Super Hi-Vision – could this be the future of TV?

Trials of the BBC's ultra-HD technology during the Olympics prompted some viewers to say "it's like being in the stadium". Tom Cole went along for a closer look...

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There’s an episode of Matt Groening’s animated sci-fi series Futurama in which time traveller Fry describes TV in the year 3000 as having better resolution than the real world. Well, we may not have to wait quite that long to see what he means…

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The BBC has joined forces with Japan’s national broadcaster NHK and Olympic Broadcasting Services to launch something almost as advanced – Super Hi-Vision – which may well prove to be the future of television.

Boasting pictures 16 times sharper than HDTV and utilising 22.2 multi-channel surround-sound (compared with the 5.1 specification found in most well-equipped cinemas), Super Hi-Vision is the most detailed and immersive viewing technology in the world and it’s currently being trialled here in the UK to coincide with the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Ever since the first live Olympic radio transmissions from Paris in 1924, the Games have been used by broadcasters to showcase next-generation tech. The 1948 London Games pioneered outside broadcasting; the 1964 Games in Tokyo showcased colour television; and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were the first to be transmitted in high definition, which didn’t become mainstream until 20 years later.

And so it is that London 2012 has been chosen to demonstrate the capabilities of this new and emerging technology, which has been in development in Japan since the late 1990s.

The first Super Hi-Vision broadcast took place over the weekend, when an edited version of this year’s Olympic opening ceremony was screened in venues in Britain, Japan and the USA, and last night the fourth such transmission took place, showcasing live swimming from the Olympic Aquatic Centre on a cinema-sized screen.

I was present for last night’s broadcast and found myself genuinely wowed by the quality of the pictures and sound provided by Super Hi-Vision. The specially-designed cameras used to create Super Hi-Vis images capture 120 frames per second (versus between 25 and 60 taken by HD equipment), and the resulting pictures don’t look like recorded video but more like, well, real life. Indeed, Dr Keiichi Kubota of NHK pointed out at last night’s screening that the company had been “investing a lot of time and passion in making Super Hi-Vision as close to reality as possible.” 

In the context of the Games, the new technology is being billed as a way of giving viewers the closest possible experience to actually being inside the Olympic venues, and the effect is certainly engrossing. 

In addition to the swimming, those watching alongside me at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in London were treated to the new cut of the opening ceremony, which looked sumptuous enough on regular HDTV but was truly breathtaking in Super Hi-Vision.

You could make out the faces and actions of every single person in shot, whether they were performing or just sat in the stands, and later it genuinely felt as though I was in the crowd at the Aquatic Centre, watching the swimming as it took place.

From the focal points front and centre, to details at the margins of the screen, Super Hi-Vision captures everything and allows the viewer to scrutinise even the tiniest detail, all the while being subjected to breathtaking multi-directional sound, with speakers arranged strategically around the viewing environment.

Responses to the new technology from members of the public have been just as positive, with comments like “the sound was fantastic,” “the picture was amazing” and “you really do feel like you’re in the stadium,” having been uttered by early Super Hi-Vision viewers.

While there are only three Super Hi-Vision cameras currently extant in the world, NHK’s engineers hope to launch a domestic service using the technology by 2020 at the latest, with the consensus between both the BBC and NHK’s research and development departments being that this technology will become mainstream within our lifetime.

Super Hi-Vision also has the potential for other applications than just sharpening up TV, and Dr Kubota revealed that physicians are interested in using the technology to provide high-quality pictures for use in medical diagnoses.

While its widespread take-up is still probably some years away, and the current “monitors” used to display Super Hi-Vision are far too big for the average home, Super Hi-Vision is genuinely impressive and unlike anything you’ll have seen before.

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In fact, if you get the chance, I’d advise you book yourself a ticket to one of the BBC’s Super Hi-Vision Olympic screenings and see for yourself just what the future of TV might look like…