Beyond Resolution: From HD to 4K

Ultra HD is destined to be the next great leap forward for high-quality home entertainment.

Just as HDTV gave us a fourfold increase in video resolution over standard definition, Ultra HD (aka 4K) allows another quadrupling of picture clarity. (4K refers to the nearly 4,000 pixels per line of video.)

Ultra HD offers a truly immersive visual experience, featuring exquisite detail and eye-popping colors. Homes will be filled with entire curved walls of video, displaying images so stunningly clear and realistic as to look and feel like wide windows to the world.

But sharper resolution alone may not be sufficient for market acceptance. Fortunately, some additional technologies are converging to enhance the overall consumer value proposition: more accurate colors, greater contrast between light and dark tones, higher frame rates, and better surround sound. This bundled package of benefits will give consumers multiple bangs for the buck.

For those who lived through the painfully slow adoption of HDTV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s a déjà vu situation. Ultra HD must overcome three major market hurdles:

-a critical mass of content;

-a new consumer equipment cycle, and;

-prodigious bandwidth, a commodity for which there never seems to be sufficient supply.

The content is steadily coming out of the woodwork and 4K display prices are rapidly declining, leaving sufficient bandwidth to more homes as perhaps the biggest stumbling block. Ultra HD titles are typically encoded at 15–20 Mbps using the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard; even higher rates are needed for content shot at 60 frames per second. Netflix recommends a minimum of 25 Mbps broadband speed per home for Ultra HD.

Yet, consumers will only embrace Ultra HD if they perceive a real benefit. The video resolution improvement over regular HDTV requires viewing on large screens (or close-up viewing on small screens). Also crucial is that service providers resist the temptation of “over-compressing” the content, a bad habit that saves bandwidth but causes annoying video artifacts and degradation.

Enhanced rendition of colors is also important. HDTV uses a constrained color space defined in the outdated BT.709 standard, representing a significant compromise relative to the real-world. Ultra HD (along with HEVC) supports the modern BT.2020 standard, making colors far more accurate and realistic.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is another complementary technology. HDR could facilitate Ultra HD adoption by giving consumers a dramatic improvement in visual contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks. Fifty shades of grey on steroids!

Ultra HD content is still sparse but on the rise. Sony’s 4K Ultra HD Media Player provides access to over 200 titles. Netflix’s 4K repertoire includes House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Amazon Instant Video has various Ultra HD movies as well as original 4K content such as Alpha House and Transparent. In the arts, the Vienna State Opera streamed Verdi’s Nabucco, starring Placido Domingo, in the full splendor of 4K, live over the Internet. In the sports arena, tennis matches from the French Open were broadcast in Ultra HD, as were World Cup soccer games in Brazil. We will likely see an impressive Ultra HD content splash during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

A big bang of Ultra HD content is required, however, akin to the 2004 market impact of Cablevision’s Voom HDTV venture leading up to DirecTV’s 2007 moonshot announcement of 100 HD channels. This time around, will it once again be DirecTV? Or will Netflix step up, pushing the limits of net neutrality? How about Google Fiber with its 1 Gbps pipes?

Overseas, South Korean cable operators and Indian satellite TV services are preparing 4K services. Ditto in the UK with Sky and BT Sport, along with Vodafone in Germany and SkyPerfecTV in Japan. Domestically, Comcast, DirecTV, Verizon, AT&T, and Dish are eyeing one another’s moves, unwilling to get left behind once the Ultra HD race really kicks into gear.

Consumer electronics companies are pushing for 4K Blu-ray by Christmas 2015. And consumers will become a force in content creation via YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook. For $500, GoPro’s HERO4 Black can shoot spectacular Ultra HD video.

Of course Ultra HD will not happen overnight—we will remain in the early adopter phase for the next couple of years. After all, it took HDTV a full decade to hit the mass market from the time it was fully standardized.

Sharper detail. Vivid colors. High contrast. Giant screens. Fatter pipes. By the 2020s, Ultra HD will be front and center in a critical mass of US households.

After that—8K anyone?

About the author:Marc Tayer, author of the recently released bookTelevisionaries: Inside The Chaos and Innovation of The Digital Revolution, is a 30-year veteran of the media and communications technology business. Tayer led the team at General Instrument that developed the first digital TV system and submitted the first digital HDTV system to the FCC in 1990, and, during his career, has served in leadership roles at Motorola, Voom (Cablevision’s pioneering HDTV service), Aerocast, and Imagine Communications, among others.