augmented Reality is open.  All of this should become available in 2016.

If your customer is the value oriented on a family budget AV buff; do not let them buy an Ultra-HD TV.  Save money, install a HDTV.  If they have a plasma TV, tell them to keep it.

AV Note: Home theater projectors are poised to benefit the most from Ultra-HD, HDR, and C.I.E. REC 2020.  Consider almost invisible pixels on a 100 inch or more all encompassing wide screen with the expanded color and stunning contrast.  Wow….!   Use the ‘three conditions’ and your customer’s ‘product-cycle-lifestyle’ to choose that projector.

The chicken & the egg
I have avoided the Ultra-HD elephant in the room –- the availability of Ultra-HD sources.  What can you watch?  Well not much Ultra-HD, yet.  Before we address the options, let’s add perspective to this Ultra-pachyderm.

Someone has to be the first to ‘crack the egg’ or ‘fry the chicken’.   I can clearly recall setting up the first 50 inch Pioneer rear projection 3-gun CRT HDTV.  What did we watch?  We gawked at a 15 minute HD program loop sourced from an exclusive Ku band (small dish) satellite broadcast.  We also added a set-top-box-line-doubler-scaler (@1/3 of the TV’s price) to produce an acceptable DVD picture.  NTSC to HD processing in the early generation HD sets was awful.  But compare that situation to 6000 very expensive black & white TVs in U.S. homes in 1946 with almost nothing to watch.  Or color TV programming in 1965 that was limited to prime time evening broadcasts; the only source of video.

UltraHD TV is in a much better state.  Over-the-air broadcast do not exist yet.  But pay per view Ultra-HD is available via DirectTV’s Genie.  The Genie uses a proprietary wireless ‘connection’ with a limited number of TV models from Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba.  A just announced DirectTV Genie Mini will work with any UltraHD TV that supports HDMI 2.0 @ 60fps and HDCP 2.2.   Comcast has launched an UltraHD app for Samsung TVs that offers NBC and the USA Network.  Comcast will soon offer a set top box that will be compatible with more brands of TVs.  Streaming via Netfilix and Amazon is available if your Internet connection can support it.  Sony and others offer media servers (hard drives with operating software) supported by Internet download services.  UltraHD Blu-ray should be on retail shelves in 2016.  And there is a huge library of 4K and 8K movies being prepped for all of the above.  Plus, don’t discount an improved High Definition picture on an Ultra-HD TV with expanded color space and good video scaling and processing.

The Quest
The objective is to improve the home theater experience.  Even if your customer does not buy an Ultra-HD TV; use their Ultra-HD interest as an opportunity to assess their room lighting, acoustics, video sources, and audio system.  Appropriate lighting will produce a better picture on any TV.  Better video sources (lower noise) will enhance the picture further. Assess the interconnects.  The HD cable box may still be using the composite video path. (This still exist.) Bigger better speakers, a more powerful amplifier, plus an address of acoustical problems will complement their enhanced video with an injection of sonic induced goose-bumps.

Minimize risk and maximize performance as you lead your customer across the risky crossroad of Ultra-HD TV.  Join my quest to ‘save the world from poor fidelity’.

Join me @ edsavhandbook.com

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