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2021: An 8K Odyssey

Unravelling the future of Super Ultra HD broadcasting a journey into La-la Land

By Shirish Nadkarni

It is nearly three years since that momentous day in December 2018, when NHK began public broadcasting in 8K. The ambitious Japanese broadcaster led with a classic bit of film — a newly restored 70mm version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, designed specifically for the broadcast. And NHK made the bold prediction that the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020 would be broadcast in 8K Ultra HD.

Indeed, many around the globe who had the opportunity to watch the Games in 8K were enthralled by the crystal clear images of the Olympians in action. Some lauded NHK, believing it would get the 8K Ultra HD broadcasting revolution off the ground.

Will it?

It was only in 2017 that TV manufacturers pushed to make 4K a new standard, not least because of the snob value of owning a 4K-compatible TV set (which cost upwards of US$8,000 in its early days). Although talks have begun circulating of the upgrade to the 8K standard, the feasibility of a fast transition to 8K is questionable in view of the absence of broadcasting resources. In reality, the mass adoption of 8K TV will not take place any time soon, unless we are living in La-la Land.

Until late-2018, few cameras had the capability to shoot video in 8K. NHK had been one of the few companies to have created a small broadcast camera with an 8K image sensor. By end-2018, Red Digital Cinema Camera Company delivered three 8K cameras in both a full-frame sensor and Super 35 sensor … and so talks started to surface that the 8K Ultra HD broadcasting revolution would start soon.

It’s crazy to believe that consumers will just dump their 4K HD television sets and buy the more expensive 8K receivers. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has also put the brakes firmly on the plans of several noteworthy broadcasters to follow NHK’s example, and carve a niche for themselves in the brave new world of 8K broadcasting. But in hindsight, there are reasons to believe that, even if COVID had not struck, the rollout of 8K broadcasting would have been sluggish, if not stalled outright.

8K display resolution is the successor to 4K resolution. By definition, 8K refers to an image or display resolution with a width of approximately 8,000 pixels. 4K (also referred to as UHD-1) resolution has been specified as 3820 x 2160, whereas 8K UHD-2 (7680 × 4320) is the highest resolution defined in the Rec. 2020 (UHDTV) standard.

Why there is so much buzz about 8K …

“If you thought that 4K was still not fully mainstream, you’d be correct,” says Thierry Fautier, VP – Business Development & Innovation, for Harmonic. “But if this is the case, and broadcasters worldwide are still adopting 4K UHD technology, why is there so much buzz about 8K?”

In terms of progress, 8K seems like the natural evolution of 4K. However, it does have its challenges. The resolution of 8K is double 4K at 7640 x 4320. 8K also doubles the frame rate to 120 fps from 60 fps for 4K.

Even 4K technology is still regarded as relatively new, having only been around for less than a decade. According to the Ultra HD Forum Service Tracker, the amount of UHD (i.e. 4K) services available — including on-demand and ‘live’ — is less than 200 services. The majority of these UHD services (around 75%) are linear, while the remaining 25% serve VOD customers.

Netflix provided the first 4K stream in 2014, and the first large broadcast event was the Rio Olympics in 2016. China has expressed interest in broadcasting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in 8K.

Even with the popularity of major VOD companies and numerous UHD services using 4K, one could argue that it still has not peaked, and the time for 8K mass adoption is still distant. For reference, the United States continues to lack offerings for a 24/7 live UHD service, and many broadcasters in Europe and South America remain in the planning stages of offering terrestrial 4K experiences in 2024. 

Chicken-and-egg scenario

 “While 8K technology is available, its limited content and costly production pose industry challenges before it can become mainstream,” says Fautier. 

 “The mass adoption or investment in 8K technologies for broadcasters is very much a ‘chicken-and- egg’ scenario — it does not make a lot of sense, currently, for consumers to purchase 8K TV sets when there is not a wealth of 8K content available to consume. Without the proper mediums to deliver 8K content, many broadcasters are waiting for the appropriate time to produce UHD-2 content that consumers can enjoy.”

An 8K Association was created to promote this adoption; and Asia is one of the few regions where this content is available – via satellite to some connected TVs. According to a Mordor Intelligence report entitled ‘8K Market – Growth, Trends, and Forecast (2020 – 2025)’, Japan was the first to introduce a broadcast channel dedicated to 8K content. 

To offer an idea of the current requirements to enjoy this experience, Mordor Intelligence mentions that “one will need an 8K TV, a dedicated satellite to receive the transmission, and in some cases a replacement for boosters and distributor boxes”.

In neighbouring China, the focus is on the consumer product manufacturing side, which will project the Asia-Pacific region as having the fastest growth in the 8K technology market. As such, it may behove broadcasters in Western countries to closely monitor the adoption and rollout of 8K in the Asia-Pacific region to determine the best approach of entering the market.

It is axiomatic that consumer adoption would be the driver for broadcasters to produce 8K content. However, consumer tests have produced disappointing results. The results of a recent 4K vs 8K perceptibility test revealed that the increase in resolution from 4K to 8K did not result in “significantly improved visual difference”. 

However, it should be mentioned that the types of content used in the test did not include broadcast or sports content, leaving more testing to be desired in programs where FPS rates are more important.

Logistical issues in creating content

“The logistics of creating content for the owners of 8K TVs require an array of new technologies and expanded storage capacity,” says Fautier. “For one, it’s necessary to use advanced recording equipment that can capture 8K video, such as the Red 8K camera that costs over $54,000 a piece.

“There are also several practical difficulties in delivering 8K content. Typically, 8K requires 48 Gbps, either using 4x12G SDI infrastructure or over IP using ST 2110. 4K (12 Gbps) is still under interoperability testing, and we expect it will take several years before we can see the same with 8K.”

But some companies involved in sportscasting are pushing forward. BT Sport, which was the first operator to deliver 4K in HDR, recently demonstrated an 8K live production workflow. They are also now offering a limited number of 8K EPL (English Premier League) football matches to connected TVs for upcoming seasons.

Distribution bitrate is also of critical importance in delivering 8K. Today, 8K is delivered via satellite or over IP to connected TVs. Since 8K video has a much higher resolution than 4K video, more bandwidth is required to deliver 8K video streams.

However, if your video delivery solutions support HEVC, you can significantly lower your video’s bitrate. The bitrate for 8K video services that use HEVC is between 85 Mbps for satellite and 65 Mbps for OTT. 

In 2019, Harmonic was part of the pioneering process to drive 8K over 5G for the French Open Tennis Tournament. With a goal to provide an immersive viewing experience, 100 hours of the tournament were streamed worldwide to 8K TVs and phones on 5G networks. 

“Using VOS Cloud-Native Software, Harmonic and 18 vendors utilised 8K TV cameras, transmission equipment, servers, media processing software, 8K television sets, and 5G mobile phones to successfully prove the application of live broadcasting, catch-up TV, and VOD across TVs and mobile devices,” Fautier says.

 Broadcasters still investing in 4K

Considering that 4K is just beginning to solidify itself as a mainstream technology, many broadcasters are logically still investing in the UHD-1 realm. As more broadcasters continue to deliver content in 4K and mainstream events like the upcoming Winter Olympics in China and international soccer championships will likely bolster adoption, 8K adoption will likely remain a technology of the future rather than one that is widely adopted today.

From a gaming perspective, we are nowhere near ready for 8K, and the GPU company responsible for driving most of the PC gaming market, Nvidia, is pushing hard in the opposite direction. Nvidia’s entire push behind ray tracing is predicated on the idea that it is far better to strike a new course and introduce new visual effects and capabilities at lower resolutions as opposed to higher ones.

Until major content sources are available, 8K is speculated to become a mainstream consumer display resolution only around 2023, as mentioned in UHD forum Phase-B recommendations. It is predicted (as per a forecast made by Strategy Analytics in 2018) that 8K-ready devices will still only account for 3% of UHD TVs by 2023, with global sales of 11 million units a year, hitting over-enthusiastic consumers hard in their pockets.

It is estimated that, after 2024, 8K technology will mature enough to benefit from the arrival of new codecs, cost reduction of electronics on the consumer side, and increased availability of resources to deploy 8K.

Until then, upconversion technology at the headend or TV manufacturer side is the best short-term solution. To think otherwise is to live in La-la Land.

Question: In the world of software-defined content production solutions, aided by 5G, when will 8K Ultra HD broadcasting become mainstream?

By 2025, 2028 or 2031? Kindly send your response to maven@editecintl.com.

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