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4K HDR on Sky Q? Wait ‘til a standard’s ready

Sky has dropped some more hints on the shape that Sky Q could take in the future, but right now any progress on things like support for HDR (High Dynamic Range), 5.1.4 surround sound and VR is very much at the early stages. 

Recombu recently got to chat to Andrew Olson, Sky’s creative director of new products, who told us that we’re more likely to see improvements rolling out to the existing Sky Q tablet apps and the eventual launch of equivalent apps for phones

As well as that, Olson, said that we can expect to see a gradual improvement of how the Sky Q user interface serves up recommendations. 

Sky is ‘capturing more data than it ever has’ in terms of not just what customers are watching, but how they’re discovering that content. At the moment, Sky Q analyses what’s been viewed throughout the day and uses that information to power the next day’s recommendations. 

“We’ll continue to look at [the UI] and make sure we evolve it in little ways that are seamless and behind the scenes to the customer but will actually make it work that much better,” said Olson. 

“We’ll look at what we’ve learned about how the way people navigate and see if there’s better ways to tweak the organisation of content based on what we’ve seen people doing, are they going more to this section than that section, and so on. So there’ll be lots of things like that.” 

Reflecting the multi-room nature of Sky Q, this happens not just on the main set-top box but on the Q Mini hardware too. 

“When we set up a demo of Sky Q at the Q Rooms [an early press demo of Sky Q installed in a London apartment] it was a fresh demo box that had been set up over the weekend and the family’s young son had watched a lot of Thomas The Tank Engine and Peppa Pig. The viewer profile was 100 per cent cartoons. After a day’s worth of demos the profile was more of an even split between that and the more grown-up content that I’d been playing. By day two and three, you could literally see the recommendations change day by day and also throughout the parts of the day. 

“Because what we’re doing with the Recommendations profile is per device and per time of day, so in the morning it might show cartoons but by the evening time it’d change that up. It was quite fascinating, after 10 hours of demos over four days to watch the recommendations evolve.”

You’ll see perpetual change

Over time, subtle changes to the UI might see customers able to get to what they want even more quickly. While Sky is keen to explore how new pathways can, in Olson’s words ‘permeate throughout the UI’, the company doesn’t want to overwhelm customers with too many options. 

Olson said that the curated Top Picks section, which currently only features links to on-demand content, is doing ‘really well’ and that recommendations for other types of content could appear there in the future. 

Likewise, Continue, a subsection of the My Q menu that updates with new episodes of TV shows once they’re available has also proven popular. 

“What we do find is that on traditional TV, the majority of shows are still watched live,” Olson said. “This means that the next episode isn’t going to be available at that moment, but if it’s already set up to record, we can bring that into that Continue experience, or when it becomes available on demand it’ll immediately show up there.” 

VR troopers

Sky News takes Jaunt VR camera rig to the Migrants CrisisGiven that Sky’s recently announced that it’s investing in a new studio that’s solely dedicated to VR, we couldn’t help but wonder if Sky’s new TV service will eventually support it in some way. 

Olson describes Sky’s recent investment as something of a sideline to his day job but says it’s ‘fascinating’ nonetheless.  

“I think that having spoken to quite a few people in the States, I think it’s very very nascent,” said Olson. “I think [VR] is an amazing thing [but] I don’t think anybody knows what it’s really great for yet. 

“There are absolutely interesting and compelling cases for narrative storytelling in virtual reality, but I think we’re just scratching the surfaces of the challenges of that. How long a narrative story arc really works with the headset on that way… I don’t think anyone really knows yet. The social opportunities are fascinating as well, so it’s just a really interesting area. It’s tremendously fun, frankly, to be here at the beginning of it.” 

Olson compared the current state of virtual reality technology to the Talkies era of cinema, noting that the current crop of immersive experiences, especially on devices like Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR, where a phone stands in as a makeshift screen, will limit what VR can do in the short term. 

“I don’t know much about this myself but I’ve certainly heard people speculating about how many generations of phone we’ll go through before VR capability is in the hardware chipset. But I think that things like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are really interesting and show you more of where VR could go.” 

HDR on Sky Q: Coming when standards are done

VR maybe be a few generations of phone and headset down the line before the likes of Sky and others figure out how it’ll fit into the broadcasting picture, but what about HDR and 5.1.4 surround sound?

“We’re definitely looking at it and experimenting with [HDR], but there’s really no TVs commercially available, to speak of that can even support this right now and in fact the HDR spec for Blu-ray is finalised, but there really isn’t a finalised specification for HDR in live [TV]. 

“I would say I’m cautiously hopeful that the standards bodies will end up at a place where we’re able to support that, but I’m also very wary about predicting what standards will be before they’re done… There are physical limits to what the chips can do if someone wants to do some radical, crazy thing.” 

BT Sport Ultra HD: Details of 4K HDR trials emergeEarlier this year, the BBC was able to shed some light on how HDR production standards are progressing; proposals for standards have finally been submitted to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), but as BBC R&D’s Simon Thompson and Andrew Cotton say, ‘it will take time’ before anything’s set in stone. Speaking at IBC 2015, BT TV head Delia Bushell estimated that HDR content could be with us by 2017 at the earliest. In short, we’ve got a bit of a wait on our hands. 

With regard to whether future surround sound standards like 7.1 and 5.1.4 will be supported Olson said: “The benchmark for us is ‘how many customers will really benefit?’ We prioritise things to a degree by how many customers can make their lives better [with a feature]. We’re definitely looking at all of those different things… We do support 5.1 today as that goes over HDMI as well, so it’s also practical.” 

Sky’s 4K Ultra HD channels are due to arrive on Sky Q Silver boxes at some point this year. There’s no official launch date as of yet, but it’s been said that Ultra HD channels will be live ‘in time for the summer’ – presumably before the launch of the next Premier League season. There’s also no information on how much extra these channels might cost, or if they’ll be offered as part of an existing bundle. 

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