Technicolor Exec: HDR More Significant for Broadcasters than UHD in U.S., For Now

Technicolor continues to make strides with the implementation of its High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology, as U.S. broadcasters continue to embrace HDR in general more widely than Ultra High-Def (UHD) — at least for the time being, according to Kirk Barker, SVP of emerging products at the company.

The transition to 4K is happening “slowly right now” among broadcasters, he told the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA) in a recent phone interview. “If you looked at the truck vendors” that handle sports broadcasts right now, each of them may have “a couple of 4K trucks, but they have 40 normal HD trucks,” he said. While “certain isolated events” are being photographed in 4K, “the cost of re-outfitting the trucks and doing all that kind of stuff is really limiting that to be the premiere events” only, he explained. As a result, he said: “I think all of the college games [and] most of the baseball games” as just two example “are going to continue” to be shot in HD “for a while” — at least through 2018.

“The nice thing about HDR is that it doesn’t care. It can be HD HDR or 4K HDR, and the practicality of deploying HDR on top of an HD signal” just makes it more logical for now because the overhead is “miniscule,” and so “it’s a much easier thing to move directly into HDR than it is to move to 4K” for broadcasters, he said.

His comments came on the heels of the latest TV hardware win for Technicolor HDR. It was announced during CES that Technicolor HDR technology will be available in Philips-branded TVs from Funai in the U.S. starting in 2019. That marked the second major TV win for Technicolor, following LG’s announcement at CES last year that its 2017 OLED TVs were ready to support Advanced HDR by Technicolor technology. LG also announced a new Technicolor Expert Mode on its 2017 line of Super UHD LED-backlit LCD TVs.

The 2017 LG TVs were “hardware-capable” when it came to Technicolor HDR, Barker told MESA. The 2018 LG TVs, however, are “the first ones with the software enabled that supports” Technicolor HDR as well, he said.

Asked how the initial LG-Technicolor HDR TVs are doing, he said: “The real question is when do we have broadcasters that are transmitting in the format.” Although there are a growing number of end devices on the market capable of receiving Technicolor HDR, there still “has to be content out there, and that’s what we’re working on now” — bringing “the content producers online to provide the content to the TVs,” he said.

What Technicolor is “focusing on right now is sports production because we think that’s where HDR can really show some difference” that’s meaningful to consumers, he said, adding: “There’s so much more sports content than there is movie content” in HDR now.

Over the past year, Technicolor has “done a number of different trials with a lot of different” customers, including the HD ones that it publicly announced with major Los Angeles sports teams, he said. “We did a two-truck production in January” with the Lakers and “then a one-truck production with the Dodgers in July,” he noted, adding: “Both of those went very well. We proved you can do this in an economical fashion now because you don’t have to have a separate HDR production van. And that was really the breakthrough that we did for this year. Now, what we’ve done is we’ve proved the concept. We proved that it can be done. But we did it with prototype equipment. That equipment is being commercialized right now with our partners.”

One of those partners is Cobalt Digital, which announced last year that it was implementing Technicolor HDR to be used in devices for production trucks, he noted. Cobalt will be announcing “general availability of that type of equipment here in the first part of 2018, and then we really expect us to start seeing some sports produced using their equipment with our technology,” he said, adding that we can “expect to see things coming up as early as Q1 of this year, with some public announcements.”

With Technicolor’s technology, there was “nothing limiting” the Lakers and Dodgers broadcasts to just HD, he told us. “It could have been 4K just as easy. But, just from a practicality perspective, most sports broadcasts are still done in normal 1080,” especially in the U.S., he said.

“What we’re seeing is that Europe, in particular, is kind of joining 4K and HDR, so I expect our trials in Europe to be 4K” this year, he said. But, in the U.S., “I’m not sure which of the events are going to end up being 4K or HD,” he said, predicting that “a lot of the American events are staying in HD” at least through this year.

Technicolor, meanwhile, continues to look for additional TV maker support for its HDR. “I think we’re in talks with all the other TV makers,” Barker said. However, “it’s the same thing with them” that remains an issue: “They’re saying ‘we want to see content broadcast … before we turn on your capabilities.’”

In a separate phone interview after CES, Gary Gutknecht, CTO and SVP of Technicolor’s Connected Home Business division, told MESA that his company was eyeing future uses for voice control and artificial intelligence (AI) in general.

CES this year “looked like the voice control of everything show, which we anticipated a little bit going in,” he said, pointing to Amazon Alexa and Google Home being out in force during demonstrations throughout the show.

He told MESA: “We can imagine that it’ll eventually come to our device sets – whether a set-top box or gateway or wireless extenders. We have a lot of good debate internally about all the different use cases that we can imagine.” Comcast’s X1 and Amazon’s Fire TV remotes are already using voice control functionality on their remote controls that work in conjunction with set-top boxes, he noted.

On the broadband side, “a natural place for voice to be integrated” is “when we start talking about wireless extenders [that] may be placed around the home, at different locations,” he said, adding voice control “will impact our products” – “it’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of how, when and at what kind of velocity.”

Technicolor, meanwhile, has 200-300 researchers that include some AI data scientists and “we’ve been looking at ways of applying AI to the kind of data that we’re collecting from the field to be able to detect trends, make smarter recommendations, see common problems between homes and things like that on the broadband side,” he said.

On the video side, Android TV-customers are interested to know if users are launching services via voice or navigating through Google Home screens, among other use patterns, he said.

Of Technicolor’s AI initiatives, he said: “The first one is closer to prime time than the second one. The second one is just in a trial concept-type phase now. But we’re looking at ways of bringing AI to those two specific use cases as well as others.”