Developments in Image Capture/Delivery Affects the Entire Entertainment Technology Value Chain
– Kirk Barker

10 September 2014

A Conversation with Kirk Barker, Senior Vice President, Emerging Products, Technology Division, Technicolor

Technologies such as Ultra-High Definition (UHD), High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) are disruptive agents of change in the film and television industry. At the heart of each is a better entertainment experience for the viewing public, but each has its challenges and benefits.

In this Q&A, Technicolor Senior Vice President Kirk Barker shares his insights on how UHD, HDR and other technologies will evolve. He also discusses what their impact will be on the various players who are leveraging the technologies, from consumer electronics manufacturers to film distributors, and how Technicolor is differentiating itself with its offerings.

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A Conversation with Kirk Barker, Senior Vice President, Emerging Products, Technology Division, Technicolor

Technologies such as Ultra-High Definition (UHD), High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) are disruptive agents of change in the film and television industry. At the heart of each is a better entertainment experience for the viewing public, but each has its challenges and benefits.

In this Q&A, Technicolor Senior Vice President Kirk Barker shares his insights on how UHD, HDR and other technologies will evolve. He also discusses what their impact will be on the various players who are leveraging the technologies, from consumer electronics manufacturers to film distributors, and how Technicolor is differentiating itself with its offerings.

What are the key trends in UHD and how do you see those evolving?

Kirk: When most consumers today think about UHD, their first thought turns to higher resolution. We are seeing the next generation of 4K television sets appear on the market right now, and it is generating a lot of consumer interest. However, it is important to note that the move to these higher resolution platforms will represent a big change for players in the creation, production and distribution process because of the increased bandwidth requirements that it generates.

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That will trigger quite a bit of change in the equipment that is deployed to market as organizations adopt High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). This will be needed to handle the greater compression rates required by higher resolution images transmitted to consumers. As a result, it will have a major effect on encoder technology and set-top box capabilities.

On the production front, a lot of the content is actually captured in 4K now, but all of the post-production workflows still have to change. I think the biggest impact in the production process will be on the visual effects (VFX) side of the equation; everything may well have to be rendered in 4K which it currently is not. So the introduction of higher resolution experiences alone has a big impact on the community of interest.

Wide Color Gamut (WCG) is another important element of UHD, because it extends the spectrum of color that content creators can capture, and viewers can see. And then you have High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology. HDR introduces the ability to capture and view a more nuanced spectrum of light that can be manipulated to present images in ways that cannot be delivered today.

Of these technologies, I think HDR which will probably have the most dramatic impact on the consumer experience. But HDR has a few more challenges to address. For instance, at the point of capture, the cameras in place today are just not quite capable of capturing the images in ways that optimize the capabilities that HDR can offer.

In terms of display, we will have to see greater consumer uptake of high-nit displays (nits are used to specify the brightness of a display) to really take advantage of HDR. We will soon start to see these come onto the market. Sony’s just announced a 1,000 nit display; there are some 700 nit displays that have been out on the market for a while. But today, there are mostly 500 nit displays.

How well does the industry at large understand HDR today and how ready are they to accept it? Is it something that people are approaching reluctantly or is it moving forward rapidly?

Kirk: I would say that HDR is in its infancy right now. But it is evolving very quickly. It will not stay nascent long. Everybody who sees it is impressed with it. Every CE manufacturer that we talk to seems interested in figuring out how to bring HDR to market because it has such a dramatic effect on the final product.

What about existing investments? Are there challenges in moving to HDR because people – both consumers and major players in the content production and distribution supply chain – may be reluctant to sacrifice those investments?

Kirk: Absolutely there is some reluctance. But let’s examine this phenomenon at each step in the ecosystem.

On the consumer side, we saw TV replacement rates dropped down after people moved from big CRTs to flat panel displays. In the immediate aftermath of HD flat panel display introductions we saw a slow-down in TV replacements. Now that some of these new 4K and HDR technologies are beginning to receive some attention, we are seeing replacement rates creep back up. But what we have basically learned is that you can count on consumers being willing to make major new investments in TVs roughly every seven to eight years, or something like that.

I don’t think that these new technologies are going to fundamentally change that basic rhythm. By that I mean that I don’t think the new wave of technologies will cause the average retention period to drop from eight years to four years because a new technology is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

On the other hand, I do think that when people go out to buy a new TV they will choose a 4K or UHD TV and not a HDTV because the image quality is better and the price differential is small enough now that the move to the new technology makes sense. That wasn’t true two years ago or even a year and a half ago for 4K television sets.

Of course, there are different impacts in different geographies, right? I’m currently talking about mature markets, like the United States or Europe.

In emerging markets like China and South America the situation is different. In places where people are going out and buying their first TVs and you have this big boom in the middle class, the vast majority of new TV sales will incorporate these new technologies. That’s what we are actually seeing – as the latest 4K numbers come in. I saw one study come out indicating that an order of magnitude more of 4K TVs have sold in China compared to the United States.

On the distribution side, the bandwidth is the barrier. Figuring out how to cost-effectively deliver the content produced in 4K is a real challenge. In fact, the biggest issue I see is going to be how to get broad support for HEVC. This is especially true in America where you’ve still got a good amount of copper-based delivery.

How would you describe differences between Technicolor and Dolby in how you are bringing HDR to market?

Kirk: So at the macro level, I would say there are a lot of similarities, in that we both believe in the concepts of 4K, UHD, HDR WCG, etc. We both believe these new technologies can make a big difference in the consumer entertainment experience.

Dolby has moved aggressively to market…and in so doing they have in one sense helped to generate awareness about the potential of technologies like HDR. I would describe us both as partners wanting to push the eco system forward and get content created in it and deployed.

When you examine the two approaches at a more detailed level, I think the difference between Technicolor and Dolby is that we’re trying to push our system through open standards with disclosure and openness while Dolby’s has pursued more of a closed system.

We believe that a closed approach can create some major problems down the road by hindering interoperability – making it difficult for technologies made by different brands to work together – and by limiting the road map to the next innovation.

The other important difference, at a technical level, is that Dolby has narrowly committed its technology to supporting a 12-bit encoding paradigm. By contrast, Technicolor has worked to support a broader array of bit-rate encoding (8-bit and 10-bit, in addition to 12-bit), so that we can take advantage of the broad array of networks and end-point devices that will be used to consume entertainment experiences.

The market is constantly going to see new technologies introduced that will either build on the progress of the previous generation, or introduce radical innovations that are disruptive.

Either way, at Technicolor, we believe standards can help consumers – and the rest of the value-chain – do a better job of future proofing their investments in new entertainment experiences. That is why we are such big supporters of an open standards-based go-to-market process.

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