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Here comes 1080p—Maybe

Wed, 11/30/2005 - 7:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Suppose you do a Google search on 1080p. You come up with a bunch of hits. There are real hardware products on the market, both displays and DVD players—but not, evidently, any 1080p DVDs to play. And maybe Hollywood wants to keep it that way.

Let's translate: 1080p is short for 1080/60p, which means a picture that is 1920×1080 pixels in size, 60 frames per second, with progressive scanning. That's better than either of the two high definition broadcast standards, 720p (1280×720 pixels, 60 frames per second, progressive scanning) and 1080i (1920×1080 pixels, 30 frames per second, interlace scanning). It's much better than 480p DVDs (640×480, 60 frames per second, progressive scanning) and much, much better than 480i NTSC television (640×840, 30 frames per second, interlace scanning).

Beginning earlier this year, a number of TV receivers claiming to have 1080p resolution were introduced to the market. Sharp has models on the market ranging from 37 inches to 65 inches, at prices between $5,000 and $15,000. LG has a 71-inch monster for $75,000. And there are plenty more.

A 1080p receiver has the potential to deliver a sharper picture than a receiver with a native picture format of 1080i or 720p. It's the highest resolution available, at least for now. But for now, there is no 1080p programming. There is 1080i and 720p programming—all the HD broadcasts are one or the other, depending on the broadcaster. So the 1080p display upconverts the 1080i or 720p picture by using some kind of software interpolation or line doubling.

Jeffrey Krauss
What's the likelihood of broadcasters ever delivering 1080p pictures? Pretty slim. It's hard enough to fit a 1080i picture into a 6 MHz wide broadcast channel, which can carry a payload of up to 19 Mbps. With a picture content of double 1080i, a 1080p signal just won't fit. Or at least, it won't fit using MPEG-2 picture coding. It might fit using AVC or VC-1 advanced picture coding, but broadcasters don't have any plans to do that. Programmers, particularly HDNet, have expressed interest in delivering 1080p programming. But even they agree that the first uses of 1080p will be on the production side, with movies being shot with 1080p cameras and produced electronically. Will this mean that we can say goodbye to 35 mm film in theaters?

Maybe next year there will be some industry agreement on a single standard for high definition DVDs. Or maybe not. Anyway, high definition DVD movies shown on a 1080p display ought to be stunning, even if they are upconverted from 1080i or 720p.

If you want to watch DVDs today and display them at the 1080p resolution, there are at least two DVD players that provide upconversion to 1080p. One is from Denon, and costs $4,000. Too much? There's one from neodigits.com for less than $300. They both have HDMI digital output ports for the 1080p signal. But in addition, the neodigits.com box has a wideband analog component output port. And, unlike the HDMI output, this analog output port is not copy-protected.

Copy protection is a major issue for Hollywood. The neodigits.com box in effect expands the "analog hole" in the broadcast copy protection rules that the FCC adopted in 2003. Never mind that the Courts have struck down the FCC's "broadcast flag" rules because the FCC did not have statutory authority to enact them. The movie studios plan to get Congress to give the FCC the necessary authority. Maybe they'll succeed, maybe not. But even if they do, the FCC's rules don't cover analog interfaces, only digital interfaces. So Hollywood may decide to withhold 1080p DVDs if it can't control copying.

The neodigits.com analog output port might or might not work with 1080p displays. Because a 1080p signal has a higher bandwidth than 1080i or 720p, it might require special cables or special connectors. Unlike the industry standard for wideband analog component video ports at 720p and 1080i, there is no industry standard for 1080p. But even in the absence of a standard, manufacturers can get together in "plugfests" to make sure their products work compatibly with one another.

In addition, there are no consumer digital recording devices that are able to make copies from these wideband analog component video ports—not today, at least. But the movie studios understand that hardware development can move quickly, so they oppose the development of an interface standard for this port, and in fact, they try to convince digital recorder manufacturers to include only copy-protected digital HDMI ports on their products.

The bottom line is that the 1080p hardware is way ahead of the software. Even though 1080p displays might produce gorgeous pictures from 1080p programming, there is no 1080p programming, and there won't be for the foreseeable future. But if you're the person who has to be the first one on your block with the very best, then 1080p is for you.

Have a comment? Contact Jeff via e-mail at: jkrauss@krauss.ws

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