NeuLion shows off live 4K streaming at CES

Ultra HD 4K sets were a dime a dozen at the International CES show this year. From 4K camcorders and video recorders, 4K phones from Apple, to the 300 million or so UHD TV sets expected by IHS to be in use by 2019, it’s clear there’s no question about the future of video entertainment. It’ll be all 4K.

But according to Eric Grab, CTO of NeuLion, there’s something missing from the 4K ecosystem today: “Where’s the 4K content? Where’s it coming from? There’s a gap,” he said, speaking to The Online Reporter at CES last week. Not the VoD content – all the major OTT services are now offering libraries of 4K content, and those are growing daily. Even a few pay TV providers, specifically DirecTV and Comcast, have begun offering 4K VoD content. It’s not a ton of titles but the library of 4K content available online and on-demand is steadily growing.

But the ecosystem is conspicuously missing live 4K content. It’ll be years until the traditional pay TV and broadcast television networks are able to air live 4K content to viewers. And according to NeuLion, over the Internet, live 4K video streaming is a reality today. “So we’re getting our partners into 4K, that’s a big message for the show,” Grab said. “We can do live 4K and get it working.”

NeuLion offers end-to-end live streaming solutions. “We do the encoding, we do the billing, we do the metadata, the end apps,” Grab said. “We don’t do the CDNs but we do everything in between.”

Most of NeuLion’s customers are sports leagues. It counts NBA, UFC, and NFL among its clientele, along with soccer leagues, the World Surf League and Univision. “If you watch any of this content on the Internet in live streams, it’s powered by NeuLion,” he said.

NeuLion powered all of live streams of Univision’s World Cup coverage. It’s also powering the live Web channels that are part of Univision’s direct-to-consumer OTT service, Univision Now. For the World Surf League, NeuLion is powering its live 4K event coverage online.

In 2015, NeuLion acquired DivX, a streaming and playback video solutions firm with an installed base of over a billion consumer electronics devices. And at CES, NeuLion announced expanded deals with Samsung and Sony to create live streaming video content apps for Samsung and Sony smart TVs, which are all now 4K sets. “We make it very easy for consumer electronics to get adaptive live 4K streaming on the TV set,” Grab said. “We’re trying to prime the pump with the best quality content. This is a very comprehensive strategy of being there at the core technology, making sure the service is there, and all the brands, making sure it works seamlessly on all the CE devices over the top with our DivX technology, and it all comes together. You have great working video services and live events. Things are evolving very quickly and we’re leading the way in the space.”

NeuLion is now delivering live 4K content to connected 4K sets over a 15 Mbps connection. At CES, the company was demoing the app it built for the World Surf League, which has been filming events in 4K for a number of years. More sports leagues will follow suit as the technology becomes more pervasive.

One of the biggest roadblocks to offering live 4K content is upgrading the costly filming equipment. “Doing a 4K truck is millions of dollars, it’s a refresh on equipment – that is a challenge because a lot of this equipment was bought with the notion that the equipment was going to last a long time,” Grab said. “The good news is that equipment does get updated all the time, as that happens, they’re going to have more capabilities.” Production flows are also now incorporating more pure-IP systems, which helps to optimize 4K content production. “The whole production side is coming into 4K pretty quickly,” he said.

The other side of the coin is the household. 2015 was a breakout year for 4K TV sales, but Grab estimates only about 20% of homes in the States have broadband speeds capable of streaming 4K content. “But you’re probably not doing multiple streams of 4K,” he said. “So there’s an Internet upgrade that has to happen. That’s going to take a little bit of time, but I would never bet against the Internet. We know the Internet is going to get faster.”

“It’s not completely mainstream, but we’re getting there,” Grab said. “We’re trying to accelerate the adoption of this. Most of these obstacles are not if, but just when. Everything is moving along, and it’s moving at Internet speed. Frankly a lot of the industry is in broadcast speed. Broadcast doesn’t change very often. There’s a bit of conflict between the two, even in the business models.”

Grab noted that live streaming events such as sports games actually afford a better viewing experience to consumers, thanks to advanced and interactive features that can be built into the experience. “People who switch to the Internet are going to get better quality and better experience up to 4K,” Grab said. That’s the future we see.” Sports leagues are showing much more interest in offering content live and online, too. “We’re going to see much more of this, partly because the viewing experience is so good,” he said.

NeuLion’s World Surf League app is unique in that the live 4K content is also high dynamic range (HDR) content. HDR content is part of the new UHD Premium standard, announced at CES last week. The technology improves contrast between colors, and serves to enhance the picture as it appears on the screen. NeuLion, which writes its own codec, has been able to quickly integrate HDR into its live streaming platform.

“It’s actually not that hard for us to do,” Grab said. “A lot of the heavy lifting is on the camera and on the display. We have to make sure we can add all the right metadata and the right signaling. It integrates into our encoding pipeline which we already have established.”

And while HDR greatly improves the picture quality, it doesn’t add too much to the network requisites for live streaming. “It turns out HDR doesn’t use up many bits,” Grab said. “It’s actually very efficient. That’s somewhat counter-intuitive, because it has the biggest bang for the buck in terms of picture improvement.

Grab said HDR isn’t just for 4K resolution content, either. He expects to see a fair amount of non-4K implementations of the technology. That’s especially important for live streaming content. Streaming content requires adaptive bitrate systems that help adjust the picture quality given the bandwidth available. That varies across devices and typically fluctuates up and down within seconds when the user is streaming video over WiFi.

“I frame it as ‘adaptive capability streaming,’ because the capabilities that are now available on all these devices are very different,” Grab said. “You want to send the right stream to the right device.”

When a viewer is watching a 4K video stream, periodic dips in bandwidth may cause the resolution of the picture to dip down below 4K-quality. That becomes more complicated when HDR is involved. The picture cannot simply drop from HDR to SDR (standard dynamic range) due to bandwidth constraints. For real-world streaming applications to devices other than UHD Premium certified 4K sets, HDR will need to be turned on for lower resolution video files, too.

We asked Grab about the image quality issues around live streaming content, and the charge most pay TV players bring up that live streaming video experience will never be as flicker-free or buffer-free as a traditional TV experience.

“And why is that? Because channels have been allocated to it,” he said. “If you go into the RF signaling, there’s a big spectrum that you have, and they’ve allocated a huge spectrum to channels. Great. Well, what if you allocated more of that spectrum to Internet? It can be just as good, but there needs to be the right hardware optimizations, the right Internet optimizations. The Internet is being rewired to handle video more and more every day. It’s really only a limitation of the service provider to allocate the right bandwidth and the right protocol that will support better live video throughout the whole system. It’s very possible.”

This first ran in Rider Research’s Online Reporter.