Letter from America: NAB Cheers 'IP, IP Hooray' for 4K
By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires.
When someone is celebrated or honoured it is customary to call for 'Three cheers,' comprising 'Hip, hip...
By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires.
When someone is celebrated or honoured it is customary to call for 'Three cheers,' comprising 'Hip, hip hooray', thrice. Today I suspect those behind 4K are cheering, but in this instance, the 'H has been dropped and the hooray is for IP. I suspect that sooner or later, you’ll want to toast it too.
[caption id="attachment_5334" align="aligncenter" width="332"] Three cheers for IP![/caption]
Going back a little bit in time, the distribution of signals either from a content provider to the public or, more recently within the entertainment/infrastructure of a home (or business/educational facility, hospitality venue, house of worship or other commercial or enterprise situation), was typically involved various discrete and specific signals.
The input to a radio was RF, the input to a TV or the tuner feeding a display via cable or satellite set top box was also RF. You transported signals around a system via discrete-ish signal methodology, as well. Audio? Baseband analogue discrete, PCM, AES, whatever. Video? First, composite CVBS, then S-Video, and later component analogue Y/Pr/Pb in the home. And in the commercial digital video production world? Perhaps one of the forms of SD- or HD-SDI.
Signals have joined together more recently with digital audio and video combined to travel through 'pipes' such as HDMI, HDBaseT and similar. Despite that, many of us still tend to live with systems where RF brings in the mainstream over-the-air terrestrial or cable/satellite, even as the data-delivered world of over the top grows, as evidenced by the devices discussed in my last two Letters.
[caption id="attachment_5339" align="aligncenter" width="600"] HDMI and Ethernet Cable for HDBaseT or plain IP.[/caption]
The Connectivity Mash Up
However, think about it for a minute: While you may use an AppleTV or Roku as a 'streaming catcher', or provision to allow content to be viewed on a larger screen that is accessed through a smartphone or tablet, how is it that the content gets from the access device to the display and audio system? Hmmm. Either a direct HDMI connection from a streaming box, a connection from DisplayPort (if a Mac) to HDMI, Lightning or 30-pin to HDMI (if iOS), or MiniUSB or MHL to HDMI (if Android mobiles, 'phabs' or tabs), or for those who 'mirror' to an AppleTV from their iPhone or iPad for OTT, there is still that pesky HDMI output to connect.
This mash up of connectivity options can and certainly does work. Indeed, some of you might suggest that this sometimes consumer-unfriendly and confusing mix is great for business as it allows you to ride in on a white horse to save the day and make sense of it all for the tech-averse or just plain 'too busy to deal with it' client.
Perhaps. But I not only say 'Look over your shoulder, change is a-coming', I’ll even give it a proper cheer: IP IP: HOORAY! IP IP: HOORAY!! IP IP: HOORAY!!!
It is true that from a top-level view, the content is, in many cases delivered to some of the devices via IP pipes, and going into the back half of this year and then onward, we see the pace of that change accelerating. That will NOT mean the end of the business world as we know it, despite the many RF and other cables that might be flung into the dustbin. What it will do, is change the systems used and how we connect them.
NAB: Showing the Way Forward
As HiddenWires’ official 'Show Dog,' I recently attended both the annual NAB show in Las Vegas and the NCTA to see where the presage of this might be found in the world of broadcasting for the former and cable distribution for the latter. After all, with regard to the NAB’s constituency there is perhaps nowhere else that will you find more interconnections of audio and video gear. The broadcast or video/audio production industry has ridden the rails from massive discrete analogue connections and patch panels or complex routing switchers, to today’s digital environment. Looking at that world holds hints for ours.
[caption id="attachment_5330" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Hints of things to come for the residential market often emerge at NAB.[/caption]
Indeed, while the NAB is formally the (US) National Association of Broadcasters, attendees at their annual convention’s from production facilities, educational, houses of worship, and commercial, business and enterprise companies, have outnumbered folks who actually work at a place where there is a broadcast tower somewhere in the mix, by a significant margin for many years. Similarly, the NCTA is formally the (US) National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Goodness knows, their very existence depends on wires and connections, though the attendance there is about 15% of the massive NAB Show, but there are hints for our world there, as well.
As I have mentioned in previous Letters concerning this show, 'Broadcasting' isn’t even found in the NAB Show’s signage these days. Their overarching banner is 'Where Content Comes to Life' and this year’s slogan was 'Channel Opportunity – The Way to Play in a Digital World'. Sounds good to me – that’s a good idea and it is the way we ALL should play! The NCTA’s convention catch phrase was “Inspiration Everywhere”, also a good idea for everyone.
[caption id="attachment_5335" align="aligncenter" width="304"] This hallway sign at the 2014 NAB show says it all. Content and the way in which it is channelled to end users is what it is all about.[/caption]
I have been dealing with all of this to some extent in my past two Letters, but those missives dealt with specific consumer products that might be purchased at retail, and installed in a client’s home. Here we’re jumping up a few thousand feet to take a broader view of how IP delivery of content is reaching into more areas, and how it will ultimately change the way you do things. And then we'll dive back down to ground level.
One major shift that we saw really beginning to take off at this year’s NAB is the trend to replacing the various infrastructure communication formats and pipes with IP-based systems. Just as the home is becoming more IP-based, so are broadcast plants. Major OB vans, facilities and small systems are moving to IP rather than video routing for internal distribution. While that might not have an impact on residential applications directly, the message is clear that old fashioned serial and analogue systems are soon to be a thing of the past.
On the back-haul side, where content is sent from one facility to another in what broadcasters sometimes call the 'Mezzanine', things happen transparently to us since end users never access this content directly. However, by switching to IP infrastructure, those who create and distribute programmes will have a much more efficient way of dealing with the bandwidth needed to deliver 4K content.
[caption id="attachment_5336" align="aligncenter" width="600"] This side-by-side comparison of a traditional SDI-based system (left) with an IP-based plant (right) on Sony’s stand at NAB, helps make the case for how IP is simpler and easier to install and maintain.[/caption]
The ability to properly encode content to travel over a format-neutral IP network saves the trouble and expense of heavy cables. Given the right cabling, encode/decode methodology and infrastructure, it has all the capacity required, and is easily switched from any location on the network.
[caption id="attachment_5332" align="aligncenter" width="536"] A quick look at the savings in weight and system simplicity of this IP-based OB van is a clear reason why IP is increasingly important to the broadcast world. Expect this to be part of the equipment that brings 4K coverage of the World Cup to the world next month.[/caption]
No more striking an example of this was the use of Cisco-based products on the Sony stand to show how a 2160/60p signal was sent over standard IP products from New York to Las Vegas with no loss of quality, perfect resolution, no encode/decode or motion artefacts and, of course, perfect sound. An easy-to-use and easy-to-configure way to send signals around, it is the wave of the future.
Similarly, Sony used its own gear to send HD images from the convention floor to a press conference at a remote hotel over IP without any quality issues or lag. Indeed, this same type of gear is in use for transport of video dailies in Sony's film production business.
[caption id="attachment_5337" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Demos of coast-to-coast 2160/60p video over IP from studio to a prototype IP-based set-top box (STB) using HEVC (High Efficiency Video Encoding) are how some of the major suppliers are making the case for this major change in how signals are sent from origin to the home.[/caption]
2160/60 is the Direction of Travel
Somewhat in parallel with this, other pieces of the puzzle were falling into place for 4K/UHD that make it possible to make efficient use of the IP transport. Numerous stands had demos of HEVC (High Efficiency Video Encoding) encode/decode systems for signals not only at 2160/30p, but at 60p and even 120p. Indeed, throughout the vast exhibition halls – taking up as much space as CES – 2160/60p seemed to be the direction everything was taking from a content acquisition, post-production and distribution standpoint. There, too, is something to keep in mind for our applications on the consumer side of things.
[caption id="attachment_5328" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Coming out of NAB, 2160/30p is so 'last year'. 60fps video encoded with HEVC was everywhere, and there were even displays of 120fps content.[/caption]
The aforementioned trend to 60p definitely means that when provisioning gear and systems where 4K/UHD is in the offing, one had best look towards HDMI 2.0-compliant gear, as mere '4K pass-through' with older systems that might choke up over 30p could soon be problematic.
Content Distribution in the Home
With regard to the content distribution backbone in the home, particularly as UHD gains traction with streaming services, there is something to be learned from our cousins in the pro video world. IP is coming and let that be a sign yet again to step up the speed, quality and ability for remote monitoring and control on in-home networks. As time moves on, they will see increased use.
[caption id="attachment_5331" align="aligncenter" width="417"] The call to use IP as a replacement for today’s distribution systems was visible throughout the massive displays at NAB in Las Vegas last month.[/caption]
Evidence of that, albeit in something that is still a bit of a prototype, was a deceptively simple-looking device call 'WebTuner'. Looking for all the world like a slightly overgrown USB charger on which someone mistakenly put an HDMI socket, WebTuner proposed to use this form factor to replace the familiar cable or satellite STB in an in-home IP world. Imagine a master cable or satellite receiver that outputs content whose input is IP rather than RF, and rather than having the UI for the box, it is cloud-based and thus able to be changed remotely to add new features rather than have roll a truck to replace the STB in a consumer’s home.
[caption id="attachment_5327" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The WebTuner, shown here in a variety of colours with a mains snake to help establish its size, has power that belies the compact form factor and is a possible replacement for STBs in an increasingly IP-driven content distribution world. [/caption]
That type of arrangement saves cost for the service provider and makes it easier to update for new services and content at a much lower cost, particularly with regard to the in-home terminal gear. Remember, this is hardwired IP connectivity, not wireless (at least at this time), so for the client who asks why you need to run wires rather than lean on Wi-Fi, this provides a reason in terms of future-proofing.
Indeed, as we go to press, the cable industry’s counterpart to the CES, NAB, IFA and CEDIA, is taking place in my home town of Los Angeles. There, amongst the surprisingly large number of traditional RF-based cable set tops with 4K/10-bit colour/2160/60fps capability were at least two IP based STBs with UHD capability including HDMI 2.0 and even HDCP 2.2.
We Still Need Wires
All of this IP based distribution means yet another thing when it comes to 4K/UHD.
Confirming what I first suspected back in January at CES, the first broad-based, non-set-specific distribution of major-tier 4K content, as already evident in the UK and the US, is Netflix and the 4K streaming of the House of Cards (US version) programme. For the foreseeable future, the only way to view it is using a compatible Netflix app built into the 4K display. Until there is a 4K-compatible version of Roku, Chromecast, AppleTV, Amazon FireTV or even WebTuner, with not only the HEVC decoding that is needed but also HDMI 2.0 and perhaps even HDCP 2.2, it is built-in or nothing.
[caption id="attachment_5333" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Shown at the NCTA’s Cable Show, this compact IP set top box from Humax will bring IP-delivered 4K content to TVs some time this year, with HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 on the outputs. [/caption]
Given that most of the 4K sets have Netflix - although some of the initial 2013 models from some brands do not have HEVC and are thus not good for this application - so far, so good. However, since the bandwidth demand is likely to be 15Mbps according to Netflix, are you sure you REALLY want to trust that to Wi-Fi? Go wired and be sure!
[caption id="attachment_5340" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Netflix is distributing 4K content led by House of Cards. The video quality is there, but getting the multichannel audio out to the audio system may require some connectivity gymnastics.[/caption]
Along with wires for the actual RF or IP input, a wired connection may well be required in the 4K/UHD world of the very near future, thanks to a trend that popped up at the Cable Show. There, Samsung was prominent with display of a UHD gateway box that had up to six onboard tuners and either internal or optional external HDD storage via an e-SATA connection. Along with the master gateway in a home system will be an IP client that accesses content from the master. The connection? You guessed it: not only IP, but wired.
[caption id="attachment_5329" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Samsung’s proposed UHD Video Gateway/Client concept uses hardwired IP connectivity to link a remote UHD-capable client to the tuners and content storage in the master gateway STB.
What About the Audio?
Now, along with the IP delivery, there’s another connection kicker. One has to presume that any client with the wherewithal to buy a 4K set will have you upgrade them or install a significant multichannel audio system with quality to match that of the high-resolution video. The issue here is that since the IP signal is decoded and the HEVC is also dealt with inside the set, you have to figure out how to get the multichannel audio back out to an AVR or surround processor. In theory you can do that via ARC in the HDMI link or with a separate optical cable out of the TV to the sound system, as long as you do get true 5.1 in the return channel, not 2.0. Many of the high end sets will be fine, but some may not. Be sure to check, so that the 'IP' doesn’t become an 'OOPS!'
As a side note, virtually all of 4K/UHD set tops one display at the Cable Show did have an optical output for audio in the event that their outputs with HDCP 2.2 makes a current generation surround processor or AVR with HDCP 1.4 cause the handshake to fail. With this configuration one would connect the HDMI directly to a display and use the SP/DIF for audio connections. Yes, that limits the audio to PCM rather than the higher level Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD or DTS-MA formats, but at least it will be multichannel digital.
At the end of the day while broadcasters and video production facilities have different goals, priorities, cost constraints, ROI requirements, security demands to even the most sophisticated home installation, the appeal of IP transport for video is undeniable. Even more so if you are in the middle as a purveyor of multiple-dwelling installation services.
Yes, the major news at this year’s NAB was more than IP. As has been reported and heavily covered elsewhere, there was much attention to all aspects of 4K content, from the shoot to the home, on the not-so-subtle hints of 8K to come and the continued presence, albeit at a quieter level, of 3D. We’ll deal with that in subject-specific Letters as the year progresses, but the appearance of IP distribution well beyond what some might have predicted, is worth noting.
No matter what the size, scope or intent of the installation and no matter what flavour of venue it is in, a major lesson from NAB and the NCTA’s Cable Show is the confirmation of what many of us have known all along: as the entertainment distribution system becomes increasingly data- and digitally-driven, there will still be a case for use of traditional connections, but to paraphrase the old cliché, 'You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much network capacity (for all that IP and data-driven content). I can’t help you with the first two, but an occasional reminder as to the last part of that trio is well within your control, and is something to which you always need to pay attention!
Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid.
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