One DP’s Perspective
By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
Excerpted from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter – January 2015
Some might suspect that our recent trip to CES was a boondoggle, a chance to live large in Vegas on the DCS dime, but believe me, I get all the Vegas I can handle at NAB, and I’m never too eager to go there for a primer in January. However, there are always lots of interesting Entertainment Technology developments we need to track, and that was especially true at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
“The Home Entertainment – K Count and HDR”
Talk of “4K”, short for Ultra High Definition, was never far from earshot; everything from super large screen UHD displays about as thin as your iPhone to 4K Blu-Rays, Consumer Camcorders, and streaming partnerships galore. Yes, the adoption of 4K in the home is coming faster than many of us would like to believe, fueled by ever increasing screen sizes at fairly affordable prices. Although there is currently a dearth of content that is actually available for home viewing, that is in the process of changing very quickly.
The main driver for media delivery services to push for 4K seems to be the competitive advantage they can use to attract new subscribers. Broadcast, and even cable delivery of 4K to the home still faces some hurdles, but “Over-The-Top”, or OTT, which is basically streaming via broadband, is already starting to become available. While Netflix generally requires a bandwidth of 25Mb and average residential connection speeds in the US still only top out at 10 Mbps, services such as NanTech’s UltraFlix can stream without pixel loss, stuttering or frame drops over a 10Mb pipe. It should also be noted that a top item on President Obama’s agenda is to greatly increase broadband speed and accessibility.
Netflix plans to roll out 20 new original shows over the course of the next 12 months and in August will release its first original film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Green Legend,” in 4K for Netflix users, as well as on IMAX screens globally. Their model of better content driving more subscriptions, which in turn provides resources to acquire more content, seems to be working. Netflix shares continue to climb as analysts, citing original content, upgrade their stock.
Unfortunately, these various streaming services are also competing for a leg up on each other in a way that may hinder the smooth adoption of 4K. For example, some new sets include a chip necessary to decode the 4K content streamed over the Internet by Amazon, while earlier 4K TVs do not. Likewise recent UHD models from Panasonic, Toshiba and Vizio support Netflix 4K but not Amazon 4K. It reminds me of previous battles such as 1080i vs 720P broadcast standards, or Blu-Ray vs HD DVD formats. It will all get worked out in due course, but there will likely be some casualties along the way.
The Blu-ray Disc Association has been working to avoid such skirmishes by developing a standard for physical or packaged 4K content and confirmed that the name of the format will be “Ultra HD Blu-ray”. These 4K discs could be available to consumers by the end of this year. Many of the standards they are developing will also translate to digital delivery.
Data also points to a quicker rate of adoption for 4K TVs compared to the previous transition to HDTV which took about 15 years. It doesn’t hurt that UHD prices have dropped 85 percent worldwide in the last two years; (this Holiday Season, Costco was selling a 60-inch smart 4K set for $900.) Research by Parks Associates predicts 4K TVs will reach mass-market pricing in the next two years and surpass 80 percent of households in 10-12 years. Even though there may only be a marginal quality differential, for a few bucks more, I believe most consumers will opt to future proof their long term capitol investment and buy the 4K model.
This is happening at the same time that Theatrical Box Office is down. The all important summer tally for 2014 fell to the lowest in 17 years. Some would write this off to less desirable motion pictures and/or rising ticket costs, but the fact is that more people seem to be receiving their content in the home and the uptake in 4K can only be accelerating this trend. It seems clear that home delivery and display infrastructure for 4K will soon be in place, but now we need to feed the beast.
Consequently, content providers such as Netflix and Amazon are starting to demand that Producers deliver their original content mastered in 4K. The smart Producer already knows that mastering to 4K helps prepare their shows for the future. Up-conversion techniques are also improving as costs are coming down, making the job of remastering content with high archival value a no-brainer. Heretofore, not too much content was being mastered to 4K, but that is changing quickly. Sony already has more than 170 4K features and TV episodes and Netflix continues to add to their binge watchable library of 4K series. The aforementioned UltraFlix network currently offers more than 500 hours of 4K content including several feature classics from the MGM library and they, along with other services, are constantly adding titles.
Quadrupling the number of pixels delivered via UHD does improve quality and 4K displays make even standard high definition content look better. However, I’m not so sure this corollary translates exponentially to the 8K displays shown at CES. It was honestly very hard to tell the difference on the giant 85” Samsung 8K from their many 4K models on display, and I suspect they were careful not to put them side-by-side for this very reason.
Displays continue to get larger and ever more affordable, but given the limitations of human visual perception, they will have to get a good deal larger than they are today in order to appreciate resolutions in excess of 4K. The practical question is how much bigger can they get and still fit inside the home environment? Perhaps when direct view displays displace projection for theatrical exhibition, as I believe will happen at some point, then 8K will have its day, but until that happens I think we can settle on 4K as the in-home quality benchmark.
Aside from special applications such as VFX work, I also believe that 4K is a good plateau for acquisition. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate the work that NHK has been doing for many years testing their “Super Hi-Vision” 8K production and broadcast system in Japan. This kind of pioneering work, although far from practical today, is what drives technology forward. Still, the incremental quality improvements we might be able to see at this time are way beyond the point of diminishing returns. In my estimation it will be a very long time, and perhaps never, before 8K is ready for prime time in the home environment.
Curved screens are another innovation observed at CES that failed to excite me. Coming from a Cinematography background, what occurred to me is that there will be a lot more issues keeping curved screens clear of ambient reflections. A display technology advance that does pique my interest as a DP, and was also very abundant at the convention, was High Dynamic Range or HDR. However, again incompatible competing systems are simultaneously being developed. Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG, and even Netflix were all talking about delivering HDR, but not all using the previously announced Dolby Vision, (no doubt to avoid the licensing fee,) which has the potential to set up another format skirmish to come.
Dolby has been laying the ground work for an end-to-end HDR system for some time. We covered their Dolby Vision at both last year’s CES and in our on-camera interviews at NAB, where they emphasized the need for “better pixels rather than just more pixels.” Their approach is to involve image stakeholders from Cinematographers, Post facilities, and Delivery systems, all the way to the Manufacturers who build the hardware into the TVs.
More than just a display technology, Dolby Vision wants to be a whole new post-production and delivery specification to insure brighter and more vivid pictures, with better color reproduction all the way to home screens. Likewise, Dolby Cinema has the same goal for the theatrical exhibition market and their Atmos sound system integrates with both initiatives to increase the quality of the aural experience. If there are draw backs, one would be the licensing fees required from both electronics manufactures as well as content providers. Another potential drawback is the post production time necessary to alter the content to meet their specifications, which is not conducive to live events. Whatever HDR system may eventually win out, I’m sure it will be a notable visual improvement, perhaps far greater than higher resolution.
4K Motion Cameras at CES
Nowhere do the lines between Consumer and Pro gear blur more than in photographic acquisition devices and Sony, Panasonic, Canon, and JVC were all showing impressive 4K motion cameras at CES. Scheduled for February delivery from Sony are the $500 FDR-X100V 4K Action Cam, a GoPro rival that shoots Ultra HD video at 30fps, 1080p at 120fps or 720p at 240fps. Just a little larger is the new HDR-AX33 Handycam at $1,100 which shoots 3,840 x 2160 with the XAVC codec at 30p and 24p, and it has built-in Wi-Fi that enables it to live-stream footage to Ustream.
Meanwhile, Sony’s “mirrorless” Alpha A7 line creates beautiful 4K imagery with a Full Frame 24.3MP resolution sensor and 14-bit RAW recording, while Panasonic’s Lumix GH4 uses a Micro Four-Thirds sensor to create stunning 4K video, and both, of course, are also great still cameras. And, as we all know, Canon has been at this for some time with their EOS-1DC, a Full Frame CMOS with great low light ability which can shoot 4K video recorded as Motion JPEG or HD recorded as H.264 in addition to superb stills.
I also had a chance to look at three small, low cost 4K camcorders from JVC. The new GY-LS300, (MSRP of $4,450,) is a Super 35mm camcorder that accepts a variety of interchangeable lenses, the GY-HM200, (MSRP of $2,995,) is a versatile, full-featured 4K Ultra HD camcorder with HD streaming, and the GY-HM170, (MSRP of $2,495,) delivers 4K Ultra HD imagery in a palm-sized form factor with many professional features. All three cameras record 4K Ultra HD as H.264 files, and can record HD and SD footage in a variety of resolutions and frame rates.
Personal Communication Devices
An area of rapid change in consumer electronics is our personal “communication devices,” (it’s hard to refer to them as mobile phones when they now serve so many functions.) In fact, every advertised item in this 1991 Radio Shack ad now exists, and in higher quality, inside a single smart phone. At the same time this ad came out only about one million people worldwide owned a mobile phone, while today there are between 5 and 6 billion in circulation. And if you had gone out that year to buy all the computing power found today inside an iPhone 5S, it would have cost you $3.56 million.
The Internet of Things
Also abundant at CES was the whole web of connected devices now known as the “Internet of Things” or “IoT” for short. There were the “wearables,” from bracelets with pico projectors built in on which you can type and check email on your arm without a screen, to bio-monitors and Google Glasses.
Your whole home ecosystem can be controlled via smartphone; turning on lightbulbs, setting your thermostat or security system, and even driverlessly starting and delivering your car to meet you at your doorstep. There were literally thousands of various web connected gizmos. The Consumer Electronics Association tells us that there will be more than 25 billion connected devices in consumer hands by the end of the year, and 50 billion by 2020.
However, questions of data security, privacy, and access remain troubling. More devices means more entry points open to attack, and I hope the companies behind all these new devices have come up with some protections from security breaches. Given the recent hack of the US Department of Defense and the catastrophic attack on Sony Pictures, I’m a bit wary of such a big dependence on connectivity.
A technology that holds a lot of promise for content creators is Virtual Reality, or “VR,” but having donned a couple of the systems at CES, I have to tell you that they are not really there yet. VR makers like Oculus, a Southern California start-up acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion, are constantly improving, but hardware and software hurdles remain. The action needs to be smoother and is still jerky on fast movement, but as processing power continues to improve and gets less costly, it is easy to see the vast potential for gaming, simulation training, and even interactive narrative content.
Think of the incredible improvements we’ve seen in the quality of graphics in just the brief history of video games. Take the few short decades from Pong to today’s super photo-realistic, spatially aware games, then factor in Moore’s law, and you get a very exciting future for VR. It will create huge challenges for us as content creators, but for those willing to face up to the challenges there will also be great opportunities.
Although a good yardstick of our progress, Consumer Electronics are only a part of our technological race into the future. Remember that in the span of 66 years, we went from taking flight to landing on the moon. Per the Law of Accelerating Returns, (which states, “The rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems tends to increase exponentially,”) things are bound to get even faster and more intense. Today is probably the slowest rate of technological change you will ever experience in your life. So hold on and enjoy the ride; even if it does get a little bumpy it promises to be a rewarding trip.
Now a brief respite until we head back to Las Vegas again for NAB. DCS is on the job.