Team Ninja has a history of great games under its belt but they are most famous for the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series. With Itagaki in the driver’s seat, they were pushing console hardware to its very limits achieving graphics that few other companies could.
Unfortunately, since Itagaki left the company, the team has been making one sub-par game after another. We sure all want to forget the disgrace Ninja Gaiden 3 was.
Unfortunately, Dead or Alive 5 in my mind was another example of a team having lost its way. The team made some questionable choices when it came to graphical choices for the game to the point that it sometimes looked worse than the xbox 360 launch title: Dead or Alive 4. There were a few reasons for this:
Lack of anti-aliasing
Lack of texture filtering – DOA 3 and 4 had better!
What looked like atrocious texture work all round
The buttery-smooth 60fps from previous games was replaced by glitchy framerates and freezes.
Well, imagine my surprise when I started Dead or Alive 5 Last Round on Xbox One X. The console’s 4K upscaling, forced 16x texture filtering and higher compute power allows the game to run smoothly, the texture work to shine through finally (although it still leaves something to be desired at times) and the game runs at 1080p continuously without the dynamic scaler kicking in with what looks like proper AA in most of the levels. It does look like the game applies AA based on GPU load, and only when there is GPU overhead left. The transformation is massive in my eyes: the game now looks to be worthy of the Dead or Alive name. It’s worth checking it out on the Xbox One X. The previous low quality presentation gives way to a sharp smooth look. Awesome!
Now if only Team Ninja could be fixed so easily. Their recent showings don’t give us much hope and it’s unfortunate, because unless Tecmo takes some radical action, they will waste and possibly ruin two of the best gaming IPs: Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden. My advice to Tecmo:
Allow Microsoft to make all previous games available on Xbox One X in 4K – and get some more life out of those games.
Time to sack whoever was responsible for Ninja Gaiden 3 and DOA 5!
Consider building a new more capable team around these two IPs.
I would like to see Team Ninja pushing console hardware to its limits once again with the crazy attention to detail they were once renowned for. It’s not enough to do well enough to kind of meet what other developers do! We want to be amazed once again with what you can do other developers only dream of…
The 4K patch for Redout Lightspeed Edition, a futuristic anti-gravity racer by an Italian studio, just dropped a few days ago. The patch notes promised native 4K rendering, 300+ bug fixes, major performance improvement and a 60fps lock due to the dynamic scaler. Has the Italian studio 34BigThings, achieved their goal?
Upon playing just the first level of the game, it became obvious that something is not quite right with this patch. While the visuals are absolutely gorgeous and look to be rendering at 4K natively, something seems to be broken with the dynamic scaler: it doesn’t actually look like it’s kicking in at all! There are major major performance drops in certain sections to what looks like below 30fps refresh! It’s pretty clear something isn’t quite right. The rest of the first 4 levels all seem to have similar slowdowns in places.
We have had patch issues with games on the Xbox One X, such as with Titanfall 2, that the developers miscalculated and then fixed quickly. Let’s hope they can do the same with this one.
Interestingly, the slowdowns don’t really affect the gameplay as you can still steer the ship easily and response is good. But of course screen refresh isn’t great in places.
However, only around 10% of a level is affected, the rest of the level plays out at an almost locked 60fps. It’s interesting that even slowing down and rotating the camera around the problem area, the slowdown still happens and it doesn’t look like there is any dynamic scaler kicking in or the lower bounds of the scaler are way too high. It also mostly happens when lots of the track is in view all at once so clearly they are overloading the GPU by trying to draw too many things at once without either properly scaling back Level of Detail settings or dropping the resolution.
Anyway, I have contacted 34BigThings to have a look at the issue. Let’s hope for a fix soon.
UHD Blu Ray is oftentimes made from a source only 6% higher in resolution than a normal Blu Ray. Be aware of this when buying…
How Movies are Prepared for the Cinema and the Home
Movies are normally shot on film or digital cameras. In either case, the usable resolution is between 4K and 10K depending on the medium. However, even movies shot on optical need to be converted to something called the Digital Intermediate (DI) to do digital effects, colour grading and other digital manipulation to the image before released to cinemas including being printed back onto optical print for older cinemas as well as release onto home video. Therefore the Digital Intermediate limits the final resolution and picture quality attainable from the source.
Unfortunately, most of the movies even now are finished using a 2K DI. Did you know that 2K has a resolution of 2048×1080? Compare that to Full HD (1080p) with a resolution of 1920×1080 and you are only getting an increase of 128 vertical lines which amounts to 6% of a resolution boost over 1080p. It is in fact so small that you are unlikely to notice it.
Enter UHD Blu Ray
For any movie finished with a 2K DI, what the movie studios do is upscale the 2K DI to a 4K image, which is almost 4x the resolution of the original creating extra pixels in the process. They cannot add any more detail, they simply use algorithms to guess the extra information. This can work to some degree just like the upscaling of your TV can work well with 1080p material. But then why not save the money, buy the Blu Ray and let your TV upscale – or something super-capable like Panasonic’s UHD players.
To add insult to injury, they then put it on a disk that’s almost the same size as your standard Blu Ray: 66GB versus 50GB disks as the 100GB disks are not really used, only for longer movies. They then compress using an algorithm that actually produces a slightly softer picture if not given enough bandwidth so really you arrive at a picture that’s not really better than 1080p for a price much higher than the standard Blu Ray. This is why reviewers are sometimes hard pressed to find much difference in detail between the Blu Ray and UHD versions. This is atrocious in my opinion.
Now granted, there are UHD disks that have been produced from a higher quality DI such as 3.2K, 4K and very rarely 8K. Those are the disks worthy of your attention. Always check before buying. 4K is not always 4K. Unfortunately, the format isn’t going to shine until they start using the 100GB disks as standard to give the bitrate room to breathe and start using 6K and 8K DIs. Then we will see what the format is really capable of. The current state of the format is sub-standard compared to what it could be.
To understand if a movie is real 4K or fake 4K, check out www.RealOrFake4K.com, which keeps tabs on the resolution of the DIs for each release, and even whether the release was put on a 100GB disk or not.
Now of course, there is more to UHD than just resolution, there is (the messy world of) HDR and also Wide Color Gamut (WCG). But that’s for another article.
I consider Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox as still one of the best action games of all times. So when Microsoft announced that they would be bringing Original Xbox games to the Xbox One and that Ninja Gaiden would be in the first wave of titles, I was excited!
Upscaling – Not Just Any Upscaling
Emulating the original Xbox is no small engineering achievement, but little did we know that Microsoft wasn’t done there. Microsoft’s backward compatibility team figured out a way to upscale these titles to 1080p on Xbox One and 4K on Xbox One X at the emulator level. It isn’t just a simple video output upscaling, but the actual game on the emulator is rendering out 4x (on Xbox One) or 16x (on Xbox One X) the resolution of the original game with antialiasing thrown in for a super smooth image that is an awe to behold on the Xbox One X especially.
People like to throw figures out: these days it’s teraflops, back in the day we were talking about vertices or triangles a second. However, I think those numbers are pretty meaningless with regards to the kind of image quality a machine is able to produce.
I was never drawn into the Playstation world of games because I found their graphical quality lacking in major areas: objects were too angular, textures were blurry and lacked detail and jaggies were all over the image. This is because Sony make some rather poor design choices when it came to their machines, with the exception of the PS4. With PS1 and PS2, they didn’t have much of a choice due to the available technology to them, however, with PS3 they had only themselves to blame. The machine may have had enough power to complete with the Xbox 360, but the truth is that the machine is not even capable to surpass the original Xbox with regards to graphics and here is why:
From the original Xbox, Microsoft built features into the GPUs to allow for shortcuts in rendering. One of these techniques in the original Xbox was called bump mapping (or DOT3 mapping). Bump mapping allowed the machine to simulate more detail in its textures and more details in the character models than would have been possible otherwise. The Xbox GPU also had pretty sophisticated pixel and vertex shading for the time.
Ninja Gaiden on Xbox One X
So how does Ninja Gaiden hold up after so many years upscaled to 4K with the original assets? Quite simply stunning! I have the PS3 copy of the game as well and running through the same areas in the game, my PS3 copy looks flat and outright horrible in some areas. The Xbox One X image is jaggy-free, has better lighting (except for the first chapter which was re-mastered on the PS3) and beautiful running at 60fps. The original assets hold up remarkably well and the original art really shines through. It is clear the original Xbox was capable of some awesome graphics, just the low resolution was holding the image quality back.
Tremendous job! The Wizards at Microsoft have done it. Now I can’t wait to play some of my favourite games on the platform such as:
Outrun 2 – although there may be licensing issues with this game because it had to be pulled off retail years ago – Microsoft, sort out a way to replace music in games so this isn’t an issue!!
House of the Dead III – the original Xbox was an arcade powerhouse! This was so much fun.
Dead or Alive 3 and Dear or Alive Ultimate (DOA 1 and DOA 2) – come on! Make Xbox One the first platform to have all Dear or Alive games, please. Also bring DOA 4 from Xbox 360! While you are at it, bring DOA Beach Volleyball 1, 2 and 3 so the spin-offs are also on one console. The only thing holding this back might be Tecmo, however, now that they are finished milking DOA 5, they might allow it. Come on, guys!
Rallisport Challenge 1 and 2 – they are classics!
Top Spin – I still love the original. Awesome!
MotoGP 1, 2 and 3 – the original games were some of the best motorcycle racing games on any platform. Still haven’t found any that compares – MotoGP 07 on Xbox 360 comes close.
Dino Crisis 3 – this game got some beating from the reviewers, but it is one of the best Sci Fi puzzle shooters on the platform with beautiful graphics and cut-scenes to die for. It is a personal favourite of mine!
Brute Force – why not!
Unreal Championship 2 – oh yes!
The Future of Xbox Backwards Compatibility
Now that Microsoft has figured out how to upscale original and Xbox 360 games to 1080p and 4K, I can see a future where they enable this for all backward compatible games (400+ and counting). Enabling it and testing it game by game might be tedious, so it would be great if the feature could be switched on and off for titles that have not been tested with the feature yet so the full library can benefit straight away- and we can turn it off per game if the game has glitches because of it until MS gets around to manually updating it. Maybe add some options for upscaling such as 1440p / 1800p / 4K so we can configure it and see what works for now. I know it’s a lot to ask for but dare to dream!
What’s more, this opens the possibility of Xbox One games that were not patched with 4K support for the Xbox One X to actually be upscaled to 4K using an emulation layer / swapping out render targets at run-time. Some of those games currently run at 900p with lack of AA. Even if 4K isn’t possible, 1800p (note I didn’t write 1080p!!) should be easily possible for older Xbox One titles.
One more thing: if they could enable this for all OG Xbox and Xbox 360 games WITH at least 2x AA (preferably 4x where possible), then Xbox One X would be THE PLATFORM to play 3 generations of Xbox games at the best image quality possible. Please make it happen!
Ben Hobbs, Managing Director of H3 Digital kindly offered to do an interview for SimpleHomeCinema. I welcomed the idea as I believe in supporting each other in this line of business and our readers who may be passionate about starting their own business might well take encouragement to do the same. The interview has been printed below. Should you have any other questions for Ben, please use the comments area below the post and I’ll see if we can get Ben to help us answer them.
Roland: Ben, please tell us a bit about yourself so our readers can get to know you. Where are you from originally? Where did you grow up?
Ben: I’m from the UK originally, I was born in Brighton and then moved to Milton Keynes when I was young. I moved to Thailand when I was 26 years old.
Roland: What made you move to Thailand at 26? Is there much of an English community where you are?
I’m into technology and after the dotcom crash it just felt like there wasn’t going to be much growth in that sector in the UK for a while. Yes there is quite a big expat community of people from all over the world here, Thailand is a great place to live or holiday.
Roland: It does sound like an great place to live and work. Was audio-visual science and home cinema a passion for you from a young age or did you fall into it – so to speak – later on?
Ben: Yes, very much so. I keenly remember applying for a Student Loan when I was at University and spending more time, and being more excited by planning what HiFfi gear I was going to buy, than on my college work. (Sherwood CD Player, Sony Amp and Mission 732 speakers if anyone is curious). It was then that I knew I had the bug.
Roland: How and when did the idea of making a business out of it come to you?
Ben: It was always a hobby of mine, I had always had a very special interest in Home Cinema and Music – It wasn’t so much that I listened to music a lot or even saw a lot of movies, instead it was piecing it together that I enjoyed, planning it and hearing and seeing what amazing setups I could build. It never occurred to me that I could do this as a living.
Roland: That’s really awesome, Ben. It sounds like you share the same passion as me and some of our readers. How did you find your first paying client?
Ben: After the dot com bust in the UK I had a choice to make, either stay in the IT industry – I was in recruitment, pays well but not particularly fun – Or come to Asia, Thailand in particular. My Father lived in HK and some of his friends were building holiday homes in Phuket, the problem was there wasn’t any Technology expertise. My Brother and I came over and helped design intelligent cabling and systems into those holiday homes.
Roland: So it sounds like you kind of fell into it through connections that you had?
Ben: Going into business for yourself is a big life decision. We saw an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, the safe thing would have been to stay back in the UK. Moving abroad and starting a company at the same time is fairly risky for anyone – it was useful that we had some insight into prospective work.
Roland: Were you successful straight away or did the business grow slowly?
Ben: We were always busy, that doesn’t necessarily mean success. We have had our ups and downs. So we grew slowly, then quickly, then shrank after the Global Financial Crisis and then grew again in a slower more measured manner.
Roland: What were some of the challenges you faced as you were growing the business?
Ben: At first when you start a company there is so much to do to get the ball rolling, then once you come up with the processes, products and have staff it’s all too easy to become complacent. You have to make sure you keep busy. Constantly find new ways to make yourself useful and relevant in such a fast moving industry.
Roland: Did you have to have much of a capital investment initially?
Ben: There was some outlay to get the company up and running, mainly involving getting the company started, work permits, vehicle, etc. We’ve always tried to keep it as organic as possible though. My advice here: be as sparing as possible with startup money – if you start with a big lump of cash it’s more than likely going to get wasted.
Roland: What were the critical success factors in getting the business where it is today?
Ben: Not giving up. Running your own business can be really tough at times, sometimes you just want to roll over and give up – You can’t, so you make sure to fight through the hard times and you learn constantly through the whole process. We’ve tried to keep it as much fun as we can, I didn’t get into this industry to get rich, I do this job because I love it. That helps.
Roland: That is a great attitude to have, Ben. What is your business model? Do you charge clients for the man hours / consultancy or can you also make money on the equipment by getting wholesale prices? Did the business model change over the years?
Ben: We make some money on equipment and some on the installation, it’s probably around 50/50. Initially we started out by billing labour as a percentage of the equipment cost but later we moved over to a per unit install cost, where we charge a set integration price on equipment install, That way our customers are fairly charged according to our time rather on how expensive their equipment is.
Roland: How do you make sure the business can be sustained? How do you get new clients coming on board?
Ben: Easier to keep your current and past clients coming back than advertise and market for new ones constantly. We’ve done two or more properties for more than half of our clients now, sometimes the same property twice! When we first started iPhones weren’t even around so many customers have used us many times to keep their properties up to date.
To do that you must give good service, never cheat people and do your best to make your customers happy. As a company there has been quite a few times that we’ve ended up losing money on jobs, through no fault of our own – perhaps a supplier let us down or raised their prices. The customer though is our client, he is dealing with us and we have always been fair.
Roland: What are your plans for the business in the near and mid-term? How do you intend to grow it?
Ben: We are currently building a brand new office which will feature better demo facilities, a coffee shop, better staff facilities and more room for us to stock products. In addition to designing and installing home cinema, audio and lighting systems ourselves we also distribute some audio and cinema products to other companies. We hope to include great training facilities and warehousing for those products.
Going forward we are making sure we keep it fun, make sure our clients are happy and look forward to all the great new technology that will be coming out in the future.
Roland: Finally, is there any advice you’d like to give to our readers who would like to get into the business?
Ben: Do it! If you like home cinema and audio as a hobby, you will more than likely enjoy setting up big systems for others. Look into if there is a CEDIA in your country and try to get some certified training. Even if you don’t have experience, I think if you know your stuff and have a CEDIA qualification you could probably walk into a junior position in the industry.
I’d like to thank Ben for his time to answer my questions and I’d like to wish him – on behalf of all our readers – good luck with his business.
If you’d like your Home Cinema business to be featured on our site, please contact us.
This isn’t going to be an unbiased view or review – as if there was such a thing minus conducting a double blind study on it and even that is questionable. This is my story of why I love the Xbox brand and I have never been swayed by the competition.
Let me start by saying I am certainly not a Microsoft “fan-boy”. I feel, in the area of personal computing, they have not innovated since Windows 95 and actually are holding the industry back. Don’t even get me started on Google: we’ll sell you out so you can get it for free and Apple: let’s put lipstick on a pig! Well, I guess if I have to use a pig, it might as well be pretty, lipstick and all, so I am writing this from a Mac.
So with that out of the way, why the Xbox?
I remember getting my hands on an Xbox back in the early 2000s in London and hooking it up to a flat widescreen CRT and 5.1 surround sound system at home. I bought two games initially: Dead or Alive 3 and Halo, and I was floored by the graphics. This was the first piece of hardware that could simulate high-resolution textures using bump mapping, pixel shading and the like and it looked super good.
Remember, the console was designed by the guys who designed DirectX (hence Xbox) and they knew just how to do it. The PC would be getting these features approx a year after the Xbox launched.
This was a far cry from the likes of Sony’s first 2 consoles: PS1 and PS2 which could only push out low-resolution textures and lacked hardware for pixel shading or bump mapping. In fact, even the PS3 was weak in those areas.
I must admin, Microsoft lost the plot with the Xbox One X and was overtaken by Sony in the graphics department, but not by much. Most cross-platform games initially ran at lower resolution or at a lower framerate on the Xbox One. Microsoft however did correct course – freeing up system resources by removing Kinect and helping developers utilise the EDRAM better – and brought games upto better performance on the system.
The Xbox One X is a message from Microsoft to say: we are sorry, we messed up. We have engineered a box that is kick ass and will push the graphical boundaries in this generation. In fact, due to heavy customisation of the silicon inside of the Xbox One X, 6Tflops of power will go a long way to make it competitive with not just the current Playstation line-up but also well into the next generation.
The Xbox over 3 generations has built up a massive library of amazing games. It would take a lot more time to play through them than I have now as an adult so not going to run out of games to play anytime soon. Whoever is complaining that Xbox doesn’t have enough exclusives or good games should look on their shelves: I bet you haven’t played through those games you bought last month or even last year.
I think Microsoft’s new approach to backwards compatibility: bringing 3 generations of Xbox games playable on the Xbox One family of consoles – and beyond – is a massive value proposition for both developers and gamers. There are over 1300 Xbox One games that have been specifically developed for the Xbox One, while 400+ Xbox 360 games are also playable with more and more becoming compatible every week. The Xbox 360 had a library of over 1200 games over its lifetime. Even if Microsoft only made half of those available to play, we will have more games playable on Xbox One than any other console in the history of gaming.
Then there is backwards compatibility for the original Xbox. There were over 1000 titles developed for that system. Even if Microsoft only brought forward a quarter of those, it would show that they honour the investment gamers have made into their platform and that is massive!
The value proposition and brand loyalty for me therefore makes a lot more sense than buying a Playstation. Even IF Sony were to bring forward PS1 and PS2 games, I lose interest because of a lack of good graphics or audio. I even detest most PS3 games because a lack of texture quality stands out for me almost immediately. Granted, PS4 games look and sound great. But that isn’t the whole story…
I don’t really know where Sony got their idea for the Playstation controllers, but I have always found their analogue sticks way too flimsy without enough resistance to allow them to be accurate – rather frustrating! The PS4 controller is slightly better, but it’s neither ergonomic or smart design. Maybe it’s designed for Japanese hands but I need something a bit meatier to grab onto.
The Xbox controllers from the first generation Xbox were very well designed, for accurate aiming and great button / trigger positioning. The controller sits in the hand very comfortably even after hours of play.
The dual rumble motors of the Xbox controller also just feel much much better. It literally feels like they can simulate different textures: as you’re riding on the asphalt, as your motorbike speeds up, as you fly through the air, etc. It’s a sensational piece of kit. Yes, the Playstation controller used to have rumble motors, but since it didn’t sit in your palm properly, all you felt was this light piece of plastic vibrating in your hand. Let’s just say I was not impressed.
The final blow Microsoft managed to land on Sony’s flimsy controllers was the Xbox Elite Controller and the superb customisability of even the stock controller button layouts – per game no less!
Xbox Live and Services
It is not secret that Microsoft was the first company that successfully launched online gaming for consoles. Sure, they weren’t the pioneers (Sega were), but they were the first to get it right. Xbox Live is a very well-designed network and how it integrates with games. Microsoft’s push to enable cross-platform play between consoles should also be praised. I think it’s the right thing to do for gamers and Nintendo agrees. However, if I was playing on a Sony Playstation with a PS controller, I would sure have my behind kicked sooner than I can say “hey!”. Maybe I can see why they are scared… 😉
I would like to see Microsoft re-enable Xbox Live for original Xbox games – and keep it alive for Xbox 360 games. In fact, some of the most popular titles could get a rotation on Xbox Live with certain weekends dedicated to oldies where the service is enabled for that game for everyone to join in. That way, the smaller but faithful community for those older games could get together and have a blast.
Why the Xbox One X
The Xbox One X makes a lot of sense to me. Finally, Microsoft is back on the horse. They have engineered an Xbox that will be a tough act to follow for Sony. They have the best controllers, the best online services, an amazing catalogue of games over 3 console generations that will be playable on the machine over time – at great performance and improved graphical fidelity.
On that note, I would actually like to see Microsoft applying higher anti-aliasing to Xbox 360 and original Xbox games than they were originally released with. I know it’s not as simple as applying texture filtering which will be done, but I think it would improve visual fidelity greatly if jaggies were gone from older generation games. Microsoft, please make it happen!
As you might have guessed, jaggies are the last bug-bear I have with video games of today and the Xbox One X will be the first console that promises to eliminate them by either a 4K resolution or downsampling for 1080p screens. I have to say that even the Xbox One S made grate strides to reduce them though. Have you tried the 4K output of the Xbox One S? It reduces jaggies considerably so for me it was worth of price of admission – especially with a UHD Blu Ray drive.
As I said earlier, I think the Xbox One X could also become a machine that is kept alive beyond the Xbox One S and play next-generation games – albeit at a lower resolution or graphical fidelity. Nonetheless, if Microsoft are smart enough, they will ensure games will be forwards compatible (play on older consoles), and actually the plumbing they have been doing under the hood of the Xbox One family of consoles will enable them to do just that – and much easier than the challenge of porting games back and forth through the generations. This is something Sony has not even begun to work on and enable properly, and I think over time, it could cost them their console business or at least a considerable amount of business. However, we want Microsoft on their toes and not get complacent so long live Sony!
In any case, that is only my view of why I love the Xbox brand. Whichever console you play, enjoy! Let me know in the comments below why you love your Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo or whatever else you’re playing. Happy Gaming!
Reflecting on UHD Blu Ray as a format a year after its introduction…
Any video disc standard of past has taken time to shine. Both DVD and Blu Ray in fact took a year to start producing content that was better than the previous standards – VHS and DVD respectively. I remember the first round of Blu Ray discs: barely better than DVDs when the DVDs were played on top of the range hardware having the best chips for cleaning, filtering and sharpening the image. What I have seen with UHD Blu Ray is déjà vu all over again.
UHD Blu Ray – the Theoretical Benefits
There are three major benefits of the new UHD standard that should theoretically overshoot Blu Ray by a large margin:
4K Resolution: 4x the pixel density of Blu Ray resulting in a much sharper image.
Wide Colour Gamut (BT.2020): a much wider range of colours that can be displayed on screen resulting in more realistic colours when used correctly.
High Dynamic Range (HDR): giving the image more contrast, more depth, and a much higher range of brightness variations depending on the display the disc is played on. The brightness variation is not only in the highlights – for those in the know – as that is only the recommendation for use. However, HDR is already being used in more creative ways.
The Reality Today
Unfortunately, a year on we are still waiting to be amazed by the new standard and here is why:
Standard Blu Ray is a very mature technology. In fact, the video compression technology (AVC or H.264) for standard Blu Ray has had more than 10 years to mature to ensure image quality, integrity and sharpness are at their optimum. The compression technology for UHD Blu Ray (HEVC or H.265) on the other hand is still in its infancy by comparison. It has not reached the same level of efficiency in its ability to keep all the detail in the picture as AVC has, nowhere near in fact. [note: HEVC is more efficient than AVC but comparatively looking at its own life-cycle it isn’t at the same maturity!] There is a lot more to come from HEVC in the coming years. However, we are now at a point where HEVC is starting to shine.
The Blu Ray players, upscaling chips and upscaling technologies we have for standard Blu Ray have also had 10 years to mature and have they matured alright! We have image enhancement technologies using contrast enhancement (Darbee) as well as Super Resolution algorithms (e.g. JVC’s Eshift, Sony’s Reality Creation) that when used together easily rival UHD 4K images by analysing information on pixel by pixel and frame by frame basis to fill in the missing pixels.
The data-rate used for the first round of UHD Blu Rays is still only at just above standard Blu Ray levels. This is because only the 50GB and 66GB UHD Blu Rays have been efficient enough to manufacture. The promised 100GB discs are not yet standard. This is a huge drawback.
The compression (or authoring) software used to make UHD Blu Rays is nowhere near as mature as it is for Blu Ray. This means compressionists have had less control over where bits are allocated for the most optimal picture quality for these first year discs.
However, even if they used the new 100GB discs, the images wouldn’t be sharper. In fact, around 95% of movies released on UHD Blu Ray in the first year were sourced from 2K masters upscaled to 4K as opposed to proper 4K images. This is partly because most films – especially that need heavy CGI – upto now have been finished at 2K resolution. To go back and re-do the CGI at 4K would be very costly. However, the trend is now changing due to the 4K push.
Even if a movie is finished at 4K, we know from working with standard 1080p Blu Ray that the best examples of the format are those discs that have been sourced from imagery 4x the resolution: in this case 4K. This is because there is more information to work with when cleaning up the picture for digital storage. Also, more high-frequency information – and therefore finer detail – can be captured by downscaling an image from a higher resolution digital source. So it stands to conclude that the best UHD discs will come from digital intermediates (DIs) that are at least 6K or higher resolution. In fact this is what we see as the best examples of the format. More on that in a moment.
If the difficulty of getting the imagery captured, prepared and compressed wasn’t enough, there are a few design and few teething issues with the format as well:
HDR as designed for UHD Blu Ray only takes into consideration flat panel TVs and not projection. This is an oversight of massive proportions. It isn’t even that the cinema HDR standard wasn’t ready, as Dolby Vision (one of the HDR standards) is used for Cinema HDR in the US. Even Dolby didn’t push for this to be in the standard, as Dolby Vision for UHD Blu Ray and in the cinema are two different standards. Having said that, a year on we have ways to calibrate projectors that emulate Dolby Vision or HDR10 (the most commonly used HDR standard), but it is not fully accurate to what the director intended. In fact, we have no way of getting fully accurate imagery for projection for HDR at this point.
HDR10, the most commonly used standard, has had no dynamic meta-data until recently. Dynamic meta-data is required for HDR as the mastering displays that UHD Blu Rays are created on have vastly different performance characteristics than our TVs and projectors in the home. Our TVs and projectors have a fraction of the colour palette or brightness to play with when displaying the images, therefore we need a way to tell the display how to interpret the data to be accurate to what the director intended. Dolby Vision has this information but HDR10 is now catching up, slowly.
The Wide Colour Gamut should be something that allows a more accurate representation of what we see in the cinema. The cinema standard colour gamut, DCI P3, fits into the colour gamut of UHD Blu Ray (Bt.2020). However, instead what has been happening in some cases is movie studios thinking they should differentiate the UHD Blu Rays by “turning colour up to 10” and using a palette that at times does not look natural, or faithful to the cinema presentation. They do this to give you more of a “thrill”, however, this is where immaturity of using the format shows. It destroys the original creative intent.
The Future Starts Now
I believe the future is here. We are now starting to see UHD Blu Rays that are in fact bettering Blu Rays by a wide margin due to some of the above issues having been addressed. I will mention two that have just come out, almost exactly a year after launching the first round of UHD Blu Rays:
Planet Earth II: this BBC series was captured at mostly 6K resolution using some of the best cameras and downscaled to UHD Blu Ray. It really shows what the format can do today.
Passengers (2016): this heart-warming Sci Fi was also captured at over 6K resolution and downscaled for capture onto UHD Blu Ray. What’s more, the movie’s colour palette is faithful to the original cinema presentation. This is how UHD Blu Ray should be done, ladies and gentlemen. The presentation is a nice cut above Blu Ray.
What’s Next for the Format?
As we have seen with Blu Ray and with DVD before it, UHD Blu Ray is just coming into its teenage years. The format still has a lot of road to travel and we can expect the following as it matures:
Compression technology, HEVC, will improve further over the next couple of years to be more efficient and also to produce sharper and more nuanced images.
Authoring software will improve to provide optimal bitrate to the right places in the bitstream.
100GB discs will become the norm providing almost twice the bitrate of today’s disks.
Image enhancement technologies such as Darbee and Super Resolution algorithms will be adopted for 4K images, bringing out even more detail in the picture.
The majority of movies will be scanned and then finished at 6K and even 8K resolutions, providing the best starting point for retaining high-frequency detail and therefore image sharpness.
HDR technology will continue to mature both in its implementation and in its use by movie studios.
Movie studios will stop playing with Wide Colour Gamut as a new toy and will respect the creative intent and integrity of the original works.
So in conclusion, we haven’t yet seen the best this format will be able to do. The format has a lot of headroom to improve – in fact more than previous technologies – and we will see some phenomenal picture quality from this format over time.
Everyone was rejoicing when Blu Ray’s standard allowed manufacturers to include uncompressed sound on disks. Most certainly Blu Ray’s provide much improved sound but did you know that even DVDs allowed sound with more precision than some of today’s Blu Ray’s have? Let me explain…
Perceptual coding in terms of audio and video means removal of information that cannot be perceived or distinguished by the human visual or auditory systems (your eyes and your ears). In even simpler terms, it is removal of stuff that you would not actually notice if it was removed. Why is this important? Well, it allows us to cram a 3 hour movie on a disk at a quality that would normally take about 25 Blu Ray disks.
If you have limited space or bandwidth, perceptual coding is ALWAYS going to give you better quality than lossless / uncompressed data. This is true for both video and audio. For example, if we were to take the data rate of uncompressed audio on Blu Ray today and we were to use perceptual coding using the same bitrate, we would be able to allocate more bits and more precision to data that we can actually perceive which would give higher perceived quality. In the same space, we could have movie soundtracks running at 96Khz sampling rate (96 samples a second) and 32bit precision of the individual samples, which would give audio a completely lifelike sound.
The Reality of Movie Soundtracks
Unfortunately, when it comes to movie soundtracks – unlike music – very few have been recorded and mixed at the higher sampling rate. This means that uncompressed sound at the current sampling rate (48Khz) and bit precision (16 to 24bits) is as good as it gets until studios decide otherwise. But it is good to know nevertheless that you don’t necessarily want lossless coding, especially when you have limited bandwidth. Lossy coding – if done correctly – will give better sound and picture at the same bandwidth.
While We Wait
While we wait, there are ways that sound can be much improved in a Home Cinema. I will be talking about these in the coming weeks.