Posted by Michael Burns 23 September 2013
The future of TV: what broadcasters are working on
Every year, the IBC (International Broadcast Conference) in Amsterdam brings together tech makers, broadcasters, TV programme and filmmakers – and offers a different view of the future of TV and film than a consumer-focussed show like CES or IFA.
Those exhibitions let you know what TV set and set-top-box manufacturers want to sell to you in the future, but IBC shows what the broadcasters and programme/filmmakers are buying into – and that’s probably a more accurate view of the future, as without readily available content, hyped formats such as 4K offer nothing more than tech demos of beautiful landscapes.
4K is real
Luckily for those 4K TV makers, ultra-high-definition television (UHDTV, or sometimes Ultra HD) is becoming a reality. IBC 2013 witnessed the first time a full multi-camera production of a sports event was captured in 4K UHDTV and transmitted live internationally via satellite and fibre-based cable (like that offered to homes by Virgin and BT).
To make the transmission possible, BT captured the Saracens versus Gloucester Aviva League rugby match in London using three 4K UHDTV Sony cameras and mixers. Encoders and receivers from Ericsson encoded and decoded the four feeds in real-time.
Sony is throwing its full weight behind UHDTV. It showed an array of 4K-compatible cameras, displays – both consumer TVs and professional monitors – and back-end hardware for broadcasters – as well as 4K footage from this summer's FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil (above) in all its eye-popping colour and glory.
The company also announced at IBC that – in partnership with HBS and FIFA – it would record the World Cup Final 2014 in 4K.
“The move by FIFA is a big first step for Ultra HD,” said Katsunori Yamanouchi, VP of Sony’s broadcast arm, Sony Professional Solutions Europe. “It will help broadcasters understand the product and, when audiences see it – perhaps at public venues – it will begin to generate demand.”
How 4K makes your HD TV viewing better
4K capture is already being used by sports broadcasters to provide new viewing experiences within HD broadcasts. For example, broadcast tech developer EVS was touting its 4K zoom system for replays. This allows operators to zoom in on part of the action quicker while maintaining quality. So if a goal is scored out of nowhere – the operator can go back to a wide shot and zoom in on what happens for the replay without it becoming blurry.
The drive to 4K and above really stood out for documentary film editor and director Andrew Chastney (www.andrewchastney.com). “You simply can't get away from how stunning these images can be, on the right screen and with the right subject matter of course,” he said. “I think there will be some careful thinking about film craft too. You might get the wrong audience reaction if you use too many big close ups.”
Outside the 4K bubble, advancements were continuing to be demonstrated in the field of high dynamic range (HDR) video.
Similar in premise to HDR photography – and capable of the same beauty when used subtly and garishness when pushed too far – this records multiple versions of the same shot at different exposures, which are then combined to create a shot with a much deeper depth of contrast than standard footage.
We saw two separate methods of extending the dynamic range of a scene from researchers Fraunhofer (a wide-ranging research group best known for its work on the MP3 encoding format). One was based on a single camera by sampling pixels differently to get differently exposed results. The other using an array of 16 individual cameras (below) with different neutral density filters in front of the lens, with the signal stitched together by an algorithm into a single HDR image.
Fraunhofer also created a buzz by demonstrating the same 4-by-4 array of cameras being used to capture footage that you could decide where to focus later – essentially a video version of the Lytro still camera we were hyped-about-but-ultimately-disappointed by over the summer.
This implementation estimates a depth value for every pixel recorded by the cameras, so after the recording is made, the filmmaker is able to virtually 'drive' around a person or an object, to retrospectively readjust sharpness and to change the camera angles and depth of field.
Fraunhofer was also showing its Dialogue Enhancement technology to allow you to individually adjust the volume of dialogue, music, or sound effects within a single broadcast program. It uses an encoder that provides information to your set or set-top box about the different components of the audio, such as a commentator’s voice and the atmosphere of a sports stadium.
On a suitably equipped device, the user is then able to adjust the volume of the dialogue independently from the overall volume. Devices that are not capable of decoding the additional information will play back the mixed audio signal. If you are put off by grunts and squeals of Women's Tennis championships, as the IBC demo was showing, this may be just the thing for you.
Another quirky tech on show was INCA, an Android powered image processing system built into mini cameras that can measure acceleration, temperature and atmospheric pressure in realtime.
Demonstrated at IBC in the form of a mounted camera on an eagle for a nature film, the INCA system might be used in sports broadcasts to allow you to lay into the curves with a motorcylist, jump over rises with a mountain biker or 'run' past other competitors in athletics.
A fix for crap HD
High-resolution, HDR content is wonderful, but it might seem a ridiculous thing to discuss if you’re currently tolerating some of the highly compressed streams currently being passed off as HD by some broadcasters and Web-based TV/film services. We went in search of better solutions for this, and found it in the arcane, acronym-strewn world of codec development.
Some developers were showing solutions using the accurately named High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) – which is also known as H.265 as it offers half the bitrate of the H.264 standard used by the likes of YouTube and Apple. In simple terms, this means you can download twice as many pixels on the same bandwidth, thus much better quality – or at least, nowhere near as rubbish as what you might have now.