8K Continues Carving a Niche

Hot Button Discussion

by Michael Goldman

At one point not so long ago, certain elements of the broadcast industry were hoping that “2020 would be the big year for 8K, because of [Japanese broadcaster NHK’s] plan to broadcast the Summer Olympics in 8K,” recalls Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media and executive director of the 8K Association. “That was going to be the premier event, all kinds of new equipment was going to be announced, and there was going to be some hype and pomp and circumstance around 8K, certainly in Japan. Now, all that is postponed at least a year, so we will have to wait and see what happens.”

Chinnock, of course, is referring to the rapid hit that nailed the entire industry—indeed, the entire world—due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That crisis, among other things, pushed back the 2020 Summer Olympic Games to next year, and also had numerous repercussions across the broadcast industry, such as the cancellation or postponement of most production, live events, trade shows such as NAB and IBC, and numerous other in-person industry activities. In the case of the development, implementation, and practicality of weaving 8K-capable broadcast content, equipment, and workflows into the equation, however, Chinnock remains optimistic that the 8K broadcast push will keep moving forward.

“Although [the pandemic] took a lot of wind out of the balloon, in talking to a number of vendors who were at NAB last year, and folks who were planning to go to IBC this year, I’m being told that many of the [8K-related] products they were planning to release are pretty much going to come out as scheduled,” Chinnock explains. “So, product-wise, there is not that much of a delay. The delay has been more related to production. But that said, whenever you are doing production, 8K capture continues to make sense in many areas. The phenomenon of over-sampling—capturing in 8K and delivering in 4K or 2K or some other lower resolution—offers the same benefits that we got when 4K cameras came out several years ago. There remains a great benefit in terms of capturing at higher resolution, even if delivery will be lower resolution. If you capture at the higher resolution and downscale the whole image, you create a better fidelity image than you would have captured at a native lower resolution. This also allows you to do panning-and-scanning and cropping, meaning you can manipulate the image in more flexible ways.

“On the sports side, we have interesting applications with two, three, or more 8K cameras looking at a whole field of play. They now have software that can pull out one to four crops within that, so a full 8K image can give you four UHD images or four HD images. They can be tracked to an individual player or object, and the windows can move around this 8K canvas and become camera feeds if you do it right. In other words, one 8K camera can potentially do the job of two to four standalone cameras. That is pretty powerful stuff.”

He adds that at this point in time, “we basically have all the equipment we need for live and file-based 8K capture, production, and distribution. NHK has led that for more than 20 years, and now we have other vendors jumping in across the field with a full range of cameras, switchers, converters, and software, and people are doing up-conversion, down-conversion, high dynamic range, standard dynamic range—you name it.”

Chinnock also emphasizes that the current media landscape offers all sorts of opportunities for 8K capture, archiving, and eventual viewing when one considers that, for the foreseeable future, at-home consumer entertainment via broadcast or OTT streaming is pretty much the center of the entertainment universe. Indeed, many of the key aspects of the 8K paradigm were discussed in May of this year in a pair of remote video panels that Chinnock and other industry experts participated in for the NAB Express program on two important 8K topics—one on the issue of creating 8K content and another on delivering 8K content to consumer homes.

One reason he is so optimistic is the fact that high quality content has never been in greater demand by consumers. He points out “we are in the middle of a streaming war, after all,” and therefore “this is a golden age of content creation.” Thus, with seemingly unlimited viewing platforms available, the creation of high-quality imagery that can be down-sampled from the aforementioned, information-filled “8K canvas,” simply makes a lot of sense in his view.

Additionally, he continues, the business mechanics of the television manufacturing industry have placed 8K panels at “the tip of the spear” of the imaging ecosystem, even long before there will be significant volumes of 8K content available to illustrate everything that those televisions can do.

“All the improvements we always talk about arrive nicely in an 8K picture,” he states. “I’m sure most 8K televisions will have higher dynamic range and better color gamut and luminance levels,” he says. “That goes to the point of why would a consumer want to buy an 8K TV today. The answer is that 8K sits on top of the pyramid with all these other things. If you want to buy a new Smart TV, you want the best processing, the best picture, the best audio, the best interface, and so on—that is an 8K TV with higher dynamic range. You get a better 4K or even 2K experience if you have an 8K TV, because you have the best processing available in it. People have to understand the upscaling capabilities of such televisions today. It’s a whole different ballgame than even a few years ago, as now we are entering the era of AI-assisted upscaling capabilities. That means 2K, even standard definition content, can be upscaled to look decent on an 8K display. So the point is, people talk about the fact that 8K content is not really here yet, but you don’t need 8K content to enjoy an 8K TV.

“If you study data, large television production basically works on a seven-year cycle,” he adds. “The transition from SD to full HD was about seven years, and from full HD to UHD was about seven years—with seven years defined as from production introduction to when that resolution reaches at least 50 percent of sales in the market. We are definitely there now for 4K, and I expect that 8K will follow the same pattern.” Of course, this picture-viewing ecosystem requires content data to be transmitted to and received and processed by consumer equipment. Chinnock emphasizes that he expects the current ongoing revolution in the world of compression and encoding to be a great boon for 8K broadcasting.

“VVC [H.266], the successor to HEVC [H.265], was recently finalized, and that will be very helpful,” he says. “And EVC [MPEG-5], Part 1 is now close to being released, and there are others. These can be applied to 8K and have modest or no royalties attached—an issue we had with HEVC, which kind of slowed its adoption. Then, there is the LCEVC [low-complexity EVC] codec, which is sort of like a pre-processing stage that can be used in combination with any other codec. And you have AV1, which is now starting to roll out with 8K content on YouTube. So really, all these new codecs have advantages for 8K, because they reduce the bandwidth or the file size.

“And then, the other piece is what I’m calling AI-assisted encoding or smart encoding. The idea is you could start with an 8K master file and then downres to 4K, but in a smart manner to capture the way you downres through metadata or some other information that becomes part of the encoding process. All of that is delivered as a 4K package with 4K encoding over the pipe. When this gets to your Smart 8K TV, it will be able to use that metadata to smartly upscale the content back up to 8K. In other words, the downscale/upscale path can now have image quality that is very close to a native 8K path, except you are doing it inside a 4K pipe.”

Similarly, on the content creation and distribution side, Chinnock points to the maturation of Cloud workflow solutions as more vigorous bandwidth has become commonplace as a linchpin of new 8K workflows that facilities can use to master, manipulate, move, and distribute 8K content around as needed.

“Various companies offer solutions where you can upload 8K master files to the Cloud and work remotely on proxies anywhere,” he relates. “You maintain full 8K capability in the Cloud, so that when you conform and master it, you can do so right off those 8K files. People have to remember that all these technologies are advancing right now in lockstep, so as the Smart 8K televisions evolve, various workflows and improvements in Cloud processes are evolving along with them.”

However, he also emphasizes that while new, growing, and improving 8K-capable workflow solutions are sprouting up across the industry, there is not yet any industry-standard approach for working with such material. Thus, it’s in the workflow area, in particular, that Chinnock thinks the industry has to do more educational work. That’s an area he says the 8K Association—a non-profit organization consisting of technology companies from across the 8K ecosystem—has now taken up, following on the heels of its first major initiative, to develop a certification program for 8K TVs.

“Among other things, we are developing a consumer-facing website for educating the public on 8K, and not just the professional side,” he says. “Another project we are focusing on right now is trying to document 8K workflows—both file-based and live—for a future report. We want to illustrate that there are a number of workflows out there, that people are pioneering these techniques fairly easily, and that this shows people do not need to be afraid to add an 8K workflow to their process. We want to give the recipes, so to speak.

“One thing I’m learning is that file-based work for episodic or movie production is not that hard to do really. It’s a beefier computer, more storage, a better pipeline, but all those tools are readily available today. I can capture content from a RED camera and edit it in 8K in realtime on a laptop right now. Granted, there is not a lot of material being finished in 8K currently, and that is understandable for [many] different reasons. But the point is, capturing and processing such material, doing the editing and color correction—it can all be done on equipment we have available today.”

Another new initiative from the 8K Association is a campaign to highlight the work of independent filmmakers. “These are some of the most important pioneers in 8K capture and production, because they want to be innovative, don’t have large bureaucracies holding them back, and their films are often light on special effects,” he says. “This latter element is often what scares the major studios in considering 8K.” 

Chinnock’s conclusion is that broadcast/OTT is where the action is right now as far as 8K is concerned. This is due to the industry’s growing ability to capture a wide field in native 8K, pan-and-scan, and crop and pull cutouts out of that “canvas” as needed to produce improved content at just about any typical resolution out there.

“That’s the sweet spot right there, especially now with OTT delivery,” he says. “I also think that the seven-year cycle for TV’s will hold, though we may have to add a year to it due to the pandemic. But it’s clear 8K panels will be common in homes sooner or later, even though content creation and distribution will lag behind, since we are barely getting to 4K distribution right now. But that’s for broadcast. OTT is a different story. For that platform, they can be more nimble, more reactive, have more flexibility, and they don’t have the same infrastructure to worry about that broadcasters have.

“So realistically, the bottom line is that when a major entity—a Netflix or Amazon or HBO or Disney—announces they are going to have a regular 8K service, that will end up being the spark that ignites everyone else to do it. When that will happen, I can’t exactly say, but realistically it may be two years away, because when you think about it, that is when we expect there will be a critical mass of 8K TV’s out there. Once that happens, offering 8K content can be a good differentiator for those OTT providers.”

News Briefs

Leon Silverman Heads HPA Task Force

Veteran industry executive Leon Silverman has been named Chair of the new HPA Industry Recovery Task Force (IRTF), an entity formed in May by the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) with a goal of advising and helping the post-production industry devise pathways for returning to sustainable business in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Silverman is a former HPA president and has held major executive roles at industry companies such as Netflix, Walt Disney Studios, Kodak, and LaserPacific over the years. The Task Force was slated to launch a series of virtual Town Hall events designed to allow industry professionals to share ideas and experiences enacting health, safety, technical, and creative best practices in the current environment. At press time, the first IRTF virtual Town Hall was expected to take place some time in late July, featuring video case studies and panels of experts from the medical, science, political, post-production, and labor fields.

5G from Mt. Everest

According to a recent TV Technology report, legendary Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, was recently transformed into the highest 5G network tower on the planet, as well. The report states that an expedition mounted by a team of Chinese surveyors doubled in May as an opportunity for technicians to install a fiber-optic data network up the side of the mountain on behalf of Chinese telecom companies Huawei and China Mobile. It further states that when the network recently went live, it featured base stations at 5,300, 5,800, and 6,500 meters. Reportedly, at an altitude of 5,300 meters, Chinese officials measured 5G download speed in excess of 1.66 Gbits/sec and an upload speed over 215 Mbits/sec. China Central Television (CCTV) also reported conducting a live, remote broadcast from Everest utilizing three TVU One cellular mobile transmitters outfitted with 5G modems.