VR, HDR and IP were the three technologies that hit the media mainstream in 2016. They all have a future, but what kind of future?
It’s much easier to sum up a year in a paragraph if that year had a particular identifying characteristic, and that’s been easy recently. The world of film and television acquisition has frequently had a single “next big thing” for several years running—lately it’s been stereoscopic 3D. Many of us didn’t really like the idea. Stereoscopic video was always motivated far more by the commercial need for there to be a next big thing than by any widespread viewer demand for it. Of course, commercial needs haven’t gone away, and neither has 3D, but progress has at least diversified. This year, depending on our predilections for acronyms, has been big for VR, HDR and IP.
Perspective on Virtual Reality
YouTube 360° allows users to experience virtual reality content on a conventional monitor by panning a virtual camera around with a mouse. The image is from the Planet Earth II episode “Mountains.”
It’s a matter of opinion as to whether virtual reality is being deployed to create a market or to satisfy one. Consumer interest stems principally from the Oculus crowdfunding project, suggesting at least some support from real-world buyers, although recent political meddling by newly rich Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey has drawn disapproving glances. Also, while the grassroots support suggested by the original Kickstarter success is enviable, VR is, like stereo 3D, undoubtedly a rerun. The roots of it go back to the middle of the 20th century, although current approaches stem visibly from the headsets of the late 1980s. VR also has at least as many ways to provoke nausea as 3D, and several more besides.
These are technical problems, and probably solvable ones. Efforts to reduce the lag between detected head motion and displayed view motion is part of that. Perhaps most crucially, miniature displays designed for smartphones and tablets have made it possible to increase the viewable resolution from a sub-HD picture that was horribly inadequate to a slightly-beyond-HD picture that’s only slightly inadequate. If there’s an application for 8K pictures, VR is it. It takes a lot of pixels to realize VR’s goal of filling the complete human field of view with imagery.
The problem, at least in relation to the TV industry, is not really technological. VR transforms the way content works by adding a layer of interactivity that alters the nature of the director’s control over what the audience is looking at. When the viewer can turn his attention anywhere within a 360° sphere, the director must harness new methods to direct the viewer’s attention. The director’s role in VR is to inspire the viewer to compose the shots that he wants them to see.
Oculus Rift VR headset
In a computer game, which is possibly still the killer application for VR, the player’s ability to look around the action is a plus. In conventional film, the ability to look away from the action is nonsensical. A glance at YouTube’s VR content reveals that much current material has exactly that problem. It often works alarmingly like a very static computer game. More thinking is needed here.
HDR Beyond the Demo
High dynamic range pictures, however, are as easy to like as they are difficult to do properly. The problem HDR seeks to solve is simple: when we shoot a picture of a sunset, the on-screen sun doesn’t project our shadow on the wall as it would in reality. Practical implementations don’t quite achieve that, but the Dolby or Sony demonstrations make it clear why HDR is popular with artists and businessmen alike. It looks absolutely fantastic, and as such it should be easy to sell. The problem is that those demonstrations involve equipment that costs far more than a retail product possibly can, and the retail products can be a bit underwhelming by comparison. Let’s be clear: the quality of the HDR on screens targeted at consumers is good, but it’s not quite the jaw-slackening beauty of the high-end demos.
Sony diagram comparing SDR and HDR imagery
This situation is not assisted by the bandwagon-jumping enthusiasm of manufacturers who reworked the firmware in their standard dynamic range displays, slapped an HDR sticker over the model number, and showed them at this year’s NAB Show. Yes, there’s a place for low-cost displays in the market, but let’s not call them something they aren’t.
Unlike VR, the problem with HDR is not how to use it. We know what we want to do with it. The issue is the requirement for some fundamental advances in display technology before we can have the very best of it in our living rooms.
On the upside, we now know that most of the equipment used to acquire and post high-end drama has been capable of producing HDR images for years. Brace yourself for the re-release of 3D productions in new HDR 3D.
Comparison of Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 color spaces
Both HDR and VR are about spectacle. IP, conversely, is really only of interest to people involved in putting together OB trucks or TV studios. The problem, if any, is that it’s partly about saving money, by replacing expensive, industry-specific SDI hardware with commodity computer networking gear, but the switch isn’t really saving much money at the moment.
The sort of networking equipment required to provide the same unadulterated pictures as SDI is at the very highest end of current product lines, and it’s at least as expensive as the equipment it’s replacing. This situation is likely to change, though: the continuously improving price-performance ratio of computer gear is practically guaranteed.
Beyond price, benefits also stand to be wrought from the flexible routing and bidirectionality of IP networks in general, where a network can be entirely defined in software and an OB camera site can send or receive power, communications and video down a single line that’s vastly lighter and cheaper than triax. The real challenge is standardization: anyone who’s been involved with conventional computer networking will be aware of the bottomless pitfalls of configuration and compatibility, and it’s essential that the transmission of video over IP is well standardized.
Sony Bravia XBR-65Z9D UHDTV
Bodies currently involved include SMPTE and EBU, alongside domain-specific organizations such as the Advanced Media Workflow Association, Video Services Forum, the Alliance for IP Media Solutions and the Audio Engineering Society. Add to this list the various manufacturers and end users and there’s a big enough group involved to make decisiveness and clarity difficult.
It seems inevitable, however, that IP is going to happen, and the general attitude does seem to involve appropriate concern about standardization problems and overcomplexity. A warning here comes from the MXF file format, an attempt to be everything to everyone that became so overcomplicated that it risked being nothing to anyone, and only works now because de facto standardization has boiled it down to something reasonable.
Too often, of late, there’s been an overwhelming push for a particular technology, and quite often one identifiable with those commercial needs we discussed earlier. If there’s a single identifying characteristic of 2016, it’s variety. We’re not suffering the single-technology tunnel vision of 3D. HDR is beautiful, IP has potential, and VR might be spectacular—if we can only figure out what to do with it.