nScreenMedia OTT multiscreen media analysis

Ultra HD adoption: one step forward, two steps back

Ultra HD

Pity the plight of the poor CE device manufacturers. As they have begun to line up to support 4K and accelerate Ultra HD adoption the industry has thrown a couple of curve balls that might make their investments at best worthless, and at worst actually harmful to consumers.

The announcement that Amazon will deliver a new version of the Fire TV streaming media player with Ultra HD support must have the new format proponents cheering. After all, the easiest way to get 4K content is streamed from services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Unfortunately, streaming nirvana may be further away than everybody thinks because of two recent industry developments.

The first problem is caused by high dynamic range (HDR) incompatibilities. Though not part of the UHD specification HDR will be instrumental in selling the new format to consumers. Most people will struggle to see any difference between UHD and HD video on screens below 50”, but the picture enhancement provided by HDR is visible on any size screen.

There are competing approaches to HDR, including Dolby Vision and several others under review by the Ultra HD alliance. There is no guarantee that the different approaches will be compatible, meaning a movie using Dolby Vision might not play through a device supporting a different approach.

Amazon has apparently decided to use a specific HDR format for its 4K content, though the company hasn’t specified which one. However, there’s a good bet the new UHD Fire TV will support it. Netflix, which is available on the current version of the Amazon Fire TV, has also said it will be delivering UHD content with HDR. It is even vaguer about which one it will support, and may decide to deliver content in more than one format. That means there is a distinct possibility that a consumer buying the UHD Fire TV will not be able to play both Netflix and Amazon UHD HDR video through it.

The second problem is more insidious, because it affects every device and streaming service. HEVC (high efficiency video codec) is a new encoding standard that practically all companies delivering UHD will use.  HEVC Advance is a licensing administrator that represents companies that have contributed intellectual property to the HEVC. It has issued a set of licensing terms that are extraordinary, to say the least.

Hardware manufacturers must pay a license to support HEVC in their products. This varies from $1.50 per 4K TV to $0.80 for a mobile device, with no volume discount. The existing AVC/h.264 standard charges much less: $0.20 a device for the first 100,000 shipped and $0.10 thereafter. This factor of 10 price increase for HEVC is bad enough, but HEVC Advance wants more.

HEVC Advance wants content services like Netflix and Amazon to pay 0.5% of all revenues derived from delivering HEVC encoded video. Given that HEVC provides benefits for all video, not just UHD, its probable that video providers would switch to it for all video over time. There is simply no way they will do this if they have to pay 0.5% of revenues to HEVC Advance.

With uncertainty like this, is it any wonder that Apple didn’t include UHD support in the new Apple TV? And this is probably giving the folks at Roku, which is rumored to be readying a UHD streaming media player, pause for thought too.

I have no doubt that the HDR issues will get worked out and that the industry will either come to terms with HEVC Advance or find a new encoding option (others do exist.) Unfortunately, this will all take time. In the meantime many content providers and CE manufacturers will do the only sensible thing they can: sit on their hands.

Why it matters

CE manufacturers, content creators and video providers seem ready to ramp up their efforts to deliver more Ultra HD content.

Competing, and potentially incompatible, HDR standards mean devices using one standard might not be able to play video using another.

Unreasonable licensing terms for HEVC, a foundational part of UHD delivery, will be rejected by the industry.

Both these issues will further delay the roll-out of Ultra HD.

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