CES 2014: manufacturers gearing up for 4K products, supporting workflows

4K over WiFi and budget-friendly 4K cameras are just two of the tantalising trends in evidence at this year’s International CES – the many and varied highlights of which have been filleted for SVG Europe by Adrian Pennington.

“You can stream 4K over WiFi if you want to,” said Netflix supremo Reed Hastings at one of two CES appearances trumpeting the ability of new LG and Sony UHD TV owners to get his new 4K service (coming soon).

The ease of getting 4K over the internet using in home bandwidth of 15Mb/s is now a going concern and has fellow OTT giants like YouTube, Amazon and Microsoft Xbox in the box seat for the launch of on-demand services.

Cable companies – Cox, TimeWarner and Comcast – are also salivating at the prospect. “We like applications that take a lot of bandwidth,” said Tony Werner, CTO, Comcast, who revealed that it (via US Olympic rights holder NBCUniversal) is to make 4K recordings at Sochi to show the market what it is missing. “We have the capability to do it. What’s more important is getting the content cycle to start.”

Broadcasters, though, were notably absent in announcements of UHD at CES, although Showtime has plans to shoot a 4K drama and Saturday Night Live will also shoot 4K episodes soon. New 4K-ready set top boxes will be 3-5 years ahead.

While UHD was all the rage among TV set vendors the content community as well as providers are concerned that resolution alone is not sufficient to sell the concept to the public. Any Ultra HD picture also has deliver on richer pixels: greater colour range, higher speed (frame rates) and higher brightness.

The CE giants each have technology built into the set to adjust and enhance contrast, colour or upscale the input image to 4K. Samsung’s ‘auto depth enhancer’, for example, analyses images to attempt to recognise which parts are in the background and foreground then boosts the contrast in these areas to visually separate the planes.

Nonetheless this may still not be enough to convince high street punters, but higher brightness and greater colour may well be if the information captured at the front end can be delivered through the chain and onto UHD displays which currently have limited range in this regard.

Speaking at a session on future imaging, Barry Sandrew, founder of 2D-3D conversion outfit Legend3D, said: “When you take a 2K or 4K image and present it in HDR you’ve got an image that has never been seen before. It is pristine. You can do it in 2K and upres to 4K and it’s still better. It’s not the number of pixels, it’s about the data. I believe systems and flat panels capable of displaying HDR will be a major theme of CES2015 and in turn these will become the trojan horse for autostereo.”

Dolby and Technicolor are building out post workflows and display technologies to retrieve that high dynamic range for broadcast and streaming. Dolby’s is the most advanced and is backed by Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Microsoft Xbox Video and Vudu. Dolby also dropped hints that broadcasters HBO and BSkyB have agreed to support its approach.

Dolby is licencing the technology and is talking with standards body the ITU about upgrading its UHD specifications. Post producers would be required to buy new Dolby Vision compliant monitors and there are a number of OEMs including Sharp, Vizio and TCL that will launch units this year.

Editing, mastering and grading tools would also need a revamp. Dolby is on track to release a first Dolby Vision plug-in for grading tools such as Da Vinci at NAB. Dolby Labs Pat Griffiths, senior director of technology is keen not to promote Dolby Vision as in competition with UHD, instead as an enhancement (adding an extra 20% in data). “You have UHD as the cake and Dolby Vision as the icing,” he said.

Streaming, imaging and stitching

Panasonic and Sony launched budget 4K cameras to help stockpile UHD content – Sony’s a $2000 4K Handycam and Panasonic’s a POV mini-cam. Pana further said it was developing a digital single lens mirrorless camera compatible with 4K video.

Action sports camera developer Liquid Image aired a $200 body-cam capable of streaming live video coded in WQVGA over the 4G LTE network. The Ego LS will work with $200 4G network module with carrier Verizon in the US, with the European market targeted via Vodafone, Swissom and Orange.

One application would be for mounting on drones, such as the Octocopter, which DJI presented outfitted to carry a Canon EOS 5D DSLR for higher-quality aerial shots.

Panasonic took a leaf out of Sony’s book and demonstrated a picture-stitching application of four static 4K 60fps video feeds (it didn’t name the camera brand) covering a Texas Tech football game. The feeds were displayed over three screens at 2K x 12K which can be arrayed to show the full panoramic picture or zoomed-in highlights of the action. A player tracking software is in development which will be linked with playbook data and other stats to provide realtime contextual information. The initial target is fan zones and business use.

Arguably the most intriguing lenser came from chip-maker turned gadget developer Intel. Its RealSense 3D HD camera is described as “the world’s first integrated 3D depth and 2D camera module that helps devices ‘see’ depth much like the human eye.” It has the ability to detect finger level movements enabling accurate gesture recognition as well facial features for understanding movement and emotions. It’s so tiny so it can be built into devices like smartphones and ultrabooks – which it will be from vendors including Acer, Dell and Fujitsu.

Smart glasses may be a fad in some people’s eye but I think they are here to stay, if not quite in their current obtrusive form. One clue to its future was found at Vuzix which has revamped technology first built for the US miltary on ops like the Navy Seals mission to raid Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.

It has already gone to market with the M100 and its next model, debuting this time next year, will feature waveguide technology it has co-developed with Nokia. This promises a far lighter lens than in Google Glass and others that use LCDs and an optical display in line of sight rather than up in a corner. “It will make wearables, wearable,” said European director David Ford. Indeed Vuzix has just launched a version for industrial applications.

The killer app for smart glass has yet to be found though there are clear uses in sports training and also fan experiences within stadia. Epson has its eye on that market, as does Sony which intends to take its Smart Eyeglass out of the labs and into sports grounds soon, possibly at the World Cup if it can find sufficienlty robust wireless communications in Brazil.

Sony’s CES demo featured a field-wide projection of a Confederations Cup match in which viewers with glass could see stats on players appear on holographic strips embedded in the lens. A second iteration of the product will feature a camera and the ability for users to share video, a function Sony is calling Social Live.

The next wave of TVs are UHD and…wavey

This year’s models are showing their curves. It seems a ludicrous idea made possible because OLED panels have become more affordable and possibly because set makers realise that they need more than a 4K badge to sell new hardware.

Samsung even had a Bendable screen which will curl into a concave from a flat panel at the touch of a button. The marketing teams would have you believe though that the curves deliver a more consistent field of vision and more cinematic experience than flat panels ever could. Samsung claimed the curves provide “a 3D-like effect without wearing 3D glasses. It provides a truly immersive experience.”

As for 3D itself, this is largely absent from the showfloor though new entrants like Stream TV Networks and Izon both say they will bring to market a range of autostereo displays this year. Stream TV in particular is one to watch having licenced its autostereo algorithm and light panel system to Toshiba, Konka, Marvel Digital and Haier, and with ambitions to produce live sports and other live events in its format for broadcasters and sports franchises. The functionality is now a default button on most standard TVs. Samsung had a glasses-free 3D concept showing HD images but with 35 points of view which looked like the work in progress it is. Sharp even previewed a 8K 85-inch autostereo screen (4K output) but one wondered why they bothered because the quality (powered by Dolby) of Life of Pie was poor at best.

Perhaps the UHD showstopper was a model from Polaroid costing a $999 which is remarkable given that a year ago UHD screens were topping out above $5000. With Consumer Electronics Association predictions of just close to half a million UHD sets to be sold in the US this year (out of 40 million annual set sales) and only 2.9m by 2017, expect next year’s show to focus far more on the quality of the image not just the pixel count.

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters