We sat down with Sky's Andrew Olson to discover the future of Sky Q and how 4K TV will be delivered
I’ve been impressed with Sky Q, with the system completely changing how premium TV can be watched, both inside and outside of the home. It came as a much-needed change for Sky, bringing the features that people expect from Netflix to a platform that delivers the best in new TV shows, sports and films. This is really just the start of Sky Q, as it will an evolving platform for the next few years. To find out what Sky has in store for us, I sat down with Andrew Olson, director of new products at Sky, to find out why the platform was introduced, how it was made and how Ultra High Definition (4K) TV will be delivered.
It’s the latter point that’s the most interesting, with the Sky Q Silver box Ultra HD ready. As Olson says, Sky is set to deliver the “UK’s broadest Ultra HD service” later this year. The burning question is, how will Sky Q deliver Ultra HD? My first guess, given that the Silver box has a reserved tuner inside it, was that the service would have to combine multiple tuners to deliver a 4K image over satellite. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong.
“4K will use one tuner. We’re taking advantage of the economies of satellite,” said Olson, pointing out that satellite transmission is an efficient and high-bandwidth method of covering an entire country.
By using a single tuner, getting 4K will not affect how the rest of the system works and won’t reduce the Sky Q silver box’s capabilities. It also takes broadband speed out the equation and means 4K content can be delivered to all customers. This is the opposite of BT Sport Ultra HD, which needs a super-fast broadband connection to deliver the live channel. Sky has promised that the content will by full resolution and delivered at 50fps, making it twice the frame rate and four times the resolution of existing content. See, the Expert Reviews guide to 4K content for more information.
On-demand Ultra HD
That’s not to say that all of Sky’s content will be delivered live, as the majority of content will be delivered on-demand via the internet. This is largely due to a lack of content to fill live channels.
“Some content will be live; others will be on-demand,” says Olson. “Ultra HD will be biased towards on-demand, rather than linear.”
Sky will follow the same route for Ultra HD on-demand as it does for its existing on-demand services. Full-quality content is downloaded directly to the box and played from its hard disk. This means that quality is better than with streaming, as you get the full broadcast quality, and that broadband speed doesn’t come into the equation (other than the physical amount of time it takes to download the content).
One of the big things about Ultra HD is HDR, delivering better dynamic range and brighter visuals in films particularly. It’s a technology that Sky believes it will be able to implement.
“We’re looking at HDR, but the specs for live HDR have not been delivered for ratification,” says Olson, explaining that the Blu-ray HDR standard is ratified. “We’re confident that specs will be completed in a way that will work with our chips.”
One of the challenges with bringing Sky Q and all of its features to your home was having to work with all of the rights owners, as Sky wanted to rebroadcast TV inside your house and provide recordings for offline viewing. The fact that so much was done, shows the changing way that traditional media companies are now viewing on-demand and flexible viewing. If Sky Q had launched a few years ago, I think that some companies simply wouldn’t want their content available in these ways, afraid of losing control of it and piracy. Fortunately, we’re now in an age where people expect flexibility and everyone was keen to work with Sky Q.
“Producers, filmmakers, TV studios and channels were great and really saw the concept and wanted to take part,” says Olson.
In fact, the only channel that won’t let its recordings be downloaded for offline viewing, via Q Sync, is the BBC, although you can already download shows using its mobile iPlayer app.
“The BBC is a unique entity, but we’re working together,” explains Olson. “With the BBC, all live TV is available everywhere.”
Designed in the UK
What’s particularly impressive about Sky Q is that it was entirely designed in the UK, right through to the UI and software.
“Every line of code, all of it, was done here in England,” says Olson. “We build the boxes ourselves. We’re end-to-end.”
Whether you love Sky or not, that’s quite an achievement and Sky has delivered something that’s completely different to any other TV service anywhere in the world, making the most of older technologies, such as satellite, and modern internet-driven TV.