Moving towards UHD/ 4K production: Ibrahim Al Akkad of Grass Valley

Ibrahim Al Akkad is Regional Director for Grass Valley Middle East.

Guest columnist, Ibrahim Al Akkad of Grass Valley Middle East, outlines the benefits of UHD/4K production and charts a viable way forward.

Broadcasters and production companies have always had one primary goal: to produce compelling content of the highest quality in a way that is economically viable. A high-quality mastering format is key to enabling the highest quality viewing experience over any platform and on any device – and today that is UHD/4K.

Until recently, HD coverage was the general requirement and UHD/4K production was only deployed for specific events – but this approach has now changed. We are gradually beginning to see UHD/4K make its way into other live production genres.

Broadcasters and production companies are looking for easily scalable solutions that can support HD and UHD/4K productions of any size. The ability to transition to fully integrated UHD/4K in a live production environment, delivering the same functionality and speed as existing HD workflows, is also a key consideration with any new investment.

Higher resolution brings higher bandwidth and distribution costs that have been the major reasons why many broadcasters restrict UHD/4K operations, or delay the decision to implement the technology. UHD/4K signals are 12Gbps uncompressed, so a large live production environment needs a significant amount of bandwidth – and IP is the generally accepted solution for this.

With the SMPTE ST 2110 standard, and the publication of the first standards within SMPTE ST 2110 specifications, movement [towards IP] has started to pick up. With industry-wide support for IP interoperability, customers can now select best-of-breed solutions from multiple vendors.

Here in the Middle East, some still see 12G-SDI as the preferred migration path to UHD/4K, due to operational fears surrounding IP. However, we have already seen the impact of the SMPTE standards as customers now have more confidence in making the investment in IP. The number of RFPs being issued for IP infrastructure projects is increasing.

Bandwidth will get increasingly cheaper as we move to COTS IP infrastructures. The move to higher bandwidth connections – such as 100G and the development of 200G and 400G – will also bring costs down.

HDR is going live

While consumers enjoy a much richer viewing experience in UHD/4K, the additional resolution alone is not enough, particularly when you consider the screen size most of us access content on. This is where HDR comes in.

By combining UHD/4K and HDR, broadcasters can deliver the best images possible in the industry today and create truly immersive and lifelike experiences for viewers. HDR also enables more dependable results under difficult shooting conditions.

Consumer trends indicate that adding HDR is a good bet. With shipments of HDR TV sets forecast to surpass HD sets by 2020 and reach 245 million units in 2022, the appetite for HDR content is only going to rise.

Upgrading to UHD/4K and HDR doesn’t come without cost implications, however, and for some broadcasters and media organisations, the cost is not worth the benefit to viewers. For many broadcasters, adding HDR to 1080p HD footage is an attractive alternative strategy. From a viewer perspective, there is still a stunning improvement in image quality, and disruption to existing workflows is minimal.

Most workflows will have to support parallel SDR/HDR production workflows to cater to consumers without HDR-ready TV sets. Signals will need to be adapted with up/down mapping as required, to mix and match incoming content formats and output signals without compromising quality.

We are expecting a rise in UHD/4K and HDR uptake across sports and entertainment production. In recent months, we have seen significant investment from broadcasters, production companies, OB and rental houses globally, and we expect this trend to extend to the Middle East market in the months ahead.