Sharper, better pictures and sounds

IEC Standardization work is instrumental in driving multimedia growth

By Morand Fachot

Multimedia users are constantly expecting better audio and video quality on their equipment whether they access content on large or smaller, mainly mobile devices. A number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) prepare International Standards to ensure this is possible for the greater benefit of industry and consumers.

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Seeing the bigger – and the smaller – pictures

At all major international consumer electronics events, like the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, IFA in Berlin or IBC in the Netherlands, manufacturers and the entertainment industry showcase high-quality multimedia equipment, which has become the norm and no longer the exception.

The digitization of sounds and pictures has made it possible to improve their quality and increase the number of services and their distribution.

Offering high-resolution video, in particular, and audio content is also a major marketing argument for manufacturers and the entertainment industry.

New display technologies are driving up the sales of equipment worldwide. The rollout of 4K or UHDTV (ultra high definition TV), which offers four times the resolution of current 1080p HD, is forecast to bring about a spectacular growth in the sale of sets.

Only 63 000 UHDTV sets were sold in 2012; 1,9 million units were shipped in 2013 and sales are expected to exceed 12,5 million units in 2014, according to a December 2013 industry survey. One key factor in this dramatic growth is falling prices.

Display is the key

Sharper video, the main driver behind higher sales of multimedia equipment, is the result of major advances in displays as flat screens rapidly displaced CRT (cathode ray tube) screens, first in IT equipment and later in the TV environment.

A variety of flat panel technologies, based first on plasma, then on LED (light-emitting diode) and, more recently, OLED (organic LED) and AMOLED (active-matrix OLED) offer better picture quality, response time, superior brightness and contrast. In addition, each generation of these technologies can operate at lower voltages and is more energy efficient than the one it replaces, resulting in longer battery life on mobile devices, which also benefit from developments in display technologies that include flexible displays.

Key TC for multimedia equipment

IEC TC 110 prepares International Standards in the field of electronic display devices (excluding CRTs) and specific relevant components. It was initially established as SC (Subcommittee) 47C in 1998 under TC 47: Semiconductor devices, focusing on standards development in the area of flat panel display before being transformed into a full TC in June 2003. At the time it began to encompass standardization work in OLED, 3DDD (3 dimensional display devices for 3DTV), EPD or non-volatile display devices, FDD (flexible display devices) and other emerging technologies. It works on terms and definitions, letter symbols, essential ratings and characteristics, measuring methods, specifications for quality assurance and related test methods and reliability.

To cover all devices, TC 110 established eight WG (Working Groups), each one dealing with a specific area including touch and interactive displays – which are now to be found in many devices and systems – and LDD (laser display devices).

TC 110 works closely with a number of IEC TCs, in particular TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment. As regulations in most countries now require reducing waste material and energy use through recycling, reuse of components and more energy-efficient appliances, it also works directly with TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems.

Sound still essential

In spite of the widely held view that high-performance audio was losing the prominent position it had in the entertainment sphere a few decades ago, it has been making a significant comeback in a different guise with connected and wireless devices.

Its renewal is also the result of the yearning to have high-quality audio for high-resolution video.

The 2014 Las Vegas CES offers evidence that high-performance audio is a vibrant sector, even if it didn't make the same striking headlines as UHDTV, connected appliances or 3D printing. No less than 565 out of over 3 530 CES 2014 exhibitors classified themselves as "high-performance audio companies".

New possibilities, such as live streaming of concerts or music, open up further opportunities for the sector.

One of the well-established issues in quality audio systems was – and still is – connectivity of certain cables. Reconnecting all the cables of the numerous components of stereo systems after a move used to represent a challenge. However that is receding, with the gradual adoption of wireless connectivity for high-performance audio.

IEC standardization support for high-quality audio

IEC standardization work for audio equipment predates the 1995 creation of TC 100, which was formed from the merger of several existing TCs and SCs. Its contribution to audio standardization includes the IEC 60268 series on Sound system equipment. This covers many audio components and applications, including amplifiers, loudspeakers, headphones and earphones, automatic gain control devices and the application of connectors for the interconnection of sound system components and for broadcast and similar uses.

Countless other IEC Standards cover various characteristics of audio equipment.

Not just about hardware

Standards for high-quality audio and video are not limited to equipment alone but concern also software.

To overcome the prospect of the spectrum bottleneck resulting from the large amount of bandwidth used by analogue signals, countries, broadcasters and regulators decided to move to digital transmission. This required the development of advanced compression coding/decoding standards for audio and video content that could be used in digital broadcasting and other applications. MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group), a working group of experts, was formed by the IEC and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) in 1988 to prepare these types of Standards jointly with ITU-T (International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector) Study Group 166, Multimedia, also known as VCEG (Video Coding Experts Group).

The first of the Group's five-part series, also known as MPEG-1, was published in 1993 by ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1/SC 29: Coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information.

The latest digital compression coding/decoding standard developed by the Group, ISO/IEC23008-2, High efficiency video coding (HEVC), or ITU-T H.265, was published in December 2013. It will allow the storage and distribution of UHDTV content.

Considerable economic impact

The economic impact of IEC International Standards for multimedia equipment and of the IEC's participation in the development of digital compression coding/decoding Standards cannot be overemphasized. A highly significant and growing share of the global broadcast media industry market, which is expected to reach nearly USD 600 billion in 2017, relies entirely on these Standards.

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TC 110 Standards are used in all devices, large and small TC 110 Standards are used in all devices, large and small
High-definition headphones (Photo: Philips) High-definition headphones (Photo: Philips)