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NAB Show: Next-Gen TV Demonstrations Are Promising But Perplexing

Japan's NHK planning 8K broadcasts next year, but who will watch?

(Las Vegas) — There’s not much doubt anymore that the future of terrestrial television will hinge on the broadcasting industry’s embrace of next-generation technology.

“Every other industry is innovating and advancing their technologies,” noted National Assn. of Broadcasters chairman/CEO Gordon Smith in his keynote opening the NAB Show. “By going to next-gen, broadcasting would be playing both defense and offense. Defensively, we would protect our ability to easily integrate with existing partners. Offensively, it would give us the flexibility to choose and pursue the promise of ultra HD, targeted advertising, datacasting, mobility and enhanced multicasting on a shared channel.”

Smith went on to tubthump two exhibits on the show floor: The NAB Labs demonstration of “Hybrid TV,” which shows off some of the features that could be supported under the still-under-development new TV standard, ATSC 3.0; and the 350-inch 8K projection TV, with 24-channel sound, from Japanese pubcaster NHK.

Both demonstrations are far beyond anything in homes today, but do they live up to the hype?

Yes and no.

NHK’s 8K presentation — “Super Hi-Vision” is their name for it — is impressive, though little in it is new. 8K, which has 4 times the pixels of the new Ultra-HD picture and 16 times the pixels of today’s HDTV, has been shown at the Consumer Electronics Show (pictured) and NAB show for several years. NHK is quite committed to the tech.

The giant TV system shows on a screen big enough for a medium-sized movie theater, and its specs exceed most of today’s theaters, which show 2K images and 5.1 sound. The content included highlights from last year’s World Cup, shot on an Ikegami camera at 8K and 60 frames per second. Even sitting in the front row, very close to the screen, there were no visible pixels and almost no strobing. A smaller LCD screen outside shows similar World Cup footage at 8K/120fps, and the picture is startlingly clear.

However, the giant picture lacked the contrast and vivid color of High Dynamic Range TVs, like the Dolby Vision-equipped TV being shown elsewhere on the NAB Show floor, or the UHD TVs coming to market. Detail on the 350-inch screen was lost both in whites and blacks. Those issues may result from using a projection system, but the latest laser-illuminated digital cinema projectors have brighter, more vivid color, as demonstrated during the pre-NAB Technology Summit on Cinema.

The real purpose of blowing up the picture to that size, however, is to prove that the picture is truly 8K, since the content is moving across a 6Mhz UHF TV channel. U.S. broadcasters are looking to the new ATSC standard just to send out 4K signals.

Narichika Hamaguchi, senior manager, Planning & Coordination Division, at NHK’s Science & Technology Research Laboratories, told Variety  “In the industry, 4K is a hot area right now, but 4K is not enough for human perception. 8K is designed for a 100-degree field of view; this means it covers all your eyesight at an appropriate distance, so the viewer can’t recognize (single) pixels. We think 8K is the final form of two-dimensional TV.”

“The 8K TV’s appropriate size is bigger than HD TVs of course, more than 4K TVs,” said Hamaguchi. “For home use, 70-inch or 85-inch is an appropriate size.” But NHK’s assumptions will seem peculiar to most consumers. According to Hamaguchi, NHK feels the appropriate viewing distance is 3/4 of the screen height. In other words, they assume that viewers watching a TV about the size he describes, with a screen about three feet tall, would sit just over two feet away from the screen two feet away from the screen. The typical living room viewing distance in the U.S. is about nine feet, and most viewers watch TVs much smaller than he describes.

NHK is confident enough in Super Hi-Vision to start test broadcasts in Japan next year. It plans to be broadcasting 8K programming in 2018 and to broadcast the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 8K. Generally, NHK has been able to push such projects along, but its ability to put up a high-tech channel has not guaranteed public adoption. 3D satellite channels in Japan failed to ignite much interest in the stereo TV format. And no manufacturer has announced an 8K production model TV yet. Presumably, 8K will be seen at first primarily in public venues and stores, much as TV itself was first introduced after World War II.

NHK is also working on 8K tablet and phone screens (much higher resolution than Apple’s Retina displays). They are demonstrating an 8K tablet prototype screen, which is indeed quite sharp, but at the moment is also attached to a box of electronics and will have to slim down.

An 8K phone screen may seem absurd, but with smartphones starting to be be used as virtual reality displays, every bit of resolution on those screens becomes important.

NAB Labs’ Hybrid TV demonstration, by contrast, is less concrete, since it is only shows off some concepts for next-gen TV,  but it’s likely those concepts will find a warm welcome once ATSC 3.0 rolls out. Among them: The ability for viewers to provide their gender, age and zip code (should they choose to opt in) and get tailored advertising over the air, one of TV’s holy grails.

Tailored emergency alerts are also on display. The demo shows two TVs side by side showing the same basketball game. Both TVs get a tornado warning as a crawl across the top of the screen. One TV’s zip code is close to the storm. That TV sees a Doppler radar map of the area pop up as picture in picture. (The pop-up graphics are HTML 5.) Turning “smart TV” into a smart two-way system, where content adjusts according to who is watching and where they are watching would at least help broadcast TV catch up to a mobile, on-demand world where the whole idea of broadcasting, where advertising and programming alike are scattered indiscriminately, is increasingly out of date

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