How to turn a $20,000 Ultra HDTV into a mass-market product

HDTV has already evolved from a luxury to a now-ubiquitous item in households everywhere. While there’s still plenty to love about high definition video, as always consumers are in constant pursuit of an ever clearer, crisper picture.

This next generation of video is dubbed Ultra HDTV, and it will offer consumers an incredibly compelling experience – four times the resolution of today’s HDTV, unfathomable contrast, and mind-blowing, life-like picture quality. Imagine not being able to tell the difference between your TV’s picture and looking out your window? Simply put, Ultra HD does to HDTV what color programming did to the black-and-white TV.

Because we witnessed the widespread adoption of HDTV followed by the stark lack of penetration of 3DTV, we know that consumer embrace of technological advancements like this are hardly a given. So what will it take for the general public to get behind Ultra HD?

Behind the screen

Price, availability, engaging (and accessible) programming and the selection of devices are certainly important factors in the potential success of Ultra HD, but one crucial component often gets overlooked: the video-processing technology behind these incredible innovations. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma for the TV world.

HD became our standard TV format due in large part to technology that enables digital video compression, a video codec called H.264. Clearly consumers’ demands for even higher quality streaming video are not going to subside for the foreseeable future. They crave it, and service providers must find ways to quench this thirst while managing bandwidth, and ultimately, network costs. The answer is Ultra HD (often referred to as 4K video), but for it to truly take off, in the same fashion as HD, service providers must embrace a newer, more powerful video codec called HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding).

The advantages of HEVC

Ultra HDTVs display four times the amount of pixels as HDTVs — and can require up to four times the bandwidth. It should go without saying that service providers don’t look forward to dealing with four times the bandwidth congestion. One major reason HEVC is so essential then is because it packages large amounts of data required to transmit Ultra HD content into manageable chunks, by reducing the bit rate (the number of bits per second transmitted along a digital network) to levels that make sense for service providers.

In fact, early studies have shown HEVC is twice as effective as H.264 – meaning service providers will need, at most, twice the bandwidth they’re using for HD content today to deliver four times the resolution and crystal-clear picture clarity. Sports programming fanatics and movie junkies like me are already salivating at the idea.

Market opportunity

DisplaySearch estimates 600M connected TVs in households by 2015. Add consumers’ appetite for tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles and every other connected device under the sun, and it’s clear the demand for high-quality video isn’t limited to living room sets. Thus service providers will need a solution  that supports a wide range of services, including HDTV, Ultra HDTV, streaming video and on-demand content.

HEVC is the best technology capable of encoding this next wave of Ultra-HD video content  for the living room and, in the not-as-distant-as-you’d-expect future, mobile devices. Tapping HEVC now could mean a 50 percent savings on service providers’ bandwidth costs, and help push video to every edge of every distribution network.

Support from the industry

It’s not a complex notion: Consumers want more video, from more devices, and they expect the best possible quality from their service providers. Today, the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding, established by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group and ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group, is working feverishly to ensure HEVC is readily available for widespread adoption.

In fact, the Final Draft International Standard is scheduled to be made available later this month, which is certain to launch a wave of new HEVC-powered products. The first Ultra HDTVS are now available – though currently only to those who have $20,000 to spend.  But as always prices can be expected to drop quickly, so that we should see consumers adding Ultra HDTVs to their holiday wish lists in 2013. Nonetheless, it will be up to the service providers to adopt HEVC quickly to make Ultra HDTVs – and its game-changing video quality and resolution – a reality.

Sean McCarthy is a technical fellow at Motorola Mobility, Inc., where he leads advancements in video processing, compression and practical vision science. Dr. McCarthy holds patents on image and signal processing and served on the board of the MPEG Industry Forum. 

Photo courtesy of Vlue/