4K Ultra HD: More Bits, More Bytes and More Bucks

4K Ultra HD: More Bits, More Bytes and More Bucks

I began fielding inquiries from publishers during last year's Cable Show about the impact of 4K ultra high-definition (UHD) video to the publishing and distribution workflow. And in speaking with fellow CES attendees this year, the most common “wow” topic was the Texas-sized (100 inch!) televisions supporting 4K UHD resolution. While I expect others like myself had digital butterflies thinking about the possibilities – if I could just hook up my PS3 … I bet Blade Runner would look just that much better … I might be able to watch 2.35 films without feeling distracted by the letterboxing – publishers are faced with a different set of factors as the industry flirts with the transition to formats and associated devices that support four times (or more) the resolution of current “high definition” content. To put this exercise in context, let's review the adoption of the more common 1920x1080 HD format, as many publishers still struggle with this transition.

Content Origination

We’ll start at the first step in the process – content origination – otherwise we fall into a trap of “garbage in, garbage out.” For content creators, the transition to high-definition content was hastened by the proliferation of cost-effective non-linear editing (NLE) software, associated hardware, and – most importantly – more skilled content creators that understood both the strengths and limitations of the available tools and digital canvas. By the middle of the last decade, the cost, availability, and performance of cameras and decks supporting HDCAM (or equivalent), Final Cut rigs, and terabytes of storage were reasonable even for prosumers. Within the United States, the mandate to switch from analog to digital served as a forcing function for broadcast. In the film industry, that decade saw both the introduction of the RED ONE and Walter Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain on Final Cut Pro. Fast forward to today, and content creators armed with a GoPro, a MacBook Pro, a library of digital beats, and a sunny afternoon in the skate park in Venice can generate compelling premium content of both artistic and technical merit.

Encoding & Storage

Not only do publishers need access to high-definition premium content, but one of the commonly underestimated operational aspects is the ongoing encoding and storage costs of content. Whether the need is for management of masters, digital mezzanines, or the distribution and/or playback formats required by any number of consumption endpoints, the increased resolution requirements result in more bits to move and more pennies to spend. The cost of storage has seen a dramatic decrease, with cloud services such as S3 (and the more recent introduction of Glacier) offering compelling alternatives to replace or augment on-premise hardware. Pricing pressure on content delivery network--or CDN--providers has also continued, but many publishers have increased their storage requirements, as new content and new formats results in an ever growing library of bits. Compared to the decrease in storage costs per TB, the absolute cost continues to rise. Cloud encoding and greater adoption of ostensibly free options such as FFmpeg have provided cost alternatives to publishers, but the reality is that with the need to create more content in more formats with a wider range of renditions from higher quality (i.e., high-definition) input files, the absolute cost and time-to-publish continue to increase due to the complexity of workflows: digital vs. analog, broadcast vs. web, automated vs. manual, etc. With a potential 4x increase in storage and encoding time-to-publish, 4K UHD isn’t tenable at this point.

Delivery & Playback

The final step is delivery and playback, and publishers need to assess the physical and fiscal constraints of delivery to the consumer. The number of devices that can support playback, true resolution rendering of 1080p, and the increase in bandwidth (and cost to the customer) to support playback without degradation of quality is limited as we consider the increase in mobile usage.

Now swap the 1920x1080 content with 3840x2160 content, and we've dramatically reduced the potential target audience. For publishers, pushing more bits equates to paying for more bandwidth – and if the ad creative remains a step lower in quality – 1080p even! – any desire to maintain a consistent quality of video experience is further eroded.

What Next?

The ITU announced the recent ratification of the H.265 (HEVC) codec standard, which has the potential to retain quality for files up to 8K while halving the storage size and bandwidth requirements, and represents a potential significant shift in the ability to deliver better quality with the same bandwidth. This would be a particular boon to the mobile video experience. However, the adoption of H.265 at the scale of H.264 may be several years away as we wait on the necessary hardware and software support for encoding and decoding and we better understand any related patent licensing issues similar to those that surround H.264 today. Until then, another potential catalyst – a single mezzanine that can be encoded and/or packaged “on the fly” into multiple formats and bitrates with applicable content protection without increasing storage costs – is still only a reality on marketing slides. A number of companies have focused their efforts on partial solutions, so we wait patiently until that comes to fruition.

For now, the realities of 4K UHD may be limited to the trade show floors. Publishers, many still adapting to the transition to HD, are likely in a wait-and-see mode until we see a step function in the efficiencies we can create in the digital content publishing and distribution infrastructure. For consumers, we will continue to pick and choose between a bevy of digital content consumption options that are forced to balance – and often compromise – affordability, availability, convenience, and quality. Until then, we'll have to settle with a less-than-eight-million pixel version of Rutger Hauer reciting I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.