Spelplanen push for 4K

The annual Swedish Spelplanen gathering of broadcasters was an impressive success on February 5th, with a heavy focus on Ultra-HD. One speaker was Sky Germany’s Stephan Heimbecher (head of innovation & standards) and delivered a comprehensive update on how Sky is testing and improving its processes and 4K workflows in readiness for Ultra-HD TV.

Satellite operator SES used the event to announce that its Ultra-HD demo channel was ‘live’ from its Astra 4A craft. Specially imported Samsung 4K sets, the latest available, were used to demo the signal, and capable of 1000 nits (a measure of brightness and sensitivity), and a significant improvement over last year’s models which could handle just 100 nits.

The event took place in the Rival Hotel owned by ABBA’s Benny Andersson, and Heimbecher cleverly labelled each of his Powerpoints with a hugely relevant ABBA song title, not least starting with ‘The Winner Takes it All’ and wrapping up with ‘Money, Money, Money’ which – no doubt – Heimbecher hoped was prophetic.

He explained that the journey towards 4K started back in 2011, and while he gave no start date he certainly indicated that the broadcaster was ready and able to start 4K transmissions whenever management made their decision. Indeed, SES Astra used the event to launch its demo test channel on Astra 4A from 4.8 degrees East, and Samsung helped by supplying some stunning 65” units to showcase the footage.

Heimbecher told some 200 delegates that they have now conducted extensive tests of 4K at football matches, and more recently at a huge arena pop-concert in December. Over the series of tests they have progressed through three iterations of compression encoders (with Elemental, Fraunhofer and Rhode & Shwarz helping out) and in the process squeezed data rates from a massive 8.3 Gb/s to a somewhat more manageable – but still fat – 30 Mb/s.

“A year from now I am confident that further testing and improvements will take place where we will make further reductions in the size of the signal, and perhaps two years from now match today’s HD TV signal size, but delivering superb quality.”

He added that they had deliberately tested transmission bit-rates ranging between 5 Mb/s and 35 Mb/s.

The emphasis had been to increasingly test end-to-end production and workflow capabilities. This meant duplicating the technical teams at live events (football and concerts) and how camerawork would be handled with a smaller, but strategically placed, number of 4K cameras. The three-day concert event captured in December proved to the camera teams involved that fast-pans/zooms were not needed, nor need the live programme directors cut from camera to camera too quickly. “The lessons learnt are important. Ultra-HD really does draw you in immersively. You are present at the event.”

However, he cautioned his audience of broadcasting professions about the current standards challenges, over Phase 1 Ultra-HD, and Phase 2, where a higher dynamic range could come into play, and where ‘better pixels’ would start to impact transmissions.  “Then, no doubt, we’ll be talking about phase 3 (which the EBU dubs Ultra-HD-2) and the shift towards 8K transmission,” he joked.

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