Ultra HD, or ultra-high-definition, is the talk of the IBC trade show in Amsterdam, but talking to some industry experts there are doubts about whether viewers, let anyone broadcasters, are ready for another step change in the television viewing experience. A debate on the pros and cons of going beyond high-definition at the IBC conference ended up with a motion to increase the resolution of television being rejected by delegates.
The Great Quality Debate posed the motion “this house resolves to go beyond high-definition to improve the fidelity of television”. Two teams of speakers argued alternately for or against this proposition.
Andy Quested, the head of technology for HD and now Ultra HD at the BBC, opened the debate, arguing that if anything we need to be thinking even beyond 8K, which is 16 times the resolution of high definition, if we are to reproduce the full emotional effect of a football match.
Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of the Ogilvy Group in the United Kingdom, appearing on video from London, countered that many people would hardly notice the incremental benefit over high-definition television and suggested it was a case of diminishing returns, while television should instead concentrate on what it is uniquely able to deliver rather than worrying about resolution.
Dr Sean McCarthy of Arris, an expert in the neurobiology of human vision, talked persuasively of hyperacuity, suggesting that beyond a certain point the increase in resolution results in a more realistic image.
Mark Schubin, a television technology consultant, argued that subjective impressions such as perceived sharpness are product of resolution and contrast and that many television lenses are unable to deliver more definition beyond current high-definition resolutions.
Dr Giles Wilson of Ericsson, where he is head of their television compression business, spoke convincingly of the case for increasing resolution, not only spatial but temporal and colour depth.
Ray Snoddy, a veteran journalist and media commentator, summing up for the opposition, delivered a devastating tirade against technologists, promoting innovation for which there is little evident viewer demand, suggesting parallels with the push for 3D.
In the end, the audience, which was equally split at the start, voted narrowly against the motion, apparently unpersuaded by the technologists and perhaps more swayed by the view of the average consumer that probably cares less about the resolution of the image and more about the emotional connection with the story it conveys.
As someone in the audience commented, if the engineers have a hard time convincing delegates at a trade show of the benefits of ultra-high-definition they may have an even harder time pursuading the public.
Even so, a subsequent session, sponsored by Sky Deutschland, entitled “Beyond HD, beyond belief, beyond doubt, beyond price”, aimed to demonstrate that Ultra HD is not only desirable but is ready for prime time, at least for football coverage, with a view to the World Cup in 2014.
While the pictures certainly looked impressive, the moving ball still tends to look blurred, which is an entirely unnatural temporal effect. That suggests higher frame rates could make more of a difference to perceived quality than increasing spatial resolution.
As others have observed, increasing the chroma resolution and dynamic range of the image could also make a significant contribution to perceived fidelity of reproduction.
Then again, simply removing interlacing, and delivering full-frame progressively scanned high-definition images that are not over-compressed could go a long way to improving picture quality for the current generation of consumer screens.
While resolutions of 4K and beyond may already have their place in production, with benefits that can be seen on the current generation of screens, the required investment in infrastructure required to deliver this directly to mass market is considerable, even if it may be considered ultimately technically inevitable.
Rather like the compromises involved in promoting 720p and 1080i as standards for high-definition, simply because that was all that was considered commercially practical at the time, there is a risk that in the rush to market the industry could end up prematurely launching the 4K version of ultra-high-definition, based on what is practical today, rather than focussing on the future.
The Japanese already have their sights set on the 8K version, which is four times the resolution again, planned for initial launch in 2016, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The Great Quality Debate at the IBC conference was chaired by William Cooper of informitv.