Ultra HD TV sales have started to take off, and it is one of the most talked about technologies at major industry events. There is a recognition that widespread adoption still faces some hurdles, and the industry must find ways to educate consumers and avoid losing them to a bewildering array of acronyms such as WCG, HFR, HDR, PQ, HLG, etc., ironically designed to better define the UHD user experience.
Telco Transformation met up with Thierry Fautier, president of the UHD Forum and vice-president of video strategy at Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT), to better understand the role of the organization, the challenges it is addressing and how he sees the adoption of UHD technology progressing.
Telco Transformation: What is the role of the UHD Forum, and what problems was it set up to address?
Thierry Fautier: The UHD Forum was set up two years ago. The goal was to help move the adoption of UHD -- to make it faster, more practical than existing organizations. We had a lot of bodies involved, a lot of standards bodies, but they all had one perspective -- distribution. But there were lots of other issues across the value chain that affect the UHD experience. We needed a more holistic perspective to move forward, and that is the role of the UHD Forum. UHD is not dependent on a single technology, so we can't just talk about one standard or one technology.
We announced the first set of requirements, Phase-1, at NAB this year and these are now being deployed commercially in 2016.
There is a second function of the UHD Forum, and that is testing. That is the second leg of the stool. And then the third leg is communicating, explaining, evangelizing. For example, we ran a masterclass on UHD at IBC. It provides a good snapshot of issues in the HDR [High Dynamic Range] space today.
TT: What are the current priorities for the Forum?
TF: So in 2016 our goal was to define the technical specifications we required, to create a process for their development, testing and approval, and also to communicate and evangelize Phase-1. Now, in 2017, we can move on to Phase-2. This focuses on new functionality. We will be looking at HFR [Higher Frame Rate], new EOTF [Electro-Optical Transfer Function; basis for a higher dynamic range for video display] and object-based audio, and we have to do it in a way that works with existing CPE [customer premises equipment]. Backwards compatibility is always a key issue so we need rock-solid backwards compatibility. And we will also be looking at other UHD audio-visual technologies that improve the experience of the end-user.
But this is a longer-term process -- it will take time to assess market needs and then develop the right approach. Phase-1 has been very intense because we felt there was more urgency in the market, to provide this direction to the market. Today operators are all deploying UHD solutions, but now we all want to assess what is relevant, test what is out there versus what is needed. We will also look at the maturity of the solutions, assess our options -- there is less time pressure.
TT: The big debate in the UHD space today seems to be about competing HDR approaches. What are your thoughts on the various approaches?
TF: Yes, there are multiple approaches and they require new CPE as well. With all of them you will need new silicon on the set-top box, and with Dolby, you will need a new TV as well. But we are seeing progress -- today's set-top boxes are compatible with UHD Phase-1 [with the more basic and open HDR-10 approach], so operators such as BT, Orange, Vodafone, DirecTV are all using Phase-1 compatible set-top boxes.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has defined two standards, HLG and PQ-10 [HDR-10 without the metadata requirement], but there are some performance issues we are concerned about when it comes to backwards compatibility. So we have to test and evaluate for Phase-2. We have defined the spec but have to measure it now. We are testing HLG at the moment, and we anticipate more clarity in 2017, and then we can decide what to bring on board. But the fat lady has not sung yet on this issue, and there is a lot to happen yet in terms of measurement. (See ITU Unveils New HDR Standard for TV.)
TT: So what would you advise a consumer to buy this Christmas season?
TF: Nothing. I wouldn't advise them to buy a TV based on HDR. TV manufacturers are talking about being able to upgrade software [for Phase-2 HDR] but it's still in flux. Some TVs are software-upgradeable but others are not. Maybe after CES [Consumer Electronics Show held in January 2017] they can officially support an approach. But until then, it's a bit unpredictable.
Right now even the messaging on HDR is a limited, but after CES we'll see new announcements. Then we'll see who the TV manufacturers will support. Right now there's not standard explanation about HDR, but we'll see much more communication at CES.
I think the technology is maturing and standards are nearly there. But it's still not the end of the story, it's the end of a chapter maybe.
TT: And what about the bandwidth requirements for UHD? Surely that is also a concern?
TF: Right now there are two stories. In real life, if you look at it, to do real UHD quality, you need 25Mbit/s streams. Netflix, when it says it does UHD, should be requiring 25 Mbit/s. You look at the European Championships [football/soccer] in France, they were done in 25 Mbit/s.
But there are people saying they can do it in 15 Mbit/s. This is not true -- there is a loss in quality. Vendors tell a nice story, but you shouldn't believe it. We can maybe improve the technology, find ways to do it under 20 Mbit/s, but that's tough for football, for sports. Very tough. It will take time to get it lower, for the technology to develop, get more efficient.
TT: And where do things stand with HEVC? There were issues with licensing costs.
TF: Nothing has moved. The problems remain. Licensing is holding up adoption.
TT: What are your expectations of 8K? Do you think it will be used for regular video services, such as TV shows?
TF: Yes, I think the technology has potential beyond 2020. Maybe not right now. Right now, the focus is on current challenges. But I feel 8K has potential for virtual reality. We need capture and encoding for VR that is very high, so 8K may be used for that.
TT: Finally, what is your prognosis for UHD TV?
TF: Today, we are already seeing TV sales take off, even without content. It's an interesting model!
But if we can bring them content, people will buy even more TVs. I think in 2017 we will have HDR, and in 2018 it will be mainstream. But content must be there. You can't move the needle with selected bits of content. If you tell them you will show one football match every Saturday, it's difficult. You need a steady stream of content to keep driving adoption.
Today, the content isn't really there. But the stars are aligning. Standards, TVs, chipsets -- it's all taking off. Last year, I might have said it's not really working for UHD, but in one year we have seen a lot of progress. So it's taking off.
UHD may not revolutionize the world, but it definitely offers a better experience to people willing to spend a little more.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation