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January 15, 2023

Why a Software-defined Cloud-based Architecture is Necessary for 8K Deployments

By Eric Bolten, VP of Business Development, Zixi

The television industry has moved through many progressive changes in our lifetimes, all driven by technology advancing in the pursuit of a better consumer experience. It is not sheer altruism; an improved experience works as a differentiator by providing a better platform for monetization, which helps to justify the expense of the process. But it is interesting to note that the progressive changes have worked well. The move from black and white to color, to HD, and now to 4K have all been lengthy, overlapping, but ultimately seamless, as has the parallel audio evolution to stereo, 5.1, and Atmos.

It has been the disruptive technologies that have ultimately failed in the market. Stereo 3D and the last iteration of VR — there may yet be another one imminent soon, as the metaverse takes off — both met consumer resistance. Despite the hugely long gestation period and the glacial introduction into the market, 8K will succeed because it is not disruptive as it is evolutionary. It may end up being by stealth, as much as by choice — for example, a new generation of TV screens in the stores will be 8K-ready, there will be an 8K layer at the premium level of the streaming services, and so on — but it will happen.

This means that, as an industry, we need to prepare for it.

8K Will Begin as a Production Format

In the same way, 4K has rolled out, 8K will begin mainly as a production format. In live sports, for example, an 8K feed allows a production to produce both Camera 1 and Camera 2 convincingly by piloting virtual cameras around an image, either by a human operator or AI. This pan and scan that already works well in 4K for producing HD images and in 8K will work even better (as well as providing a consequent up-rez to 8K from 4K if required).

All the reasons for adopting 4K production now, from quality to future-proofing, will be applied to working in 8K in a few years. But there are, of course, challenges, as you would expect when working with images where each frame is comprised of 33 million pixels. The data throughput is enormous, and once you start moving beyond the rarefied confines of broadcast production, where we can spec robust networks to deal with it as long as the budget exists (these will remain expensive to construct for a few years yet), volume is increasingly challenging to handle when it comes to distribution.

5G Will Be Critical

5G will be a critical part of this process, overhauling and replacing the CDN as that last hop to reach the consumer. At Zixi, in 2022, we recorded a concert violinist from the University of Texas in Austin performing two pieces in 8K. We achieved 60 frames per second using a 100-megabit-per-second signal over 5G. The quality was exceptional. But the network topology differed from what you would have used even five years ago. There was no neat path with tidy termination at points-of-presence (POPs), instead traveling through a video fabric with many different components and routes from one end to the other. It was not a single network but instead a multiplicity of them.

Multiple Paths

We are moving towards this video distribution model, using multiple paths and networks — 5G, 4G LTE, the open internet, and more — to ensure a zero-downtime architecture. And the only way you can preserve the commonality of that video fabric is via a software-defined solution.

Why? Because we need better control and visibility into what is happening to the signal now, never mind in 8K. Currently, the only way to guarantee that the signal has been received at a destination in standard broadcast workflows is by bringing it back again to prove it got there on its own in the first place. This is incredibly inefficient, as well as being an exceptionally blunt instrument.

Software-defined Video Provides the Tools

Software-defined video in the cloud allows us to analyze such distribution paths. Control planes provide advanced, deep telemetry across all the different supply chain segments, allowing us to extract granular packet loss and jitter data. We can understand network conditions in real-time, and they will only become more complex.

We already have groups of network partners working in concert to deliver video. With the increased industry fragmentation and data requirements of 8K, managing those disparate partners will be mission-critical. You will need to be able to see the hand-offs and confirm the integrity of the signal from the point of origin through to the point of consumption. Like today’s Apple or Amazon, aggregators may be taken from 40 different platforms.

This is already challenging enough, but imagine what it will be like at 8K data rates. It will be a while before we get there. The pandemic and accompanying supply chain crisis threw a wrench into the mechanics of the smooth adoption of 8K, 5G, and several other technologies. Some are disrupted more than others. If the recent broadcast industry’s marriage with the sporting cycle tells us anything, the next massive push into 8K won’t occur until the 2024 Paris Olympics. But those are only 18 months away, and with 8K panel prices coming down all the time, 8K could be a serious factor in the Summer Games for cutting-edge broadcasters for the first time. They should start moving out of the demonstration theatres and into the homes.

Luckily the software-defined video tools are ready and waiting in the cloud to enable it. Indeed, this is the only way it can happen. The next stage of broadcast technology might be evolutionary for the consumer, but for those that provide them with the picture, it will have to be a bit more radical to cope.

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