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The Ultra HD Alliance talks 4K, HDR and the future of television

We interview the UHD Alliance about their inception, their current goals and their ultimate ambitions

by Steve Withers Sep 22, 2015 at 7:45 AM


  • The nature of television is fundamentally changing and for the first time in decades there will be a new set of standards offering a completely different viewing experience.
    Leading the way in this technological change is the Ultra HD Alliance (UHDA), a body composed of the leading film studios, consumer electronics manufacturers, content distributors and technology companies. Just prior to IFA the UHDA also announced that its membership had nearly tripled since its formation earlier this year and that it was close to finalising specification elements as well as certification, logos and other critical ecosystem components. Whilst at IFA, we took the opportunity to sit down with Hanno Basse, Chief Technology Officer at Twentieth Century Fox and President of the UHDA, to discuss the formation of the Alliance, its current goals and ultimate ambitions.

    What was the genesis of the UHD Alliance?

    If we would have talked about this a year ago, I think I would have told you that we were all really concerned about what’s going to happen with HDR. If you look at the step from HD to Ultra HD, just going from the 2K resolution to the 4K resolution, we could all tell that there wasn’t enough of a difference in formats to really make it resonate with consumers. That’s especially true for motion picture content which is shot at 24 frames per a second because with the low frame rate there’s a lot of motion blur introduced. If you have a stationary shot you see the difference between 2K and 4K but when stuff is moving that difference is diminished. So we all understood pretty well that we needed to add more than just an increase in the resolution to make it a palatable and marketable consumer proposition. We all thought that High Dynamic Range (HDR), which is basically very high brightness and very high contrast, was a way to achieve that and come up with the next generation of an audio visual experience.

    So that’s the status about a year ago but what was very much in question was what’s the actual quality standard that we should strive to. So let’s say the brightness of the display is 500 Nits and the contrast ratio is such and such, do I really get to say that this is HDR? And what we were really worried about specifically is that there might be a continuum between SDR and HDR, rather than a differentiated experience because then that’s really hard to communicate to consumers, so where do you draw the line? What is a conventional television and what is this new thing that’s much better and so that was basically the genesis behind creating the Ultra HD Alliance and that initiative was started between 20th Century Fox and Samsung.

    Actually right after IFA last year was the first meeting that we had where we said "hey we need to do something about this, how about we create this industry initiative where we’re going to get all the right players together and define what the quality bar is for this next generation audio/visual experience." So between IFA and CES last year we spent a lot of time with the key members of the Alliance, who all ended up being board members, to talk about where the consensus would be fundamentally, where we would want to go and to an extent there is a desire to come up with a unified quality standard and also where do we all think we’re going to take this. And so
    by CES we had the main group together of board members, although Universal and LG were part of the conversation they didn’t join until a bit later. So aside from LG and Universal, the board members are actually the founding members of the UHDA. Now we have 12 board members and another 16 contributor members, with Philips Research recently joining because of their HDR format.

    The Board Members of the UHDA are Dolby, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Technicolor, DirectTV, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Walt Disney and Warner Bros., whilst the Contributor Members are Amazon, Arri, DTS, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, HiSilicon Technologies, Intel, Mstar, Nanosys, Novate, NVIDIA, Philips Research, Realtek, Sharp, Toshiba and TP Vision.
    Just going from the 2K resolution to the 4K resolution, we could tell that were wasn’t enough of a difference in formats to really make it resonate with consumers.
    You mention HDR as being one of the reasons for the formation of the UHDA and we currently have five different formats (Philips, Dolby Vision, BBC, Technicolor and HDR 10) which could cause consumer confusion. Is the UHDA trying to nail down one specific version of HDR?

    No, because the goal of the UHDA is not actually to come up with a format, the goal of the UHDA is to define a quality standard. There will be a logo issued by the UHDA that will signify that this display or this content was certified by the UHDA and all that says is that it meets a certain quality standard.

    So will there be a base set of criteria?

    The criteria mainly are peak brightness, contrast, 10-bit depth and the colour gamut but if you combine these parameters you’re also basically addressing a much bigger concern which is called 'colour volume'. So if you look at a specific display and you look at the coverage of the colour gamut that it can produce, it typically only does that in the mid-range of its brightness because when you go too far to the white or too far to the black your colours get muted. At the top end they all just bleed into white and at the bottom end they bleed into grey and then black. But if you have more contrast and more brightness, this mid-range that has good colour representation becomes much much bigger. So it’s a three dimensional thing combining a two-dimensional colour gamut and the third dimension which is brightness and contrast. We actually see really good results with this and so if you look at the new HDR TVs that our members are demonstrating, you will see an entire representation which is so much better than previously possible. And obviously we’re a studio, so we have worked a lot with our filmmakers on this format and at Fox we’ve already got nine films announced.

    Yes I saw the announcement this morning, I believe Kingsman: The Secret Service is the first.

    Yes Kingsman is the first new release that’s coming out but we also have other films like Exodus: Gods and Kings but the point for Fox is that we’ve committed that going forward all new releases come out in UHD and HDR on the same street date for home entertainment.

    If you buy the UHD Blu-ray will you also get the regular Blu-ray as well?

    That hasn’t been finally decided but if you look at the history of how we usually publish content we have different SKUs, so you can just buy the Blu-ray by itself or buy it in a combo pack with the Blu-ray and the DVD and Digital HD token and we’ll do something similar for Ultra HD Blu-ray. I think especially in the beginning because penetration of HDR TVs isn’t huge and a lot of people only have one UHD TV in their home and HD TVs elsewhere, then the expectation is a combo pack with an Ultra HD disc and an HD Blu-ray. That’s probably the most likely way we’re going to go and there was always going to be a digital version available. At least I can say that for Fox, for other members it’s obviously up to them.
    The criteria are peak brightness, contrast, 10-bit depth and the colour gamut but if you combine these parameters you’re also addressing a much bigger concern which is called 'colour volume'.
    Looking at the current members, is the UHD Alliance aimed specifically at TVs or would you also consider certifying projectors?

    Right now we’ve only talked about displays, so TV sets, but our goal is that by CES we have a first version of the specification available, we launch a licensing programme, we present the logo and that we also have some products there that meet all the premium requirements for the UHDA logo. And we want to do that by CES. That first version of the spec on the content side is the studio motion picture content and on the device side is direct view displays. However once we’re done with that we do want to go into other areas. On the content side for example, we’re now talking a lot with broadcasters about what their content spec will look like, which is different from the motion picture content spec because the workflow of how you create this content is different. For a movie everything is done offline in post-production and the way we create HDR today is a colour grading pass which is part of our workflow.

    I interviewed Mike Sowa yesterday about the HDR mastering process.

    Oh yeah, very good. We actually worked with him on a couple of titles just recently. But broadcasters they don’t have that colour grading step right, it’s live so they have to figure out how to do that in a sports broadcast, so we have to work with them to figure out how this is going to work in a truck. How they setup their cameras, how they setup the lighting - like if it’s a football game for example and the sun comes around, how do you deal with the lighting changes throughout the game as it progresses and so on. There’s a number of questions that are open right now, so we’re talking to a number of broadcasters in Europe as well as in the US and elsewhere, to invite them in to start that discussion. I think we’re seeing a lot of interest, so tomorrow we’re meeting with a group called FAME which is the Forum for Advanced Media in Europe and there’s lot of European broadcasters including the BBC and BSKYB, so all these guys are there.

    I saw the BBC HDR demo on the LG stand yesterday.

    That’s actually another thing I wanted to mention, is that we’ve been working a lot on industry outreach and working with other industry groups because we think we’re solving a very specific problem which nobody else has really been addressing, which is where do you set this quality bar. There are other industry organisations, for example MPEG came up with the HDR 10 format, so we don’t worry about that because MPEG did a great job there and we reference them. We’re also representing the CEA, so we’re working with them and they’ve set a baseline standard for HDR but again not saying anything about a specific quality target, so we’re addressing that. And in the HDMI Forum and a number of other organisations that we work with, to really make sure that what we do isn’t conflicting with anybody else. So for example we’re not really in that debate of which EOTF (Electro-Optical Transfer Function or, as it's otherwise known, gamma) is best, the BBC curve versus the PQ curve because for studios with movie content we made the decision a long time ago and the BDA as well that it’s going to be PQ. However personally I wouldn’t exclude there to be another function being adopted for broadcast for example and I don’t believe that we necessarily are the ones to make that decision.
    We think we’re solving a very specific problem which nobody else has really been addressing, which is where do you set this quality bar.
    So am I right in thinking that for movies at least the UHDA have established what the benchmark is and what are those standards for displays?

    That hasn’t been completely decided yet but what I will say is that there will be a significant difference from what TVs can do today. We were hoping to announce everything at IFA but we haven’t quite finished yet.

    I saw that you were conducting some consumer-led research recently.

    We are doing some consumer research and we’ve just finished that but we wanted to do it right and we ran over our original IFA timeline but we will have that in very short order, in about a month or so probably we’ll be ready with that. I don’t know when we’re going to announce it but we’re not at the final point yet so I can’t say anything yet. The only expectation that I can say here is that it will be differentiated from what TVs do today. It’s a new bar that displays will need to meet.

    OK so that’s where you started and that’s where you currently are but what’s the ultimate endgame for the UHDA?

    The ultimate endgame would be that the vast majority of TVs out there get our certification and meet that quality bar. Because speaking as a representative of the studio community I think we’re all looking for an experience that is really differentiated from what is happening today. To give consumers an even more immersive and higher quality option to consumer content. I think we’re all looking at that and obviously the ultimate goal of the UHDA would be that long term all UHD television sets meet that quality bar.

    Will there be a concerted effort to educate the consumer as well?

    Absolutely, so if you go through step-by-step what the process is for the UHDA, first we set up the technical specifications for this quality bar and we are very close to finishing that. In parallel because you know defining the numbers isn’t that relevant to defining a test spec because the test spec is still the same one even if your brightness number is 800, 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 Nits - it doesn’t matter, we still measure it the same way. So in parallel with developing the technical performance part, we’ve also been working on a test specification and we need this because we want to actually certify displays so they actually meet this quality bar. So you have to go through the certification programme, if you pass then you basically get granted a licence so you can put that logo on your device. We will then use that logo to communicate to the consumer that this is the next generation premium experience. If you look at the show floor right now people talk about HDR but it’s something that’s quite technical and doesn’t translate that well to consumers and it’s also only part of the UHD experience.

    I’m glad that the UHD Alliance is trying to address these things because it will reduce consumer confusion.

    That’s correct and I think the UHDA actually grew out of that very question - how do you communicate to the consumer what the next experience is, what the high quality experience is and how it differentiates from the conventional experience? Then we worked backwards from there to figure out that we probably need a logo to communicate this, what does that logo stand for and how do you get that logo certification and so on. Then you realise that you need to set a quality bar and then we run it forward the other way and have certification, logo award and communication to the consumer. So that’s basically how this works.
    You have to go through the certification programme, if you pass then you basically get granted a licence so you can put that logo on your device.
    Is the any reason why THX aren’t currently involved in the UHDA?

    I can say that we have been talking to THX and we’re actually going to talk to them again and we’re obviously open for anyone to join the Alliance, we clearly are not excluding anybody. Like I said before we’re talking to everybody, we want to be inclusive and not exclusive. So I would say that if there’s anybody not on the member list that you think should be on there, they are more than welcome to join. So if there’s anybody who’s not a member its only because they haven’t asked. One thing I am trying to address is that there’s not a lot of European representation at the moment and we’re reaching out to them as well.

    You seem to have the majority of the major players involved but you are missing key European broadcasters.

    Yes and the way this started, we solved the easy problem first which was HDR for movies but I think the broadcast issue is a bigger issue and that’s step two. When you asked earlier about projectors that’s clearly something that we’ll look at at some point and there have been discussions about tablets and mobile devices. So those are all things that are in consideration but we haven’t taken any specific steps in that direction yet but we’re open to explore all these things in the future.

    Do you think that within the film community there’s a lot of excitement about being able to deliver a superior experience to the consumer?

    I think overall the feedback from our filmmakers has been very positive. As I said all of our new releases go through this grading process now and the colourists really like it because it gives them a much wider palatte, the colour gamut is wider and the colour volume is much bigger, so they all really love it. Today if you look at conventional Blu-ray it’s quite limited in terms of what the artists can do, the colour space is a lot smaller and in the theatrical environment we’re using DCI/P3 as the colour space which is significantly bigger than Rec.709. So with Blu-ray our artists run into problems where the colour of the sky isn’t right and they can’t do anything about it. So very often when you’re watching a Blu-ray the sky is supposed to be blue but it’s actually this milky very bright white blue-ish grey kind of thing and they can’t really get it to blue. On the new format they can get a really crisp realistic looking blue sky. The same is true with some of the green shades and everything that’s in the corners of the colour triangle, which is really hard to represent right now. So in general they’re really excited about it, pretty much more excited about this than anything else we’ve developed in recent years. Although the movie industry is really concerned about higher frame rate because stuff looks more like television.

    I saw the first Hobbit movie in HFR and it was one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life.

    Filmmakers are worried about that, although I think people just haven’t understood how to use high frame rate and we are doing more research into this now and for the UHD Alliance high frame rate is part of the toolbox, so we’re clearly not excluding that because the lower frame rate does introduce problems.

    I believe James Cameron is thinking of shooting the Avatar sequels in a higher frame rate and if anyone can do it right it’s probably him.

    Yes and Avatar is a Fox property so we’re talking to his company about how best to achieve it. Speaking of Fox for a moment, for at least the last three years whenever we pull something out of the vault to make the Blu-ray version of it, we scan the movie in 4K so that we have the 4K version and then convert that to HD. So we have a big library of films ready to go in 4K and we have actually published a number of titles already.

    From the point of view of the studios is the workflow easier now?

    I think the good news for the studios in general is that especially with new release content, the digital cameras that we use already have a lot of dynamic range, a lot more than you can replicate using the old 709 standard and so especially with live action it already looks great in HDR. What we’ve also seen, which was a little bit of a surprise to us engineers at the studio is that visual effects also get represented very well. We were a little bit worried about that in the beginning since then our impression has been that the visual effects also hold up very well. There’s a scene in Life of Pi where you’re looking at an image of the moon and if you look at the SDR versus the HDR version, in HDR you see craters and all kinds of stuff that you can’t see in the SDR version. So there is more detail in the visual effects in HDR than there was in SDR, which is obviously good news for us. We were a little worried that we might have to rework a lot of the effects shots but we don’t have to.
    Our consumer research has been focussed on what does Ultra HD or UHD mean to them, what does 4K mean and to what extent do we use any of those as part of our logo.
    What’s the next step for the UHD Alliance?

    In terms of the UHD Alliance we have a website now and a consumer facing glossary, we have seminars with the first European one taking place in London. So we’re doing a lot of community outreach and especially around CES you’ll see a lot more because by then we hope to be ready with everything and then we’ll be able to communicate this directly to consumers and educate our retail partners. So our consumer research has been focussed on what does Ultra HD or UHD mean to them, what does 4K mean and to what extent do we use any of those as part of our logo and all that will require a bit more research. We have a preliminary idea of that but it will require a bit more work, although the expectation is that by CES we’ll have a logo.

    I certainly think if everyone can agree to use the same terminology that will make things easier.

    Yes and that’s partly why the UHD Alliance was created. Right now if you look at how different TV manufacturers advertise HDR, in the product prospect they will not say HDR they will call it 'Ultra Brightness' or 'Premium Brightness', which doesn’t really mean anything to the consumer. So going back to your first question, that was the genesis of the UHDA, let’s all get together and call this thing the same thing, so that people can look at a Panasonic TV or a Samsung or a Sony and know that if they all have that logo then they are similar in terms of performance and quality.

    We also have 'tone mapping', so if there is a mismatch between what the TV can do and how the content was mastered there will be a regulated process of how that conversion happens. Although there is a content specification that says how the content is to be mastered and there is a device specification which sets the performance parameters for the display, where we’re headed now is for those two to be very closely matched. However as a content provider, if I want to I can exceed the minimum requirements for my mastering, so if my mastering suite exceeds the brightness of the minimum quality bar then that’s allowed but the TV needs to be able to do the conversion. So for example if the TV has 1,000 Nits of peak brightness and the mastering suite is at 3,000, then there needs to be a way to roll that out and still make it look good on the 1,000 Nit display. So we’re working on a certification process for that particular issue as well but we think we have a solution.


    That all sounds really exciting.

    Yes we’re actually getting pretty excited about it now. In the beginning as you can imagine those were quite difficult discussions just like they always are but I really think that we’re getting to a point where we have broad consensus. Ultimately we’re trying to create a quality bar and not an underlying format. So if somebody wants to use Dolby Vision and meets our quality criteria that’s great, or they want to use Technicolor or Philips Technology and it meets our quality bar that’s also great. If somebody else decides that HDR 10 is the right solution they can do that as long as they meet our brightness, contrast, colour gamut, bit depth and a couple of other parameters like tone mapping, if that’s all there then people can use whatever format they like to distribute content.

    The bottom line is that our filmmakers are really excited about UHD and HDR, we all are and our home entertainment group is really excited about it because its a new way that we can give consumers to experience and enjoy our movies. It’s a fantastic experience based on everything I’ve seen and I’ve watched a couple of movies full length in HDR and it really is fantastic. So we've nearly finished our consumer research and we'll hopefully have some big announcements in a few months at CES.

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