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Fresh from a visit to the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), SMPTE Immediate Past President Peter Ludé, also Sr. VP of Engineering at Sony Electronics, recently sat down for his annual conversation with SMPTE Newswatch to offer his thoughts on where media creation, distribution, and viewing technologies might be heading in 2013. (To read Ludé's thoughts from last year, see the January 2012 Newswatch.) His overall impression is that the industry remains in a state of evolution, rather than revolution, but he is pleased with the progress he has seen in many technology categories.
"The big trend obviously remains [to be] mobile devices--the shifting habits of how people are consuming video content," he said. "Today, a substantial amount of content is being viewed on handheld and mobile devices, and we are still learning the different ways that this is impacting our industry. But [in the consumer and cinema sectors], 4K remains a major development."
Quest for 4K Content
Ludé is impressed by how far so-called 4K/ultra high definition (UHD) technology has come in the past year, as manufacturers continue to improve consumer devices to make 4K content viewing at home feasible. (Click here for a good roundup of Ultra HD developments at CES 2013 from Ultra HDTV site reviewer Andrew Michael.)
"There was a huge difference from 12 months ago in that you can now buy a 4K TV from multiple manufacturers," he said. "It has gone from being a future technology demo to a tangible product you can buy at the local Best Buy in a year--that is notable. LG and Sony announced 84-in. 4K panels and now 55-in. and 65-in. ones are available at more modest prices within the next few months. That trend is now well under way."
Ludé stated that finding 4K content to watch on those devices "is still pretty early in the game." Indeed, as 4K viewing systems proliferate, the ongoing question of who will provide native 4K content for those devices, and how, remains far from fully fleshed out.
One potential step in this regard, Ludé explained, is the feasibility of over-the-air terrestrial broadcast of a 4K UHD signal in an efficient manner. Ludé said he was impressed at CES by a demonstration at the LG Electronics booth in partnership with the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) to show exactly that ability. The demo resulted in a sharp UHD signal, at 60 frames/sec, being transmitted over air, using the new HEVC (H.265) codec at 35 Mbits/sec, making its way to a transmitter, where the signal was decoded and sent on to a 65-in. LG UHD monitor via HDMI cables. Ludé added that the demo relied on the DVB-T2 transmission standard in the typical 6 MHz channel spectrum, which is a departure from the ATSC standard adopted in Korea.
"It resulted in what I thought was a very acceptable picture quality for 4K imaging," Ludésaid. "That was notable, because at a show like [CES], there were lots of people showing off 4K displays, but not a lot of traction in explaining how people will get that content. It is up in the air whether the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) will go in that direction, although they made a public statement recently that they are exploring it [with the formation of a 4K task force in late 2012]. But to prove that the industry has the ability to double the [bandwidth] payload with terrestrial or satellite transmission in a way good enough to do justice to a good 4K image makes it tangible. They have to figure out if there is a business model, but if there is, they are now showing it is feasible to do 4K transmission."
A related important development in this category, in Ludé's view, was Sony's announcement at CES that it would launch this summer what he calls an "over-the-top (OTT) service to provide native 4K content" from Sony Pictures, and other studios, to consumers who have devices to view that content. The as-yet unnamed service that would permit the download of native 4K content was, according to Sony, expected to be paired with the release of a "dedicated 4K media player for the home."
That development followed the December 2012 announcement by RED that it was partnering with online content distribution company Odemax to launch a cloud-based 4K content distribution platform to supply programming for the new REDRAY 4K content media player. Details of the Odemax 4K content distribution service were slated, at press time, to be announced during January's Sundance Film Festival. The web-based service will use a new delivery codec developed by RED called, .RED, designed to encode and encrypt 4K content at 60 frames/sec, including in 3D.
Ludé added that this OTT method of distribution generally, combined with the arrival of "smart" web-enabled televisions, is an important development, because it has led to a rising trend in recent months toward easier, more efficient, and yet more secure content distribution over the Internet.
"Over-the-top distribution has led to the Netflix, Amazon, and VUDU business models that are starting to take off," he said. "Now, you can implement a proprietary OTT service to a proprietary set-top box or server [in the home] for an application like 4K. It would take a while to do that over satellite or an FCC-sanctioned broadcast station. OTT has the ability to create a walled garden to get specific content safely to the home. Consumers are getting used to video-on-demand cloud services to stream right to the home, and broadcast and cable are not as effective. Now that most new TV's include smart TV or 'connected home' features, it is easy to bring this content to the home while removing the user interface obstacle."
These are just a few examples of new 4K content delivery approaches. Moving further down the path toward developing a business model that makes it logical for consumers to want to buy new 4K TV's right now, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment announced plans for a "Mastered in 4K" Blu-ray initiative, to release carefully encoded 1080p versions of some Sony movies that were originally shot and mastered in 4K. Ludé added that several manufacturers at CES were also touting up-conversion equipment to make HD material look even better on new 4K televisions.
"We saw several manufacturers demonstrating up-conversion technology, to take routine HD 1080p material and up-res it to take advantage of 4K displays," he said. "In many instances, they were more attractive pictures than we were seeing a year ago."
"All these advancements will increase the value propositions that manufacturers are developing to future-proof new displays, so that consumers confidently purchase them today, and not wait," he stated. "Again, this is more about evolving the technology and maturing the business model than about inventing something brand new. What is interesting about 4K is that the process of going from early adopters and experimental televisions to something that can be sold in the mainstream to consumers is happening at a much faster pace than the HD transition did. The first 4K sets started shipping in November, and now--just two months later--the second wave of lower-cost units has already been announced. This speed will drive demand for 4K content for the home."
More Display Developments
Ludé said he was also surprised by the launch of quantum dot technology for LCD displays at CES. Quantum dots have been used in bioscience and illumination applications for several years, but, "it was exciting to see their first use in TV displays, with fantastic color performance enabled by the quantum dot LED backlight technology" on Sony Triluminous TV's, he said. "The technology uses nanocrystals to create very narrow spectrum red, green, and blue primaries, with the result being a dramatically expanded color gamut."
The other display trend to which Ludé pointed is the emergence of thin and, in some cases, flexible OLED displays, which he said were quite prominent at CES this year. He pointed out that the technology has seen various anticipated product launch delays, as manufacturers addressed manufacturing yield and lifespan issues with it. But he said that this year clear progress took place in terms of launching OLEDs into consumer living rooms.
"The picture quality from all the manufacturers was very impressive," said Ludé "OLED is still coming--not quite there yet, but it appears it will be within the next year."
Speaking of OLED, the technology is being incorporated into Flexible Substrate displays. (For more information on the state of such technology and its potential applications, visit the FlexTech Alliance website.) There were demos of such technology at CES, mainly for smaller devices and E-readers, such as some of Samsung's curved smartphone designs,which rely on AMOLED (Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) material. But Ludé said their application as larger viewing screens--sort of the modern version of an old-fashioned, portable roll-up movie screen--has not yet arrived as a widely practical tool despite some industry stops-and-starts in that regard, although a few manufacturers did show off curved OLED TV's at CES. He suggests watching Flexible Substrate developments in the coming months, as "amazing breakthroughs in materials' science will create many cool new applications. But it isn't yet practical [as large viewing screens] for living rooms in 2013 certainly."
3D, Lasers, and More
On the cinema side of the equation, Ludé emphasized that the 3D craze has now become a mainstream exhibition technique in search of its proper niche, now that an installed base of more than 45,000 stereo-capable theaters is in place and growing across the world, and tools to capture stereo imagery are now fairly well established. The real recent milestone in this area, he stated, involves improvements in the ability to create quality stereoscopic 3D from 2D images in post.
"That is probably because the cost of 2D to 3D conversion is coming down, while the quality is going up, and therefore, filmmakers understand better how to utilize the conversion process," Ludé said. "Even mid-range budgeted films are now using substantial amounts of visual effects, so they are already needing to use computer-generated graphics in post anyway. So, along the way, [digital images are] getting easier to control and understand by producers during the post process, rather than the [expense] of committing to shoot 3D on set."
Live 3D capture remains critically important for sports, performing arts, documentary, and scripted episodic television production, he added. "With nine million 3DTV sets already in consumer homes, there is a ripe market for new, quality 3D content. ESPN 3Dand 3net, for instance, are producing exceptional programming. These are just two examples of the 40 dedicated 3DTV channels now in operation worldwide, but more are needed to keep consumers engaged with the potential of 3D [for home viewing]."
Laser projection leaped forward considerably in 2012, according to Ludé, because several demos from multiple manufacturers took place in real cinemas under real-world conditions, rather than merely in laboratories. The demos offered promising results and important strides for how to retrofit cinemas to accommodate laser technology in an economically feasible way, he said.
"Laser projectors have been looming for several years, but in 2012, they became more tangible and demonstrable," he explained. "After years of no practical demos outside the lab, we went to having major manufacturers doing dramatic public demos of laser technology, showing what was not possible before. They showed brightness levels for 3D on a big screen for a full-length feature film that we have not seen before, because it was not possible with Xenon lamps. So, now, we have seen that [laser projection] is feasible, and I therefore expect we will see commercial products before too long."
Ludé added that he expects the upgrade path to allow digital cinemas to incorporate lasers to essentially follow the template set in the last couple of years for thousands of theaters that have installed 4K projectors.
"Sony has been shipping 4K projectors since 2005, and in the last year or so, several others have now also made 4K projectors available, including upgrades," he said. "Higher frame rate has so far proven to be a relatively affordable upgrade, as well. Lasers fall into that same category. Some manufacturers will offer the ability to retrofit Xenon projectors, and others will offer new laser projectors with low enough operating costs that will make them affordable to replace [existing Xenon] projectors. I expect it will take laser manufacturers ultimately a few years to build up manufacturing capacity and lower the costs enough. As with anything, the first products that come out are not the cheapest with the volume being so low. But such projectors will have advantages in operating costs and power consumption that will bear out to be important enough to make [retrofitting] for lasers attractive, leading to very bright images on very large screens."
More generally, in terms of trends impacting media companies, Ludé said he expects the global rise of cloud-based services to deepen their impact on the industry in the coming year. More pieces of a typical digital workflow process than ever before can now be done through the cloud, for those whose business model might benefit from it.
"People are starting to realize that a lot of what they are using [the cloud for] in business enterprise and personal applications can be fully applicable for media creation," he said. "Services like storage, transcoding, asset management, editing, logging, among other things, are now available to content producers as cloud services. That means, if I'm a program producer or broadcaster, I don't always have to buy all that equipment or transcoders or digital asset management software myself. I can do that work through the cloud, have access to my materials anywhere, and pay by the month. If I don't like the service, I can switch to someone else, just like I do with my phone or Internet service. The obstacles have been bandwidth to move data to and from the cloud and, of course, security. But the technology and the systems are improving in that regard. If it is secure enough for my personal banking, it is probably secure enough for a commercial producer, for example. I expect, at NAB this year, you will see a number of service providers offering new applications as software services, as opposed to a software product you have to buy."
Challenge of Flexibility
For more insight into the slow percolating development of flexible OLED screens discussed in the above article, read arecent post-CES Emerging Technology column from the TechNewsWorld site on the subject. The article looks at progress Samsung has made with its Youm line of flexible screens, compared to AMOLED screens, as well as offerings from other manufacturers, and discusses why manufacturing such screens has proven so complicated in recent years. Among other things, the article explains the challenges of properly encapsulating OLEDs to protect them from degradation that occurs upon exposure to air and moisture, while at the same time, making them flexible and robust.
Examining the Projection Screen
With an understandable industry focus on exciting new digital image projection technologies, it is easy to overlook the fact that the screens onto which those images are projected, and the designs, materials, and technologies behind them, are also evolving at an impressive rate. Recently, the AV Network website offered a comprehensive look at the state of projection screen technology, the major manufacturers, what materials they are using, and the latest techniques available for customizing such screens for all types of AV-related displays. The article also details new options for rear-projection blending, edge blending, new screen materials, incorporating ambient light considerations into design plans, what screens work best for 3D, the rise of higher resolution displays for digital signage, odd shapes and designs, and much more. The article also summarizes six new screen products being offered by some of the industry's leading manufacturers.
The late filmmaker and journalist, Ray Zone, a well-known 3D expert who passed away near the end of 2012, wrote just before his death an interesting two-part article for the Editor's Guild website about efforts made last year to preserve millions of frames of original three-panel Cinerama format negatives in time to pay homage to the venerable format at the world's first Cinerama Film Festival in late 2012. The festival featured a week of screenings at the ArcLight Pacific Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood, in addition to a brand new 12-minute documentary shot in the original format using the world's only surviving Cinerama camera, made by Cinerama historian David Strohmaier. Zone reported on the history of the format, the festival, and the restoration and preservation efforts under way to protect surviving Cinerama features-work done over 18 months by Image Trends of Austin, Texas, under supervision from Strohmaier, whom Zone interviewed in-depth in the two-part article. Check out part one and part two. Zone authored the chapter introductions to SMPTE's book, 3D Cinema and Television Technology: The First 100 Years.