Television Chaos: A Look at the 4K, HEVC-enabled Future

By Tara Seals January 16, 2014

When we look at the broadcast landscape and how entertainment and TV could evolve over the next 10 years, we can see the stirrings of some truly disruptive technologies: 4K UltraHD content, personalized, interactive second-screen experiences and the inexorable rise of over-the-top (OTT) and multiscreen innovation. There will also be a laser focus on bandwidth quality and efficiency to deliver a great customer experience, and many more form factors across which to deliver it. For distributors, codecs and quickly evolving distribution options is creating a marketplace in a rapid state of acceleration. The downside is chaos and confusion for the moment—but tremendous upsides for the ecosystem in the long run.

First and foremost, what sounds like a good thing on the surface—better panel resolutions, better efficiency codecs—will have to go through a certain shakeout period as TV operators figure out how to integrate innovation into their business models.

“If you look at just mobile devices by themselves, tablets are already moving beyond HD,” explained Sean McCarthy, fellow of the technical staff at ARRIS, in an interview. “Building HD into a standard element took many, many years, but now the individual displays can start improving and innovating at their own individual paces, creating a fragmentation challenge for video service providers.”

Then there’s HEVC—the video compression standard that is twice as efficient as H.264, and which is widely considered a necessity for 4K content deliver going forward. “The question is how do we use these tools in practice—how do we cost-effectively evolve?” McCarthy said. “Where can it best be implemented first?”

And 4K itself presents a thorny set of issues, he added. “There is a lot of concern among my colleagues that 4K TVs in particular create the opportunity for disappointment for consumers,” he said. “If they buy one and take it home and have no content, that’s one issue for today. But what about down the line when consumers want that same content outside of home, because they can walk around with 4K-compatible devices? There’s an expectation of that delivery, and that challenges the way we do business.”

Eventually, though, McCarthy thinks that the convergence of more capable mobile screens, 4K and HEVC has the potential to create immense opportunity within the TV ecosystem.  

For instance, a critical—and for now largely overlooked—aspect of 4K TV and HEVC is the fact that operators can actually deliver a better HD experience on these screens than with other panel technologies.

“We can start providing HD content, using HEVC to reduce the number of artifacts by half, and a 4K display can up-signal that,” McCarthy explained. “If you have a good HD content, it can be almost the same improvement as original 4K content. Essentially, UltraHD is too expensive from a bandwidth point of view to deliver right now. But they don’t have to deliver true 4K just yet, which buys time for business model experimentations and so on to get 4K right.”

McCarthy expects cablecos to optimize their existing bandwidth usage with HEVC as well. “Within six to 12 months we’ll see them start to use HEVC efficiency to deliver same content that they do today, while freeing up bandwidth for high-value data services.”

Then there’s the opportunity within the connected home.

“We look at the future of TV as the Wild West,” said McCarthy. “Operators are putting in their own compression in server farms, trying to deliver things over unmanaged connections. But a real place to innovate as a traditional company is to find a way to deliver those services in a managed way to consumers, who don’t have to do anything on their end to get the best QoE possible.”

That’s especially important as the device landscape continues to evolve. Tablet shipments for instance are far greater in volume than flat-panel TV displays. And as McCarthy pointed out, they’re improving their screens. “Tablets are morphing into small televisions; the iPad Air has almost exactly the same quality as most TVs,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. People want the same experience on a tablet as they would have on their displays at home. So, we’re seeing that the broader ecosystem is starting to converge, and the physics of the displays are starting to converge.”

And that makes the operator’s multiscreen business model that much more viable, if they can create service offerings that take advantage of the device capabilities within the home.

HEVC is one key to enabling new revenue and greater loyalty in the wireless home by offering a way to move bits and bytes around efficiently by way of the home gateway or set-top box, thus adding greater control over the user experience for the operator. “HEVC will have a massive role in this business model, moving from unmanaged networks or cellular links for mobile devices now to being able to allow the whole home to share the entire entertainment experience with the same quality and bitrate across screens,” McCarthy said.

While operators eye all of these intersecting jigsaw pieces, McCarthy hastens to add that technology decisions to drive next-gen business models will go far beyond the basics. For instance, in many architectures, there’s a preprocess engine prior to content ingest that makes video more digestible. And this in turn makes a big impact on constant bitrate distribution. “There are other ways to be smart rather than just turning the crank on compression,” said McCarthy. “Those are the things that are really going to make up the bulk of the strategic decisions.”

Regardless, it’s clear that the future of TV will be a multiscreen, highly resolved one—if operators can get the technology and business models right. “There’s no saying that 4K will pan out for certain,” McCarthy said. “But as all of these elements begin to converge in the connected home, it will get easier for operators to build a business case.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

TechZone360 Contributor

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