Comcast and NBC Universal hosted an Ultra-HD screening of several Olympic sporting events tonight in a nondescript office building not far from Washington D.C.’s Union Station. The second of its kind, tonight’s showcase included women’s swimming, women’s track and field, and the men’s 100-meter dash where Usain Bolt once again earned the title on Sunday night of world’s fastest man. The Ultra-HD video in the Comcast facility streams at 16 times the resolution of a typical high-definition television broadcast. And it was sharp enough tonight to allow those of us in the audience to identify the man who famously threw a beer bottle from the crowd on to the track at the start of Usain’s race.
The Ultra-HD video experience comes by way of a partnership including Comcast, NHK out of Japan, and the BBC. It’s branded as Super Hi-Vision, but the technology is also known more colloquially as 8K HD. There were 4K-resolution streams shown off at CES last January, and at the Cable Show in May, and you can even find limited 4K HD content on YouTube. However, there’s no other place in North or South America where 8K HD viewing is possible. Outside of Washington D.C., you have to go to the U.K. or Japan to see Ultra-HD.
So, is it worth it?
The video Comcast showed off in 8K HD was pretty impressive. Walk up close to the TV during a well-lit scene, and it looks like you could pluck the people right off the screen – something that’s known as a “false 3D” effect. I could literally see the pectoral muscles of one of the bit players in the opening ceremonies, and I could read the signs in the audience gallery designating different seating sections during the swimming coverage. On the other hand, the clarity was less marked in some of the darker scenes, and at times I found it oddly distracting to see so much background detail in the Ultra-HD picture when my brain wanted to focus on what was front and center. I suspect both of these issues will get ironed out by the time 8K video becomes a commercial reality. By then we’ll have more advanced 8K cameras, and photographers will be trained to deliver more close-ups, and fewer wide-angle panoramas.
Which brings me to another important point: we likely won’t see Ultra-HD TV get commercialized until the end of the decade. The cost of the new equipment alone is enough to put it on the back burner, and then there’s the issue of bandwidth capacity. On the latter front, executives pointed out tonight that the NHK Ultra-HD stream comes in at a whopping 48 Gbps, which is then compressed down to about 360 Mbps for transport. For the D.C. location, the compressed stream is delivered over Internet 2 through the Atlantic Ocean to Ashburn, Virginia, where it’s then picked up by a Comcast fiber link. The transport stream is split into 22.2-channel audio and video, and the video portion is fed through eight H.264 decoders. That’s a lot of data to parse. It’s also a lot of data to move around and eventually display on a living-room TV.
So, if you’re in the mood for a little Ultra-HD, chances are you’ll have to find your way into a Washington D.C. Comcast event. Either that, or wait for the year 2020, and home gigabit broadband connections. I’m betting Usain will still own the 100-meter dash world record then. Hopefully nobody will throwing any more beer bottles.