What will deliver the fidelity for those extra UHD pixels and at what cost?

Harmonic_True_HDThe premise that more pixels doesn’t mean better pixels is now well recognized amongst those broadcasters and content aggregators contemplating launching UHD services. There have already been too many comparisons with “True HD services” to make the case that resolution alone doesn’t guarantee success for UHD! If we make the claim that we offer True HD services delivered using 10-15 Mbps, which is currently the upper limit for HD premium sports delivered using H.264, we can quantify fidelity at access bitrates appropriate for typical DTH or broadband delivery.

As it stands the concept of True HD services delivered to the home isn’t universal, since HD content is predominantly interlaced and often at ¾ HD resolution (1440 not the full 1920 pixels). HD Blu-ray (1080p 50/60) represents the closest to the ideal, but it’s typically restricted to HD premium movie subscription streaming services.

So herein lays the first key area for UHD to improve on, namely frame rate. The current crop of UHD screens can cater to 50/60 fps progressive rate delivered via the latest incarnation of HDMI, but even the majority of UHD sets delivered last year can only operate at a maximum frame rate of 30 fps, which is adequate for movies, but in no way acceptable for premium sports on such large screens.

This presents an immediate dilemma for those contemplating a UHD launch: restrict the frame rate transmitted or streamed to ensure backwards compatibility with existing shipped UHD screens or only launch UHD services when a compelling feature set exists in shipping screens? From a frame-rate perspective, HDMI 2.0 enabled screens shipped this year will probably be acceptable; after all it does represent a doubling of the frame rate with a move from an interlaced to a progressive rate and matches production infrastructure where we have yet to see a vision mixer capable of operating beyond 50/60 fps.

But frame rate is one of a whole host of expected features needed to bring the “Wow” factor to UHD viewing. A move from 8 bit to 10 bit compression along with Wide Color Gamut (WCG) and High Dynamic Range (HDR) need to be factored into the allocated bandwidth to appreciate the full impact of UHD services. Currently 10-15 Mbps UHD services compressed using HEVC is being utilized for cinematic content, without provision for incorporating WCG and HDR, as shown by Harmonic with the Electra X3 encoding a wide range of content using HEVC main 10 at NAB 2015.

To implement WCG and HDR requires a software-based encoder with the flexibility to add such features as when the industry converges on appropriate solutions and standards shipping on screens to the public. But it still leaves the question what will be the likely costs of such additions to cinematic content – probably an extra 25-45% as a worst case scenario over the bandwidth required for UHD resolution using HEVC Main 10 encoding.

Catering for premium sport coverage requires not only WCG and HDR to be factored in, but also a move beyond the current limit of 50/60 fps imposed by both production equipment and current screen shipments. This could push the basic compressed HEVC Main 10 bandwidth up from 20-25 Mbps by 50-60%, which is a serious bandwidth for those managing the purse strings of any HD to UHD transition. Proof enough that software-based encoding is key to implement WCG/HDR and deploy the latest coding advances to keep the compressed bandwidth reasonable!

Want to know more about these issues and our perspective? Harmonic, in conjunction with TDG® and Dolby®, has produced the Complete UHD Guidebook, available as a free download.

– Ian Trow, Senior Director, Emerging Technology and Strategy

Is UHD Ready for Prime Time?

Harmonic_UHDThe readiness of UHD to address the needs of up and coming channel launches is the key issue being asked by content producers, broadcasters, content aggregators and infrastructure providers. So what’s the answer and how will UHD be presented to viewers?

Upgrading existing HD channels to UHD is probably some way off, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see UHD channel launches soon. Since the fairly recent introduction of HD linear-scheduled services, viewer habits have changed, as have delivery infrastructures.

Three major factors will influence the type of UHD services launched, namely broadband access, multiscreen, and a significant demographic shift away from scheduled viewing. The upshot is that UHD channel launches will initially appear as broadband-delivered profiles within a multiscreen bouquet showing cinematic, documentary and episodic content.

The extra fidelity offered by the move to UHD matches these content genres well, but UHD is much more than just extra pixels, and this fact gives rise to a number of common questions concerning the use of UHD for premium content. Live television encompasses a host of content types in which higher frame rate, higher dynamic range (HDR), wide color gamut (WCG) and enhanced audio are all key parameters crucial to establishing UHD supremacy over HD. Without these improvements UHD will face awkward comparisons with HD, and its uptake will be held back.

At the delivery access bandwidths available to viewers, UHD delivery, particularly for live, is still a challenge. The key issue for compression is getting bandwidths down to acceptable levels to make the commercial case stack for UHD. The latest MPEG standard, HEVC, goes a long way to cutting the overall UHD-bandwidth requirement, but it’s the application of this standard to particular content types that made recent Harmonic Electra X3 demos compelling. Stunning quality at 10 Mbps for cinematic and documentary UHD content attracts UHD advocates and paves the way for premium-sports content to showcase the format’s readiness to replace HD—which begs the question for my next blog topic: What will deliver the fidelity for those extra UHD pixels and at what cost?

Want to know more about these issues and our perspective? Harmonic, in conjunction with TDG® and Dolby®, has produced the Complete UHD Guidebook, available as a free download.

– Ian Trow, Senior Director, Emerging Technology and Strategy

Gigabit Throughput for MDUs

Telecom operators have historically had two tools available to them to connect broadband and video services to subscribers: fiber and copper. The most common approach to broadband delivery involves the use of a DSLAM that connects the DSL network to the subscriber over a digital fiber link, with twisted-pair copper covering the last mile to the subscribers’ premises. This architecture is commonly deployed, but has a key drawback: the copper loop distance between the DSLAM and subscriber severely limits DSL speeds, which typically ranges from less than 1 Mbps to 25 Mbps. These speeds are increasing over time, but are still constrained by loop distances that diminish throughput the further away the customer is from the DSLAM: anything over 200 meters is a non-starter for many operators.

In recent years, FTTH has emerged as a technologically advanced alternative to DSL. Where available, FTTH offers the highest broadband speeds by eliminating the distance limitations of copper. However, the labor and infrastructure cost of deploying FTTH has generally confined its penetration to newly built homes. The challenge is even greater for subscribers in buildings without fiber wiring, as is common in MDUs. Running fiber to individual units in an existing apartment complex is just plain expensive, as well as extremely disruptive to the occupants.

Harmonic offers an alternative for delivering high-speed, triple-play services to MDUs: NSG Exo. Compact and cost-effective, NSG Exo is a part of our distributed access architecture (DAA) solution, which allows providers of data, video and voice services to use their existing digital fiber and coax networks to overcome the bandwidth limitations of DSL — and to avoid the upgrade costs of pulling fiber to individual subscribers. With NSG Exo, a provider’s coax infrastructure can deliver far greater bandwidth to subscribers — up to a gigabit today, and up to 10 gigabit in the near future.

Check out this video to learn more:

— Asaf Matatyaou, Senior Director of Solutions and Strategy, Cable Edge, Harmonic

IP Migration, Virtualization and Ultra HD – Reflections on NAB 2015

Virtualization, IP Migration and Ultra HD at NAB 2015

So how did my three predictions (Blog 24th March) for NAB stack up?

Prediction #1: The continued adoption of IP is enabling the migration of generic network product and storage further up the video workflow

The industry has been waiting for frame-accurate video switching in the IP domain to displace SDI-based solutions for some time now. Cisco® demonstrated that a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) router can perform as a video switcher at this year’s show. This proof of concept will delight all those who’ve invested time and money in understanding IP from a video perspective, like Harmonic. The demarcation between SDI and IP domains will be redefined, not just for the implementation of a cross-point switch on an IP router, but also due to the progress of SMPTE 2022-6 and related standards.

To date, IP has made great inroads into the video workflow through the ability to encapsulate SDI for IP carriage. Standby for the next stage of SMPTE 2022 enabling the processing of digital video in the IP domain where we’ll genuinely have the prospect of software-defined networks with all, but the most specialized video-specific functionality being realized in off-the-shelf enterprise solutions and storage. A clever move to demonstrate the basic video switching capability to be adopted and integrated by those with the market traction to implement it within software defined networks.

Prediction #2: Transition of video infrastructure away from hardware to software

This is very much an ongoing trend, so I’m not going to win a prize for this prediction. However, in an industry that’s known to be conservative, it’s how this trend is applied that’s noteworthy. Multiscreen transcoding was one of the first areas in the compression domain to transition to software solutions and the industry is rapidly addressing the needs of HD with software. This leaves Ultra HD (UHD) as the only application requiring a dedicated hardware assist to offer the required compression performance.

Sure it’s possible to meet the needs of UHD compression on standard platforms, but not at the bit rates that make broadcasters and VOD operators look at wholesale transfer of existing HD channel lineups as demonstrated by the Electra X3 at NAB. Hardware acceleration on standard platforms is needed to enable the Electra X3 to deliver at the key bit rates to make Ultra HD viable. Sub 20 Mbps HEVC encoding is crucial; movies can be encoded at 10 Mbps with the bandwidth rising as the content complexity increases with the demands of premium sports content, for example.

Caution is needed as HD represents the bulk of content viewed and the limit of where a solid business case exists from a format perspective. From a technology perspective, IP can be used completely in video workflows, but the success of UHD not only relies on a transition to IP infrastructure, but a strengthening of the comparative video quality between HD and UHD at typical consumer access rates.

Prediction #3: 4K / UHD to be the headline grabbing issue

This prediction turned out to be true, but as I’ve been saying, more pixels don’t mean better pixels. Followers of my posts are aware I’d rather have a higher frame rate over resolution. To coincide with NAB, Harmonic co-authored The Complete UHD Guidebook in conjunction with Dolby® and TDG®, which is available now for download.

For me, the roll out of the features that truly distinguish UHD from HD splits those trying to launch UHD services. On the one hand, there are big brand content aggregators and broadcasters who see that it’s vital to launch a UHD offering to achieve brand recognition among early adopters. Others are taking a more measured approach that accepts the fact UHD is the future, but requires high dynamic range, wider color gamut, and higher frame rate, along with stable screen functionality.

UHD screens have been shipping at rates that make backwards compatibility a serious issue for broadcasters looking to win over consumers who are skeptical after the 3D debacle. Hence, it’s no surprise that the UHD Forum event hosted to coincide with NAB was very well attended by those keen to see UHD deliver on genuine improvement for both VOD and live services.

There was no debate though about the need for true network storage for both 4K and UHD production. The introduction of the Harmonic Spectrum X will go a long way to meet the immediate needs of those embracing quad 3G for UHD playout, with an eye to the future where flexibility to adopt both next-generation IP interfaces (40G/100G) and production appropriate compression will apply.

The debate is very much ongoing and The Complete UHD Guidebook outlines the main issues; I’ll revisit the workflow issue in my next blog to further reflect on what I saw at NAB 2015.

– Ian Trow, Senior Director, Emerging Technology and Strategy

That’s a Wrap – Another Successful NAB

Harmonic at NAB 2015The NAB show is the world’s biggest annual convention covering filmed entertainment and the development, management and delivery of content across all mediums.

The organizers claim this year’s NAB was the largest ever with over 100,000 attendees from 164 countries viewing 1,614 exhibits that spanned over a million square feet of exhibit space. Following are highlights of the show:

Here, There, Everywhere – Ultra HD

While Ultra HD was everywhere at NAB, Harmonic raised the bar in joining with SES, Sony and others to deliver three days of live and linear Ultra HD broadcasts over a cable system via a full end-to-end 4K Ultra HD transmission system. The demo showed the advantages of live all-IP in broadcast-quality mode – no more spinning disks while you wait for content to stream. SES set up an Ultra HD studio outside the Las Vegas Convention Center to capture live content. The demo used SES satellites and teleports with a team of technology partners.

Harmonic products in the demo included the Electra X3 advanced media processor for live, full-frame, full-GOP UHD (HEVC Main 10 profile) encoding, ProView integrated receiver-decoders for satellite reception, ProMedia Xpress high-performance transcoder managed by the Harmonic WFS file-based workflow system for the creation of the HEVC streams, ProMedia Package multiscreen stream packager for MPEG-DASH packaging, and NSG Exo distributed CCAP system for DOCSIS transmission. For more details, read the SES press release.

Turning Up the Heat – Spectrum X and Virtual Media API

Announced at our pre-show press conference, Spectrum X advanced media server system was a hot topic. This next-gen media server leverages VOS technologies and combines file, baseband and transport stream ingest with comprehensive integrated channel playout (ICP) capabilities. Spectrum X media server reduces the number of discrete devices required to produce and distribute branded programming; it lowers capital expenditures, simplifies workflows and reduces operational costs. For details, read the Spectrum X press release.

Also announced was the Harmonic Virtual Media API (VMA), an open application control interface for broadcast automation control of its VOS virtualized media processing platform. The VMA, supported by the Electra XVM virtualized media processor and the Electra X family of advanced media processors, has been adopted by service providers and broadcast automation vendors, including Pebble Beach Systems, Dayang Technology Development Inc. and VJU.

This VOS platform ecosystem creates a fully integrated, cloud-based playout, graphics and encoding solution that can be used by video content and service providers to create and deliver live linear channels to any device faster, with a lower TCO and amazing video quality. For details, read the Harmonic VMA press release.

And We Won a Few Awards as Well

  • Best of Show from TV Technology: Spectrum X Advanced Media Server System
  • Broadcast Beat Innovation Award, Content Management: Polaris Playout Management
  • Broadcast Beat Originality Award, Content Creation: ProView 7100 Integrated Receiver-Decoder

What Can We Expect to See at NAB 2015?

UHD-Virtualization-iMCR-at-NABI expect three themes to dominate the show, the continued adoption of IP enabling the migration of generic network product and storage further up the video workflow, transition of video infrastructure away from hardware to software and 4K/UHD, with UHD being the main headline issue with those attending, eager to grasp how this will emerge given the breadth of announcements.

To date, the application of IP network solutions in video related applications has been most evident at the distribution end of the workflow. In such applications, all the benefits of IP can be applied with little video-specific capability needing to be developed.

Move further up the workflow and a more demanding application for IP is evident, where the needs to convey video synchronously over an asynchronous packet loss environment become apparent. While the industry is applying this technology to the carriage of HD SDI in the form of SMPTE 2022-6, the implications will be wide ranging and no doubt set the blue print for 4K/UHD deployments.

NAB has been the staging point for the demarcation between video specific interfacing and standard IP network solutions to be redefined. Over the years, the demarcation has moved further up the workflow towards the point of acquisition. While some manufacturers are preparing for an all-IP world for HD, NAB has presented two scenarios for UHD and 4K.

One perspective breathes further life into SDI by developing solutions and equipment based on 6G and 12G iterations of the 3G HD SDI standard. An alternate take is to jump straight to next-generation Ethernet interfacing by endorsing 40G or 100G variants of Ethernet. At first look the approaches appear poles apart, with one utilizing mild compression to compress down to the carriage capabilities of coax and the other allowing full baseband carriage of over the latest, very expensive, Ethernet infrastructure. I suspect the industry will settle on a hybrid solution which extends the application of HD SDI over IP to embrace lightly compressed 4K/UHD payloads.

This scenario requires the industry to move from merely carrying video over IP to allowing synchronous processing without having to go back to baseband digital signals. For me, this is the most interesting area, where solutions abound from various manufacturers who, to a lesser or greater extent, embrace the unrelenting move towards an all-IP workflow.

Vision mixers appear to represent the cross point between a video specific environment making way to an all-IP domain. However, both up- and down-stream from a vision mixer we see IP packaging and transport being widely utilized, prompting the obvious questions of when will a significant proportion of the video Industry succumb to IP interconnect for 4K/UHD applications?

4K/UHD today represents the cutting edge for network-based storage, with the demands being beyond most ingest and playout strategies. The industry is at an impasse where 4K/UHD solutions to date have relied on local rather than network storage with implementers waiting to see true IP-based solutions emerge that go beyond the interim quad 3G SDI used at the moment, which is proving cumbersome and no doubt will be short-lived. The discussions concerning 4K/UHD will no doubt explore how High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut can be realized at NAB, a topic that will be covered extensively at the 4K theatre on the Harmonic booth SU1210.

Looking forward to seeing you in Vegas!

– Ian Trow, Senior Director, Emerging Technology and Strategy

Media Empire: How to Brand Your Channel

On this week’s edition of Media Empire, the channel is now up and running internally at Harmonic HQ but the next assignment is to add all the bells and whistles expected on a professional channel. After receiving a custom graphics package, Megan and Ruchir must now add these elements as secondary events to the channel utilizing Spectrum ChannelPort integrated channel playout system.

The group is abruptly interrupted with an urgent message, as they are notified that their test stream has been knocked off the air. In order to get the problem solved, they give Harmonic’s tech support a call in hopes of getting the channel back online.

Will this speed bump be too much to handle? Be sure to watch the next episode to find out!