At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas this month, 4K TVs are likely to feature prominently, highlighting the major role played in driving the next generation HD technology by consumer hardware giants Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic. Although 4K sets are marketed under the 'Ultra-HD' label in North America, Sony insists on sticking with the 4K badge (to differentiate it from 8K) under which it already markets its home and professional cinema projection equipment.
Based on a resolution four times that of HD 1080p, (3,840 pixels horizontally, 2,160 vertically), 4K would seem to represent a more natural technology progression and easier consumer proposition than stereoscopic 3D. With elements of the 4K broadcast equipment market already becoming commoditised, momentum is building in support of the first 4K broadcasts by 2016, perhaps targeting the Olympic Games in Rio.
However, a number of key issues still have questions hanging over them, a basic one being that TV manufacturers need to persuade consumers to upgrade to a higher resolution set (currently costing north of $20,000) at a time when the benefits of HD are only just being enjoyed by the mainstream.
“Sixty percent of the world’s market has yet to transition from SD while others are prioritising multi-platform distribution,” notes Graham Sharp, CMO and SVP, corporate development at Grass Valley. “4K to the home is being driven by set manufacturers trying to boost their refresh cycle.”
The enhanced viewing experience that a 4K image offers has attracted broadcasters to tests, including Brazil’s Globo, Sky Deutschland and France Télévisions. BSkyB has trialled 4K recordings of Champions League matches and is examining distribution and production models as a prelude to possible U-HD channel launch.
Fox Sports is using a Sony F65 camera at 4K (transmitted HD) for higher resolution replays during NFL broadcasts. The Middle East broadcaster most likely to jump in this direction first, Al Jazeera Sports, has yet to make its interest public.
“Assuming the compression standards are in place, then the launch of services could be possible in three years, limited to movie channels in the first instance,” suggests Adam Cox, senior market analyst, broadcast, Futuresource Consulting.
The momentum is predicated on a new compression scheme HEVC (Higher Efficiency Video Codec), which will effectively squeeze double the amount of data over existing bandwidths. This will make it possible to broadcast 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pictures) at data rates of between 30 and 40Mbit/s, which is the capacity of terrestrial broadcast channel DVB T2. Korean broadcasters reportedly aim to test this later in the year.
As with HD and 3D before it, U-HD will be led by pay TV operators who believe they can market a premium service and can justify the necessary infrastructure – such as funding new HEVC-compatible set top boxes.
Nonetheless, Futuresource predicts just 123,000 4K panels will be in UK homes by 2016. “The lack of a potential subscriber base will be an inhibitor,” says Cox. “4K is likely to be adopted slowly as the industry, and consumers, are still transitioning to HD.”
Even if 4K services are several years down the track, content is emerging, including a rising slate of studio movies, flagship documentaries and some high-end TV drama either shot natively with 4K cameras or post-produced digitally at 4K from 35mm.
3D TV productions, such as Space, a first commission in 4K by Sony, Discovery and IMAX joint venture 3net, are also likely to originate in Ultra-HD, where the higher resolution master can help retain a high quality final image on transmission now.