Successfully Rolling Out Ultra HD Is an All-Around Winner

Carl Weinschenk
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What Can Augmented Reality Do?

A tremendous amount of attention is being paid to Ultra high definition (Ultra HD) television. Most recently, it was one of the stars of the CES in Las Vegas.

As usual, the hype is way ahead of the reality. And, as usual, the question is whether the hype will build to success (the original HD) or failure (see any good 3D shows lately?).  New Scientist points to the support of major players as evidence that Ultra HD eventually will thrive, though it may take a long time. In a Q&A with a reader at Yahoo! Tech, where the reader actually does the heavy lifting, David Pogue takes the position that 4K Ultra HD is silly because the increase in clarity won’t be noticed.

The challenges to Ultra HD can be identified. Two are fairly predictable, since the industry has been down this road before. First will come the old chicken and egg quandary: People won’t buy sets until prices come down, but the prices won’t come down until lots of people buy sets. The key to solving such a poultry dilemma is to create lots of content. That will start the ball rolling and, if Ultra HD really is what people want, the sector will fly (unlike chickens).

The other big challenge, and one that is far steeper than when HD was introduced, is distribution. Nothing comes for free in life, or in telecommunications. The increased clarity of Ultra HD is simply because 4,000 or so more pixels, which are about twice as many as high definition, are used to create the images. This number of pixels cannot be transported using the current MPEG-4/H.264 compression standard.

Thus, the fate of Ultra HD depends upon the deployment of the next generation of compression standards. Two competitors are emerging: the High Efficiency Video Coding/H.265 (Tom’s Guide has a nice summation of HEVC) and VP9 from Google. Each would roughly halve the bandwidth demand for transmission of a given piece of content.

Lost in the drama of whether the world is ready for Ultra HD is the impact that HEVC and/or VP9 will have on networking in general. The logic is simple: If the compression standards make Ultra HD possible by squeezing out twice as many bits from an image, they can do the same thing for traditional high definition and standard resolution broadcasts.

In other words, a great deal more content can be transmitted using the new compression algorithms in non-Ultra HD implementations. This is very important as the amount of video being transmitted soars, and a good reason for the entire industry to root for Ultra HD: Ultra HD requires strong compression, and strong compression pays many dividends.

At CES, CNET’s Larry Magid spoke with Tom Leighton, CEO for Akamai, about the best way to distribute Ultra HD content. Akamai is a content delivery network company so, naturally, its solution is to cache content near or at consumers’ homes. Caching is a great and widely used concept, of course. But CDNs are a tool in the tool chest. Posing them as the way to get around the complexities of distributing Ultra HD illustrates the importance of HEVC and VP9.

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