Thinking Tech

Ultra-HD Olympics in a 48 Gbps video stream

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Comcast is streaming an experimental Ultra-HD feed of the Olympics, and while the bandwidth toll is significant, the quality brings other potential applications to mind.

Comcast and NBC Universal showed off an Ultra-HD video stream of the Olympic Games at a special screening Monday night in Washington D.C. Unlike any other video feed in North or South America, this one streamed at 16 times the resolution of a typical HD broadcast. Also called Super Hi-Vision, or 8K HD, the technology is still experimental, but it demonstrates just how big a jump we can aim for above today's HD quality, and what such a leap will cost in network transport terms.

The Ultra-HD Olympic feed made its way to the Comcast office in D.C. courtesy of a partnership with NHK in Japan, and the BBC. The original video from NHK cameras streamed at 48 gigabits per second (Gbps). It was then compressed down to 360 megabits per seconds (Mbps) for delivery across the Atlantic Ocean via Internet2. From a hub in Ashburn, Virginia, the Ultra-HD stream was connected up with a Comcast fiber link, and finally it was delivered to the Washington D.C. office for decoding and display.

For context, consider that typical HDTV broadcasts stream at a rate below 20 Mbps, with exact bit rates determined by the mode of compression. By upping the ante to 360 Mbps, Ultra-HD increases the bandwidth capacity required for transport by more than 18 times. That explains why Comcast used Internet2 to carry the feed across the ocean. Internet2 supports its own 100 Gbps network, and has, separately, teamed up with US Ignite to nurture the development of new high-speed broadband applications.

Ultra-HD certainly falls under the category of high-speed broadband application. The resolution is so crisp that individual participants in the Olympic Games opening ceremony looked like they might walk right off the screen when I viewed the feed last night. In coverage of one of the swimming events, I could read the signs in the audience gallery telling people where to sit.

Watching the Olympics in Ultra-HD feels like the rare luxury it is. But, I can also imagine the real-world benefits of 8K resolution in other applications like video-assisted surgery and complex modeling. I don't expect an 8K HDTV set in my living room any time this decade, but maybe we'll see Ultra-HD implemented in other experimental settings soon. It's certainly something for the US Ignite folks to think about.

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure