UHD Is Picking Up Speed: The 1080p to Wide UXGA transition is in process.

As you read this, we’ll be knee-deep into InfoComm once again. And although I’m writing this about a month-and-a-half in advance, I’ll bet you lunch that 4K is one of the big themes at this year’s show.

Even though most of the 4K/Ultra HD ecosystem isn’t in place yet, manufacturers are jumping on the 4K bandwagon to promote compatibility of their products with this new format (although some manufacturers are taking quite a bit of license in the way they use the term “4K!”).

Based on my trip to NAB 2015, I’d say things are coming along nicely as we begin this transition forward from 1080p and Wide UXGA-centric imaging, signal processing and transport. Thanks to the ups and downs of the display panel supply chain and the growing presence of Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers in the commercial AV channel, you are going to see large, ultra-high-resolution display panels at very affordable prices in Orlando, and in more than one booth.

This push to higher resolution is all coming out of the consumer channel. It’s now possible to buy 50-inch and 55-inch UHDTV sets for $1200 and less, and even 65-inch models are well under $2000. The cost differential between manufacturing a 65-inch 1080p LCD panel and one with UHD resolution is miniscule now, so you’re going to see a switch over to 100% manufacturing of large UHD panels (>55-inch) within two to three years, tops.

So we know that large 4K displays are arriving, and we also know that high-resolution computer monitors are right behind. HP is now shipping a 27-inch desktop monitor (Model Z27q) with 5K (5120×2880) resolution that requires dual DisplayPort connections to work. HP, Dell and Asus also have a super widescreen (3440×1440) monitor that offers 3K resolution and again needs multiple DP inputs to work.

What about content? At NAB, Vitec showed what it claims to be the first hardware-based portable HEVC H.265 encoder for video streaming. I saw prototypes of other encoders on the show floor, and my guess is that most of them are using the Broadcom BCM 7445 decoder chip that can also be found in some consumer TV and set-top box products.

In the Elemental booth, there was an exhibit of popular set-top IPTV boxes (Apple TV, Roku) outfitted for HEVC decoding of UHD content. Downstairs, Akamai had a running demo of UHD content streaming at 10 megabits per second (Mb/s) over 4G LTE networks…and, yes, there are tablets and smartphones on the market now equipped with screens that exceed 300 pixels per inch and can shoot 3840x2160p/30 video. I kid you not!

This transition to next-generation imaging and television (a better description than “4K,” in my opinion) may be happening in fits and starts, but it is happening. And the fact that low-frame-rate UHD can pass through existing HDMI connections (version 1.3/1.4) is just adding more chaos to the transition.

“4K” actually encompasses a broad range of resolutions. The basic feature set consists of video images with 3840 horizontal pixels and 2160 vertical pixels in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio, refreshed at 24/25Hz and 30Hz, with 4:2:0 sub-sampled 8-bit color. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has standardized on calling this “Ultra HD.”

That signal type will pass readily through existing HDMI switching equipment, which has led to manufacturers talking about “4K Certified” or “4K Ready” products and confusing the heck out of end users who are concerned about their installations being futureproof.

Well, you can’t exactly be “futureproof” when you don’t know what the future will bring, right? We’re not far off from seeing Ultra HD signals with faster refresh rates (50/60Hz and beyond), and greater bit depths (like 10 bits per pixel), and even full RGB (4:4:4) color coming from computer video cards.

The trend in Hollywood for 4K (4096×2160) acquisition, editing and post-production is to move to 10-bit color to enable such enhancements as high dynamic range (HDR), higher frame rates (as fast as 120Hz) and wider color gamuts (ITU BT.2020). And we’re starting to see LCD and OLED displays coming off the assembly lines equipped with 10-bit drivers.

Indeed; the next-generation Blu-ray standard for Ultra HD calls for 10-bit mastering using the HEVC H.265 codec, although color will still be subsampled in the 4:2:0 format for now. But the winds of change are blowing toward video streaming and cloud delivery of content, and that likely will use H.265 or Google’s VP9 codec. Either way, it’s more data flowing through the pipe.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I wouldn’t blame you one bit for opting to sit on the sidelines and wait another year to upgrade your facilities. How many interface manufacturers will actually have HDMI 2.0 connections in their products? How much support will we see for DisplayPort in Orlando? Version 1.2 can already support Ultra HD at 60Hz with 4:4:4 10-bit color; 1.3 gets even faster.

Will any manufacturers talk about Display Stream compression? Super MHL? Clock rates and bandwidth requirements for Ultra HD and 4K with 10-bit and 12-bit color? Will we see more HEVC encoding/decoding products at the show? All of this is infrastructure talk that is vitally important in the scheme of things to supporting UHDTV and 4K.

I’ll be teaching a class on this very topic (with a title almost identical to this column’s), “UHDTV: Picking Up Speed,” on Wednesday morning at the show, and my students will get to take a deeper dive into this wacky new world of UHD to see all of the technological changes that are affecting it. If there was ever a time for you to become an educated consumer, this is it! You will have to fend off the flurry of press releases and marketing hype and learn to read between the lines when considering the purchase of any 4K/UHD product.

And by the way, the train doesn’t stop at 4K. At NAB, I saw demonstrations of 8K (7680×4320) cameras, recording/playback, format conversion and displays. There was a Sharp 85-inch 8K LCD monitor and a 13-inch 8K OLED monitor (that, I suspect, also came out of the Sharp laboratory). NHK, the Japanese national TV network, has been broadcasting 8K content for a few years now.

Will we see 8K on this side of the Pacific? It’s only a matter of time…

Editor’s Note: For more information about the technology offered at NAB, see Pete Putman’s in-depth NAB analysis, “Digital In The Desert: Wireless 4K Drones Over IP,” beginning on page 66.

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