Panasonic Ultra HD Best Blu-ray Player CES 2015 580

The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) this week shed a little more light on what we can expect from the first Ultra HD Blu-ray players when they get here. What we can’t expect, however, is that a player will be available in the U.S. market by the end of the year, what it might cost or what movie titles will be available to support it.

News on actual player and content availability was left to forthcoming announcements from the individual companies, but based on what we’ve heard through announcements from recent international trade events, an Ultra HD Blu-ray player delivery this year in the United States is looking less than certain.

Licensing for the Ultra HD Blu-ray specification is under way and reports out of Germany and Japan in recent weeks had Samsung and Panasonic revealing their first Ultra-HD Blu-ray players, but the Samsung model won’t be ready until 2016 and all that we know about the Panasonic model is that it will be available this fall in Japan. No news on the U.S. plans.

More on the BDA’s Ultra HD Blu-ray revelations after the jump:

Both the Samsung and Panasonic players will include internal hard drives to make use of the Ultra HD Blu-ray format’s new copy and export features. More on this later. The Panasonic player will include an internal 3TB hard drive, in part for recording local TV programming. Panasonic reportedly plans to offer 500 of the new players per month at launch in Japan for the equivalent price of about $3,334.

Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) executives Benn Carr, who chaired the UHD Task Force and is VP of corporate strategy for DTS and Ron Martin, who is vice chair of the BDA’s U.S. promotions committee and Panasonic Hollywood Lab director, wouldn’t touch companies’ marketing plans in their online roundtable with reporters this week but did try to clarify some issues as to what we can expect from at least some of the first players and titles when they do arrive.

The speakers referred to the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec as “a suite of tools that has gone into the next-generation Blu-ray format that is not specifically tied to one or the other but to all of them as a creative pallet for the content providers.”

The speakers called the spec. essentially extensions onto the legacy Blu-ray specs.

What seems clear is that the Ultra HD Blu-ray system will stand as the reference quality playback standard for 4K Ultra HD, high dynamic range and wide color gamut content delivery going forward.

Nuts And Bolts

First and foremost, the executives underscored the format’s 100Mbps constant data rate (compared to 40Mbps for legacy Blu-ray), offering more robust picture and sound quality than more compressed 4K UHD streaming content, typically delivered over home network speeds of 5Mbps or less. The UHD BD movies also won’t be prone to buffering interruptions due to constraints from broadband traffic and other bandwidth limitations.

The system, which will enable players that startup and play much faster than first-generation legacy Blu-ray players, will also allow for support of both a wide color gamut and several varieties of high dynamic range (HDR) in addition to up to 3840×2160 lines of resolution.

Players will also support legacy format 2D Full HD 1080 resolution, while content providers will have the option (not the requirement) to include titles in both resolutions on discs. Player and disc producers also will have the option of including support for 3D Blu-ray playback in up to 1080 resolution. However, there will be no 4K Ultra HD 3D format.

As with current Blu-ray players, CDs and DVDs do not have to be supported by Ultra HD Blu-ray players, but just as virtually all Blu-ray Disc players support these formats today, the new Ultra HD Blu-ray players are generally expected to support the legacy discs as well.

To support the greater data demands of 4K Ultra HD content, the new Ultra HD Blu-ray players will add support for HEVC and MPEG 5 decoding, which enable higher efficiencies and bring “many tools to the compression process for capturing these video images,” Martin said.

Color Me Blu-ray

The new system will support 10-bit color depth, as opposed to 8-bits used in the former Blu-ray spec., and will output 4:2:0 chroma subsampling, “which is the industry accepted standard for image distribution and display. The issues around 4:4:4 of RGB is a mastering format and not a distribution format, so much like broadcast and over-the-top, and current Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray will be 4:2:0 chroma subsampling,” noted Martin.

For wider color gamut, the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec. mandates support of up to BT. 2020, which no display can currently achieve. Carr explained that BT. 2020 color space is specified as “a container” and doesn’t mean that images will contain all of the ranges of BT. 2020, but will represent a container for lesser color spaces including the current BT. 709 color space mandated for HDTV and the DCI-P3 color “recommendation” used for professional digital movie theaters. The larger container will also allow technologies to go to a much wider color gamut as they mature in the capture, post-processing and display arenas, according to Martin.

The format will also support frame rates of up to 60p (compared to 24p for legacy Blu-ray), of which, Martin said: “The creative community is looking at this with much enthusiasm.” The spec. also includes support for fractional frame rates for legacy purposes of: 23.97fps, 59.94fps, and integer frame rates of 24p, 25p, and 60p.

Wide Dynamic Range

The Ultra HD Blu-ray spec. will support multiple formats of wide dynamic range (or high dynamic range after a definition is determined). Only the base-layer spec. known as SMPTE 2084 for the electro optical transfer function (EOTF) will be required for support by content producers who choose to include HDR capability.

This specifies a PQ-based curve for wide dynamics, and will deliver “a brand new range of information that we can capture the video signal in,” said Martin.

Optional features can be added to the base layer including Dolby’s Dolby Vision and a Philips option that a content provider can choose to support. There is no mandatory requirement that players support those additional HDR format layers, he said. If the player does not recognize the additional layer, it will be able to output the base layer to the television set.

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The Ultra Blu-ray player was described as only a carrier for the HDR metadata that can be read by a television enabled to recognize and display the HDR information.

Explaining how HDR will work, Martin explained that in current BT. 709 systems the white point is around 90 to 95 percent of the signal, leaving 5 percent of the signal for spectrals or highlights. This was described by Martin as “things that are whiter than white,” so that where in typical systems an image of the sun reflecting off the windshield of a white car, for example, the car would encompass 95 percent of signal and the sun’s reflection would be 100 percent.

But with the wide dynamic range system the white of the car can be made to encompass just 50 percent of the signal leaving another 50 percent for spectrals like reflections, explosions, fireworks, etc., described as “things that are visually more stimulating and much more accurate to reality.”

The BDA representatives said they believe wide dynamic range will be a new creative tool that content producers will embrace very quickly.

“We believe the Ultra HD format, much like current HD, this will be the premium entertainment experience,” said Martin.

The spokesmen said they expect to see Ultra HD Blu-ray titles carrying a wide color gamut and HDR very early in the introduction phase, adding speculation that announcements of some HDR titles could be coming at International CES in January.

Copy and Export

Where Ultra HD Blu-ray will differ significantly from Blu-ray is in how it allows for viewing content from internal hard drives and on multiple devices.

An optional “copy and export” feature, which was formerly referred to as “Digital Bridge,” will allow players to incorporate hard drives to make and store a personal library of content from the disc, including bit-for-bit copies of multiple 4K discs, bonus content etc.

These features, which the spokesmen described as “very compelling,” will use a “high-speed mechanism” to give viewers a library of instantly available films and entertainment. Publishers were said to be “actively developing their plans to deploy into this.”

Carr pointed out that the export system leverages “approved licensing programs” like UltraViolet or Vidity downloads, onto individual devices for portability. The inclusion of an export system to services like UltraViolet and the Secure Content Storage Association’s (SCSA) Vidity was made “specifically as a value-add feature for Ultra HD Blu-ray” and the BDA does not see these services as competitive threats to the long-term viability of disc formats, he added.

On the new content management side, Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will not require a player to be connected to the Internet to get authorization to play a disc, the executives said. However, studios will have the option to remotely store encryption keys that would require an Internet connection to authenticate, but the speakers said they expect that option to be the exception rather than the rule, with connectivity for encryption authentication likely to be required only for the most vulnerable fare like early releases.

Target Customers

Unlike the early days of Blu-ray Discs, the BDA executives said they see “everybody” as a target customer for new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players.

“We know there is an evolution going on with consumers where higher quality is always in demand,” said Martin. “We believe as imaging in next-generation displays becomes more prominent in the consumer marketplace, why would you buy anything less than the premium experience? Customers that enjoy high-quality imagery will migrate immediately to this because it is a high quality format.”

The Song Remains The Same

For audio, the Ultra HD Blu-ray requirements remain exactly the same as they are for legacy Blu-ray in that manufacturers are mandated to support DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. The new object-based sound formats DTS:X and Dolby Atmos will fit within the bitstreams of the disc and just as there are Blu-ray Discs now with either or both object-based systems, so will there be Ultra HD Blu-ray discs carrying the formats.

Disc And Data

In addition to using the aforementioned HEVC/MPEG 5 decoding to fit more content on discs, the Ultra HD Blu-ray discs have been expanded with multiple layers to hold capacities of 66GB and 100GB, compared to 25GB and 50GB for today’s Blu-ray Discs.

By Greg Tarr


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