Exhibitors everywhere pride themselves on offering the finest venue possible for the presentation of movies. Differentiation from consumer technology was a major concern during the development of digital cinema, which is what led to the 2K and 4K formats. But that edge is about to erode as UHDTV and the H.265 compression format emerges. (UHDTV is the acronym for Ultra High Definition Television. H.265 is the term commonly used to describe a new compression standard in joint development by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) and ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) as ISO/IEC 23008-2 MPEG-H Part 2 and ITU-T H.265.)
Wikipedia explains the UHDTV format as supporting the consumer version of 4K, having 3850 x 2160 pixels, and 8K, having 7680 x 4320 pixels. In comparison, the cinema version of 4K has a picture width of 4096 pixels (vs 3850), and there isn’t a digital cinema version of 8K. But the H.265 compression format is the core of UHDTV, and it is far more encompassing, including digital cinema 2K and 4K image resolutions, and an extended 8K format following the progression of image sizes in digital cinema. Not only this, but H.265 will support frame rates up to 300fps for the 4K formats, and stunningly, up to 120fps for 8K. The caffeinated standards effort is now attempting to complete the H.265 spec by this Fall (2013), just in time for the introduction of UHDTV at the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
As if it’s not enough to include the image sizes and frame rates of digital cinema in H.265, the codec will also support the new Rec. 2020 color space (formally known as ITU-R Recommendation BT.2020), which incorporates a broader spectrum than possible with today’s digital cinema projectors. And there’s now a movement growing in Hollywood to bring the digital cinema XYZ color space to the format. (XYZ incorporates the full spectrum perceived by the human visual system. The only color space limitation in digital cinema today is that imposed by the projection technologies.) If it’s any consolation, the format doesn’t (yet) include the newer and more efficient ACES color space (which also incorporates the full spectrum perceived by the human visual system), now promoted by the US-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The effort to bring digital cinema characteristics into the consumer H.265 compression format might sound dreadful to exhibitors. But there are other ways to understand this. Now that studios are producing digital content for all platforms, from cinema on down, they are dealing with workflow efficiency issues, much as exhibitors are dealing with workflow efficiency issues in the receipt, playout, and management of their digital content. To be sure, if consumer electronics companies are going to produce super-quality displays for the home, then studios have to consider all of the ways in which to monetize their content with this new medium. But if were possible to produce consumer content without resizing the image or transforming the color space, then certain efficiencies would be achieved. That would be the advantage of homogenizing image formats and color spaces across platforms. The problem for exhibitors, of course, is that this dilutes one more point of differentiation, albeit a small one, between cinema and the home.
For those who may think H.265 is going to change the consumer world overnight, you can relax. Cinematographers and production experts have weighed in, trying to figure out how to shoot a movie in 8K. No screening rooms can show it, as no digital cinema projectors have such high resolution. Which somewhat implies that consumer 8K displays will be showing upres’d (digitally increased resolution) versions of native 2K and 4K images for some time. If this sounds strange, then consider that jumping ahead of content isn’t new for the consumer electronics industry. One simply has to look at how consumer electronics companies over-played the introduction of 3D displays in the consumer market. If anything, the advancements possible through H.265 will be cause for more attempts to push digital cinema to higher resolutions and frame rates.
But advanced formats will not be cheap to produce, and for advanced formats in digital cinema – and in the home – to be successful, there will have to be an ROI. This will be another case where seeing is believing.