Ultra high-definition broadcasting was made possible through the EUREKA Catrene cluster project UltraHD4U, gathering an impressive consortium covering the full supply chain.
When Issa Rakhodai, 65, was growing up, the small box was black and white. He has just retired having helped its evolution from analogue to digital, through to 3D and high definition. Little could he have imagined when he wrote his thesis on TV in 1979 that he would sign off his career helping European industry deliver cinema quality TV to our front rooms through the UltraHD4U project.
“When we see a film, the more images per second there are, the more fluid and beautiful the film is,” explains Rakhodai, a former technology manager at the French unit of set-top box maker Pace, bought by ARRIS in 2016. Compared to early TV watched on bulky boxes, the high-definition watched on slim TVs or phones or tablets is impressive enough. But not for Rakhodai: in 2011 he proposed bringing together 16 partners from Belgium, France, Spain and Turkey to work on ultra high-definition. “Some people thought that was too early,” he says.
His vision paid off. When the project began there were no commercially available UHD products but by 2016 when the project ended there were more than 50 million TV sets sold and that is expected to more than double to more than 100 million units a year – a market worth 70 billion dollars.
The Catrene partners had produced 14 prototypes for throughout the supply chain, from the new cameras to film the content through to the TV sets on which to watch it. French-German media group ARTE and Spanish state TV group RTVE shot film on the cameras developed for televisions with a resolution of close to 4,000 pixels – just short of the resolution seen in cinemas today and four times that of high-definition television. During the project, STMicroelectronics developed their UHD decoding chipset and Turkey’s TV manufacturer Arçelik developed four UHD TV sets.
Rakhodai’s company Pace and Technicolour developed a set-top box in advance of competitors. They expect to increase their market share in the next few years as a result, which is already a joint 28 percent. Thomson Video Networks (now Harmonic) produced encoders, Spanish company Sapec and French company Vitec produced codecs – computer code to encode and decode digital signals – that were more efficient in their use of bandwidth. That was particularly important since Ultra HD carries eight times more pixels per second than ordinary HD.
Some of the partners were competitors but worked together to innovate and standardise in areas that have benefited the whole industry. By the project end, the industry partners were well-placed to launch their products commercially. Academics at the University of Nantes and Technicolor have successfully filed patents from the project.
Barco produced a super-resolution projector, helping it grow its share of 4K – UHD – as a percentage of digital cinema revenue to 30 percent from 16 percent. Alioscopy found a way to offer customers 3D TV without us having to put on special glasses. In 2016, French President François Hollande was invited to watch surgeons at work at Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris via a 3D UHD screen, developed by Alioscopy. Belgian company mediAVentures focused particularly on the benefits using UHD could have in medical solutions.
For Rakhodai, the most memorable moments of the three-year project were when the partners showcased what UHD would look like for TV viewers. In April 2016, ARTE broadcast the Corsair ballet live from Vienna Opera House to show viewers the detail they could observe of the dancers on the UHD screen. “With this kind of resolution we’ll be able to make people out at football stadiums during live games and to see their emotions,” says Rakhodai. “Not everyone will be happy about that!” he laughs. A study by In-Stat predicts more than 40 percent of Americans will enjoy that kind of home TV experience by 2025, compared to just under a third of us in Europe.