On the program of last week’s Over the Top (OTT) Conference in San Jose was the newly enhanced high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) specification.

First announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2003, HDMI has since been adopted by more than 900 vendors and built into more than a billion devices. In May 2009, HDMI Licensing, LLC announced the features of HDMI 1.4, an enhanced specification released to support better video and reduce cable clutter.

In December, HDMI Licensing announced additional support for 3D. (For more, click here and here).

At the OTT Conference, Chandlee Harrell, chief technologist at Silicon Image, one of the seven HDMI founding companies and the owner of HDMI Licensing, discussed some the specification’s details and prospects. Harrell said the first HDMI 1.4 devices are expected to ship this year, with substantial adoption expected in 2011.

“High definition is everywhere,” Harrell said. “We are trying to enable HD content not only in your living room but also your car, your mobile phone, and everywhere you go.”

To address this need, the specification includes two new connector types.

A tiny connector will make it easy to share video from phones, cameras and other mobile devices. The mobile device cable will not support power so consumers will need a separate cable to charge their portable devices.  A more robust cable has been designed for cars for transmitting video from the trunk or devices brought into the car to displays in the dashboard and seats.

High quality

The new spec promises to improve both the resolution and color quality.

On the resolution side, it supports 4096×2160 pixels at 24 Hz, but only 3840×2160 at faster 30 Hz frame-rates. This is four times higher than the resolutions previously available. Harrell said Hollywood is doing a lot of high-resolution mastery and Japanese broadcasters are planning 4K rollouts in 2010.

It also includes more color spaces, which are optimized for different types of content.

RGB is the dominant color space used for video today. HDMI 1.4 will add support for three additional color spaces which use a wide color palette for better images.  These new spaces are called sYCC601, Adobe RGB, and Adobe YCC601.

Three-dimensional

The new spec also promises to enable 3D connectivity into a new generation of TV sets.

“3D has come to video and cinema a few times in the past, but it has been more of a fad,” Harrell said. “The studios are starting to get better feedback now, so there is a better chance for it to take hold this time around. This is a major milestone for bringing 3D gaming and home theater to the mass market.”

There was an effort to enable 3D even though it was still on the horizon when HDMI was first developed some eight years ago. Now it’s approaching center stage. “3D is being driven hard by the content providers because they found some good money in the theater market,” Harrell said.

There is still some room to improve 3D technology, but it has good momentum. The new spec supports the major common 3D formats, including a high-end quality of 1080p per eye. There is also support for Internet video services to deliver 3D content including side-by-side horizontal, side-by-side quincunx, and top/bottom formats.

Fewer cables

Consumers are facing a war against cable clutter as they incorporate new devices into their home theater systems. The HDMI 1.4 specification will help reduce the number of audio and Ethernet cables.

The existing HDMI spec supported audio, but in only one direction. Consumers needed an additional cable to bring audio from their TV set to their stereo. The new spec adds an audio return channel that eliminates the need for an S/PDIF cable from the TV set to the amplifier.

One of the more significant upgrades is support for HMDI Ethernet Channel (HEC), which eliminates the need for a separate Ethernet cable for each device.

“This is an enabler for the Internet-based applications we all see coming,” Harrell said. “We can imagine getting an MPEG transport from the cable provider that could get stored in various devices in the home.”

But more Ethernet

Ethernet connectivity is being built into a growing number of consumer electronics devices. In 2009, 25 percent of all consumer electronics devices including 100 percent of all video game consoles and 80 percent of all Blu-Ray players included Ethernet.

HEC consolidates the audio, video and data networking into the same cable. It supports 100 Mbps and switching in the devices. Consumers will be able to use HDMI to connect devices over short ranges, and wired Ethernet cables to connect between devices in different rooms.

With HEC, the goal is to instantly enable Ethernet switching within the home theater stack. All of the devices just connect to the TV set, which in turn connects to the Internet. Furthermore, you can transport video between rooms using the Ethernet networks.

The new spec is backwards compatible with existing HDMI cables and equipment.

Consumers will be able to use the same cable to take advantage of most of the features of the new spec including 3D, audio return, and high-resolution formats. But HEC will require a new cable that is plug-compatible with existing HDMI cable but which includes extra wires inside to support data. Networking enabled devices and cables will include an HEC logo on the packaging.

To summarize, several key features in HDMI 1.4 include the following:

  • HDMI Ethernet Channel (HEC)
  • Audio return channel
  • 3D
  • 4k x 2k pixel video
  • More color spaces
  • New connectors for mobile and automotive

For a popular background article on HDMI from 2007, click here. For additional coverage of last week’s OTT Conference, click here.

–George Lawton

The Daily

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