The Power of Color: HDR and WCG @ Cable Tec 2016

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Dr. Sean McCarthy, ARRIS Fellow

Video quality is easily recognizable to the trained eye, but equating a number with quality is often more problematic. Without consistent video-quality metrics, cable operators cannot make informed decisions when setting bitrate and video-quality performance targets, nor when choosing technology partners for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) services.

A recent scientific study with professional-quality Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) and HDR videos found that viewers prefer HDR over SDR by a large margin – largely due to the fact that it’s the closest thing to reality that’s available on TV. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. HDR and WCG are doing an excellent job of bringing TV picture quality in line with what we see through our own eyes. The experience, according to many consumers, is “like looking out of a window.” That’s because HDR and WCG create a more convincing and compelling sense of light than previously was possible.

At this year’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2016, Dr. Sean McCarthy, ARRIS Fellow, will present new research and techniques designed to help answer the pressing questions facing cable providers when it comes to setting video quality and performance targets for HDR and WCG video services including:

  • What happens to a viewer’s quality of experience when pristine, high-quality HDR content is compressed for distribution?
  • What happens when HDR WCG content is converted to SDR content to support legacy displays and consumer set-tops?
  • Do distortions and compression artifacts become more noticeable in HDR? Or does processed HDR lose some of its sparkle and become less discernible from ordinary SDR?

Dr. Sean McCarthy is an expert in content distribution, video compression, signal processing and the neurobiology of human vision. He currently leads advancements in state-of-the-art of video processing, compression and practical vision science at ARRIS.

Learn more about “The Power of Color” workshop on Thursday, September 29 from 12:45 – 1:45 p.m., which will be moderated by Bill Warga, VP Technology, Liberty Global.

The UHD dream is becoming reality

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Sean McCarthy Ph.D., Fellow at ARRIS

A few year ago, Ultra High Definition (UHD) was just an idea and today it’s on the verge of widespread adoption, says Sean McCarthy Ph.D., Fellow at ARRIS.

Equipment is emerging, content is in development and consumers are expectant. The stage is set for another TV evolution.

UHD changes the game by offering more pixels and therefore more detail for bigger screens. Add in High Dynamic Range (HDR) and there’s an even more impressive array of colors, contrast and depth.

Many service providers are already making their future intentions clear. With UHD TVs already commonplace in retail stores, an appetite for content is building. With this in mind, the likes of Sky, Virgin Media, NOS, DirectTV and BeIN have all announced or launched UHD services. Some 78% of video service providers say they will have launched 4K UHD content by 2018, according to an SNL Kagan Irdeto report.

HDR is part of the wider UHD growth trajectory. And although it’s still an emerging technology, some providers are already rolling out compliant set-tops. HDR TV shipments are only going to increase and OTT players are already raising the bar in terms of content. Netflix and Vudu are among those leading the field. 

Format war?

There are actually different forms of HDR in existence that deliver content to customers in slightly different ways. They all transfer linear light from the picture captured by the source camera. It’s then delivered to the TV display through a process of compression, encoding, decoding and rendering. But because this can be done in different ways, there are concerns of a format war. The truth is that because of the emergence of streaming media, the differing HDR transfer functions can coexist because there are advantages for each.

For example, the Perceptual Quantizer (PQ) formats – HDR10, Dolby Vision and Technicolor Philips – are ideal for controlled environments. This includes non-live studios and cinematic content where post production can enhance the picture. The Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) format, however, is at its best in live studios and outdoor events. 

The good news is that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has announced a standard that allows us to convert between the two. We can now gain the advantages of both. And the flexibility for studios, operators and consumer electronics manufacturers will benefit the industry.

Defining quality

With all the content providers, formats and equipment companies how exactly do you measure UHD quality? It’s a question that still doesn’t have a comprehensive answer but it’s one that researchers are looking into. The UHD Alliance has galvanized the major TV players such as Sony and Panasonic and this will help inform consumers. But the best academic means of measuring quality is still up for debate.

Various tools such as peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR) and the structural similarity (SSIM) index already exist. But the tools that work well with SD and HD formats don’t always capture the nuances of HDR. Studies are looking at new metrics and they’re making progress but the goal should be simplicity. They should aim to develop UHD HDR video quality metrics that are easy to calculate and provide information that companies can act on.

What UHD is really about

UHD isn’t about impressing consumers with bulging spec sheets. The reason the technology will gain ground is because it enables creatives to tell better stories. And for the viewer, it’s about offering them a better experience that’s even more compelling than HD. With that comes a fantastic opportunity for providers to offer a premium service.

As technology providers, we’re helping to get the infrastructure in place that will enable the growth of UHD and the evolution of home entertainment.

For more information on ARRIS’s UHD solutions, click here or come to our stand at IBC 2016, Hall 1, B19 

An Analytics Approach to Making Video Bandwidth and Quality of Experience Decisions

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Sean McCarthy, Ph.D.
Fellow at ARRIS

Managing video quality and bandwidth efficiency has always been critical in our industry. Operators are constantly striving to deliver top-notch viewing experiences to subscribers with optimal use of bandwidth. With television becoming more complex and the number of formats, displays, distribution protocols, and access technologies proliferating, operators are increasingly finding it difficult to measure their video-quality performance targets accurately using traditional methods.

At this year’s INTX, I will propose an analytics approach to help operators make bandwidth and quality of experience (QoE) decisions to meet their targets. I will be presenting a new way of describing video-quality and bandwidth efficiency in terms of statistical probabilities that can be applied to any video distribution method, including ABR, CBR, and statmux for any format. This new approach can help operators address some key performance questions, such as: What is the probability that video quality drops below any given level? Which operational parameters could be changed to improve overall video quality and efficiency? How would introduction of a new service impact existing services?

To learn more, join my session: “The End of Guesswork: Big Data Analytics and Implications for Content Delivery” at INTX, on Wednesday, May 18 at 8:00 a.m. ET.

Ultra HD – The future is clear, but why can’t I see it?

Sean McCarthy, Ph.D., Fellow, ARRIS

The landscape is shifting in the world of entertainment, content and delivery. The last few years have seen the world’s biggest brands touting their latest and greatest TVs, most of which boast some form of Ultra HD (UHD) capability. But how many people actually know what this technology is. And for those who have already purchased it, why doesn’t their favorite TV show look wildly better?

Within our industry, UHD, 4K, HDR, 8K, etc. are all common, well-known terms, but we recognize that the majority of consumers out there are unfamiliar with the next generation of HD technologies. So, this year, we would like to take a step back and work to set the stage for what new standards for TV are coming very soon (and are already here).

For those early adopters who already own a UHD TV, you might be frustrated that the UHD content currently available is so limited and difficult to stream. Right now, your smart TV uses several third party apps/monthly services to provide this content, but most of us are wondering the same thing – when will my service provider start programming sports and other content in the resolution my TV is able to deliver?

This is where ARRIS can help. ARRIS is working with programmers and content distributors to develop efficient, reliable, high-quality infrastructure to make UHD a reality. Building out this infrastructure enables a UHD “workflow” to evolve that will get UHD pictures to your living room.

The network matters because workflow matters. How will those who create and deliver content be able to provide these experiences at the highest possible quality, in an efficient way, allowing the service to be affordable for everyone? If the workflow is too complicated, it will drive costs up and even hinder quality. ARRIS is ahead of the curve on this front. We have developed several new technologies that simplify these processes, making them more efficient, and enable cable, IPTV, satellite, and OTT providers to deliver better and richer UHD experiences to customers.

Needless to say, the way we see content on our TVs and smart devices is in the midst of a massive transformation. Over the coming months, we will break down these elements to their core truths to give you a clear picture of what’s to come, how you can prepare, when you should upgrade devices, and much more. So, stay tuned and be sure to send us any questions below.

We’ll also be at the NAB show next week in Vegas, so drop by our booth SU7121 to hear more.

HEVC Makes nDVR and JIT Transcoding and Packaging More Attractive

By Sean McCarthy, Ph.D., Fellow

By Sean McCarthy, Ph.D., Fellow

A decade ago when Advanced Video Coding (AVC/H.264/MPEG4 part 10) was first introduced as a new international compression standard, it was hailed as improving video quality and reducing bit rates by a factor of 2 compared to MPEG-2 video compression.  Today, the buzz is about a newer new international compression standard, this time called High Efficiency Video Coding or HEVC for short.

It is tempting to repeat the old theme that HEVC is twice as efficient as AVC just as AVC was twice as efficient as MPEG-2.  But doing so would ignore history.

AVC did much more than double compression efficiency.  It enabled new distribution models such as IPTV. And it changed the way we watch television by enabling tablets, smartphones, and laptops to become mobile TVs.

HEVC, the newcomer, could now change the heart of cable television’s infrastructure.  In doing so, it could finally make the consumer’s dream of watching whatever one wants, wherever one wants, whenever one wants, into a bona fide everyday expectation.

The digital television industry has been moving towards the whatever-whenever-wherever model for awhile.  We started by putting personal digital video recorders (DVR) into set top boxes.  We also created an infrastructure and back office that lets consumers order programming on-demand over cable pipes.  More recently, we’ve been leveraging IP networks and transcoding to deliver programming to both traditional and new mobile television screens such as tablets and laptops.

Logically, the next step is to put the DVR functionality in the network (nDVR or cloud DVR).  Yet we have been largely shut out of that option because the amount of storage and file management needed have been too monumental.  That is where HEVC comes in, but not in the most simplistic way one might imagine.

Just as AVC needed IP-encapsulation as a partner to enable IPTV; HEVC needs Just-in-Time (JIT) transcoding and JIT packaging as partners to give viewers nearly unlimited viewing options.

A whatever-whenever-wherever nDVR can be created by brute force.  Save a copy of the MPEG-2 program indicated by the subscriber.  Then create bouquets of AVC/MPEG4 and HEVC profiles to support multiple screens and bandwidth options.  Next, individually package each set of profiles for delivery over HLS, Smooth Streaming, MPEG DASH, etc.  Finally, install a file management system to keep track of this explosion of content fragments.

Brute force is not always the simplest solution.

A better alternative is to store a single “reference” copy of the subscriber’s content.  Install a just-in-time (JIT) transcoder to convert the reference content to the bit rate and compression format needed to support the subscriber’s viewing request.  For traditional cable services, the reference copy can be transcoded to MPEG-2 and sent by QAM.  For multiscreen and adaptive bit rate services, the JIT transcoder can create the individual profile variants on-the-fly as needed and deliver them to a JIT packager to create the appropriate HLS/Smooth-Streaming/MPEG-DASH formats.

The JIT transcoder/JIT packager architecture can cut storage by at least 75% because each set of AVC profiles can easily grow to be as large as and larger than original MPEG-2 program the subscriber wanted to record, and one would need to plan on creating three adaptive streaming variations. With JIT transcoding, the AVC profiles do not need to be stored.  With JIT packaging, the adaptive bit rate variations do not need to be stored. Only the “reference” copy takes up space.

HEVC will always be introduced as the smartest and most efficient member of the MPEG compression family for the foreseeable future.  But deeds are more important than promises.  We think HEVC will be remembered not only for its innate compression efficiency, but also as the cornerstone of the next-generation cable television architecture that finally created what consumers have always really wanted: The convenience of having a high quality television experience wherever and whenever they choose.

Background Notes on viewing behavior and just-in-time packaging:

1)      ARRIS 2014 Consumer Entertainment Index (http://success.arrisi.com/arriscei)

2)      L. Milin & C. Ansley. (ARRIS) “Cloud-Based DVR and Multiscreen Support Strategies – Optimizing Storage and Transcoding.”  The Cable Show, Spring Technical Forum, 2014 (http://www.nctatechnicalpapers.com/Paper/2014/2014-cloud-based-dvr-and-multiscreen-support-strategies-optimizing-storage-and-transcoding)

3)      “REPACKAGING Overview” (ARRIS/SeaWell Network) (Spectrum_Repackaging_Overview-1.doc)

Ultra HD – A Roadmap for Tomorrow’s TV

Ultra HD is one of the most exciting advances in TV. Sometimes we refer to it as 4K or 8K, in reference to number of horizontal pixels that the standard can carry, but Ultra HD is about much more than just resolution… it’s about evolution.

Recently, our Engineering Fellow Sean McCarthy sat down with our VP of Product Marketing Kevin Wirick to paint a broader picture of Ultra HD and its implications for the future of television.

Check out two excerpts from their conversation in the videos below, and find out what makes Ultra HD a big leap for TV and see how that could impact our entertainment in the years to come.

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