We talk to the BDA and discover the new 4K disc format will finally launch in January
Although delivering 4K content over the internet is now a reality, for many the only realistic way to watch Ultra HD movies is via a disc-based format.So we have been eagerly following the development of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray over the last few years, not only because it might be the only way to actually watch 4K content without being at the mercy of broadband speeds but also because it offers the chance to watch films with a level of quality that is almost comparable to the cinema. The development of UHD Blu-ray has taken a long time but it has gone hand-in-hand with improvements to display technology and changes to the television standards. It wasn't until IFA last year that confirmation came of an actual timetable for the new format's release. Since then there have been a number of announcements this year, starting with the finalising of the specifications back in May and more recently the beginning of the licensing process.
At IFA this year we not only had the announcement of the Samsung UBD-K8500, the world's first Ultra HD Blu-ray player, but also news of the first nine titles to be released by Twentieth Century Fox. The studio even plans to release future films on UHD Blu-ray day and date with the regular Blu-ray release. Whilst at IFA, we had the chance to sit down with Dan Schinasi the Promotions Chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) and talk about the latest developments in Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Could you start by just giving us an update on the current status of Ultra HD Blu-ray?
Well if you look at the numbers there is significant growth forecast for Ultra HD TVs and also a lot of larger screen sizes migrating over to 4K, which sets up Ultra HD Blu-ray to be the vehicle to deliver 4K to UHD displays. The licensing has started, which is a significant milestone.
So the specs have all been finalised.
Yes the specs are all finalised and the licensing has begun. The lawyers have written all their agreements, the logos have been agreed.
Is the licensing with the manufacturers, the studios or both?
Both. In fact there’s a lot of licensing because you also have mastering the content, verifiers and so on.
I think people sometimes forget that creating a new format is a complex process.
You’re right, it’s not just a bit of silicone and a plastic disc, there are replicators and an entire supply chain of getting the blank discs and all that has to be performed before things can happen. And we need the creative community too. Fox is ready and they’ve made some bold statements but other studios need to follow in their footsteps, it’s not just about one studio.
In terms of studio support are they all on board.
Yes they are, literally since all the major studios are board members of the BDA. Not only are the studios behind UHD Blu-ray but they are active contributors. The BDA meets quarterly, with smaller meetings in between and the studios are very active participants.
Not only are the studios behind UHD Blu-ray but they are active contributors.At one point there was a fear that studios might bypass physical media and go straight to digital delivery.
It’s interesting you should bring that up because along with all the advanced features that UHD Blu-ray offers, this is a physical format but with digital extensions. So whilst streaming is nice and instant and on demand, it eats a lot of bandwidth. In the US Netflix advise on their website 25Mbps for UHD and I don’t know about the speeds in Europe, it may depend on the country, but that’s a challenge for some, even in the US. It also isn’t just the speed that you get but it’s also the sustained speed, so you might get it in the afternoon but not in the evening.
The other interesting aspect is that the UHD Alliance and the studios have got together to set a quality benchmark for 4K. You probably know about all the capabilities of Blu-ray but once you start layering on the HDR, the higher bit depth, the larger colour space and the higher frame rates, then it becomes even more challenging to distribute. It won’t get less challenging although obviously speeds will increase. However with a UHD Blu-ray it’s a repeatable, constant experience and every time you put the disc in you know exactly what you’re going to get. Then there’s the digital extensions which are nice also, you don’t have to be in your living room. You can do an export and you can watch on another device.
Does the digital bridge allow you to watch the film in 4K elsewhere in the house or on another device?
It’s in the works, so right now the Blu-ray will allow you to take a 1080p copy and store it on the hard drive of your machine or some other local storage, that you can watch anywhere distributed throughout the house. The Ultra HD version of that is currently being worked on but right now it’s HD only on Blu-ray copy, whilst Blu-ray export is a version that you can move to tablets and mobile devices. It’s the best of both worlds with digital extensions.With a UHD Blu-ray it’s a repeatable, constant experience and every time you put the disc in you know exactly what you’re going to get.So the new format will be fully backwards compatible with regular Blu-ray.
The player is backwards compatible, so the player will play regular Blu-ray discs and the new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and it will work with a Full HD TV, an SDR 4K TV and an HDR 4K TV. But obviously the new discs won’t play in a regular Blu-ray player.
I understand that there won’t be any support for 3D in 4K.
No but you will be able to play Full HD 3D Blu-rays, although that will be a function of how the manufacturer decides to implement the features but a manufacturer can make a player that supports Ultra HD playback, 2D Full HD playback and 3D Full HD playback. So for example Samsung’s new UBD-K8500 will play all of those.
I know that the specs support up to BT2020 but what will the initial Ultra HD discs use?
Well the studios use DCI/P3 in the cinema and that ports over very easily to Ultra HD Blu-ray but if you’re wondering why we support such a wide colour space, this is a format that we want to last for a long time. We can always push it down but it’s good to have that bigger container and displays will eventually reach wider colour gamuts.
Physically the disc will look identical to regular Blu-ray, just with a different capacity and the content will be HEVC encoded of course and the transfer rate is a lot quicker because you’re sending a lot of data. We were talking about 4K streaming at 25Mbps but with UHD Blu-ray it will be100Mbps, so it will take a while for streaming to catch up.
The digital bridge is an option and you probably read in the press announcements that Samsung are working with Fox and they’re both committed to the digital bridge. When content is actually offered with the digital bridge is a different question because there are licensing servers that have to be implemented. However Fox are committed to doing it and Samsung are committed to offering it on their player.
Since the players will be compatible with regular Blu-ray that gives you access to a library of about 10,000 different discs and also it can support all the different audio formats. It could also support future audio formats because a lot of them just pass through and the AV receiver will do the decoding. So if newer audio formats come along they can just pass through.You’ll see a tremendous amount of UHD Blu-ray activity at CES in January, with players and discs launching very soon afterwards.Are you still optimistic of having players in stores by Christmas?
It was announced yesterday (3rd of September) that at least in Europe it will be in the first quarter and whilst we’d love to launch earlier in the US, there’s an entire ecosystem that has to be put in place. It’s like a big ship that takes time to turn but you’ll see a tremendous amount of Ultra HD Blu-ray activity at CES in January, with players and discs launching very soon afterwards.
Will Ultra HD Blu-ray have regional coding?
It will have the same regions as regular Blu-ray which is A, B or C, although it’s up to the studio whether they use any regional coding. I believe it varies from studio to studio and release to release. So I believe it will be exactly the same as regular Blu-ray.
Great, so the specs are agreed, the licensing has begun and we can expect a big launch at CES.
Yes a very big launch in January but it was great to see that Fox have already announced their intention to release all their future movies on Ultra HD Blu-ray day and date with their regular Blu-rays. In fact we did a demonstration of a side-by-side comparison of Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray for the studios and the results were incredible, they were hugely impressed and gave us their blessing. So we’re ready to go and you can expect more announcements over the next few months.
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