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14 May 2020

DVB monitoring codec progress but no demand beyond HEVC

Representatives among the UHD community set out to answer a burning question during a webinar this week – has UHD been a commercial success, or does it fundamentally remain a work in progress?

This is almost a rhetorical question given the broader economic standstill that is – as discussed in another recent UHD webinar – stalling UHD service launches.

As a result, no one dare forecast when UHD launches might kick off in earnest, not even the Ultra HD Forum itself which was showcasing a live demo of its newly revamped and impressive-looking UHD service tracker.

Relaunched a month ago to celebrate the tripling of services from 2018 to 2020, based on data from 3 billion subscriptions, the Forum’s service tracker shows that 10% of subscriptions of the 150 commercial TV services monitored now have UHD services. Our first glimpse of the tracker in action showed how users can sort by delivery (unicast, multicast, broadcast) and network type (Cable, DTH, IPTV, OTT, mobile etc.), to name just two of the numerous nifty search filters.

Another interesting idea here, according to Ultra HD Forum Chair, Ben Schwarz, is to capture the proportion of UHD services. “It’s unfair to list one service in a small country that may be looping the same 4K content on one channel as one service, alongside another service which may have thousands of hours of 4K VoD content, which is also counted as one service,” said Schwarz.

There is, however, work to be done clarifying Next Generation Audio, as well as an issue with multiple HDR technologies, relating to commercial sensitivity from companies like Dolby which want their branding in the right place. This requires an element of impartiality and fairness, according to Schwarz, so clearly we can see that the UHD service tracker has a lot more to give with potential to be a really powerful portal into the 4K UHD – and eventually 8K – world.

Dolby’s Jason Power, who chairs the DVB Commercial Module working group on video coding, weighed in with how the disruption in live sports has thwarted progress. “Within Dolby, we aware of a significant number of broadcaster plans that have been affected by sports cancellations, but we have big events next year to look forward to. But it would certainly be a mistake for anyone to try to forecast this in the current environment,” said Power, almost egging someone to take a crack at projecting a resurgence.

The discussion quickly turned to video codecs. We learned that while the emergence of disruptive codecs is something on the DVB radar, supporting anything other than HEVC is not an immediate concern.

“This is an interesting time in video coding. It’s like waiting forever for a bus and then three come along at once. We have a whole new generation of codecs coming to fruition. Even within MPEG, there are multiple different technologies coming – like VVC (versatile video codec), EVC (essential video coding), LCEVC (low complexity enhancement video coding) and others. Within DVB, our members have seen a need in the market to include HEVC, so we are starting to understand the market needs from a standardized framework that DVB provides,” explained Power.

Virginie Drugeon, senior TV engineer at Panasonic and chair of the DVB Technical Module AVC group, echoed these sentiments. “We are only considering HEVC to make life easier for delivery in DVB. Similarly, there is no 8K in DVB yet. HEVC is certainly capable of supporting 8K, but it depends on what kind of requirements and what kind of service you want to show,” outlined Drugeon.

She went on to discuss LCEVC in a little extra detail, suggesting a soft-spot for the two-layer video coding standard, also known as MPEG-5 Part 2. “LCEVC is very different. It brings an extra level of enhancement to existing codecs like HEVC, so LCEVC could be used independently from EVC. We don’t have anything in DVB specs using these newer codecs as they are not completely finalized, but we are looking at them of course,” continued Drugeon.

It would not be a fair fight in any UHD discussion without giving some weight to the hardware corner of the ring. Paul Gray, Research Director at Omdia, who helped build the UHD service tracker, claims almost 60% of TVs selling today are UHD compatible.

Gray came bearing data projecting a mixed bag of outcomes for the UHD market. On one hand, lockdown effects will sink TV sales by between 20% to 40% in many markets. However, as early lockdowns happened, he noted how there was a surge in TV set purchases in many markets, which has been interpreted humorously as the “electric babysitter market”.

Omdia data shows no actual shrinkage for UHD TV panel shipments forecast for this year, but adjustments have still been made to the tune of about 10 million fewer units as a direct result of Covid-19. UHD TVs will ship 120 million units this year, growing to 150 million shipments a year thereafter, according to Gray.

He also addressed an important point, regarding what drives adoption – TV content or the TV panel? “Thirty years ago, broadcast services were the driving force ahead of panel makers. Now, 8K TVs are available but consumers look through the TV, not at it, so content is still what matters. Content therefore brings value – it’s like buying a washing machine without any soap,” said Gray.

Finally, Faultline asked Schwarz for an update on when he thinks the resurgence of UHD services will begin. “To be honest, we don’t know yet. The gradual reemergence of live sports will be interesting. With the research done on our UHD service tracker, any new guidelines etc. are at least 12 months later, so whatever the pandemic does to UHD service launches, we won’t see until some time in 2021,” he warned.

Further initial findings from the tracker show that three-quarters of the world’s UHD services are mostly linear, serving over 125 million viewers, while the other quarter of VoD-based UHD services cover 180 million people. The tracker shows that half of these services offer HDR, while a quarter include some form of Next Generation Audio.

To summarize the webinar, we got the impression that panelists were in general agreement that the increase in raw bitrate generated by 8K over 4K is an unnecessary luxury that cannot be afforded today.