4K television: the future of content broadcasting or a CES pipe dream?

Summary:Every major consumer electronics manufacturer (save Apple) is on board with crazy expensive, ultra-high definition TV sets. But are these really the future of content broadcasting?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

The future

or

It's all a pipe dream

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Best Argument: It's all a pipe dream

42%
58%

Audience Favored: It's all a pipe dream (58%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

The future of TV is 4K

Steven Vaughan-Nichols I have seen the future of TV and it's 4K. Don't get me wrong I love my 1080p HDTV, but 4K's 3,840×2,160 pixels, aka Quad Full High Definition (QFHD), blows it out of the water.

It's not just the four times better definition. I see 4K TV becoming a blockbuster because it will be bundled with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technologies with their exceptional color reproduction.

Yes, there are two major problems. First, it takes a heck of a lot of bandwidth to move 4K video . Lossy video codec technologies, such as the just approved High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) is going to bring that down to 100Mbps broadband speeds.

The other problem is that OLED 4K TVs are more expensive than some cars. Those prices will go down eventually.

So why is 4K's going to win anyway? Because, I'm taking the long view . By 2015/6 Gigabit Internet connections will be more common. Simultaneously, I see 4K TV prices will drop into the 2-grand range.

4K will still only be for hardcore TV fans, but it will be a mass market. It happened with HDTV, it will happen with 4K as well.

4K sets need more space

Jason Perlow Unless you've been living under a rock -- or have been blissfully unaware of the goings on at this last CES, you'd know that the products at the front and center of every major consumer electronics manufacturer (save Apple) have been the latest and greatest 4K, ultra-high definition TV sets. And right now, they are crazy expensive, starting at around $25,000 each. I'm not here to argue that people won't own 4K UHD sets, or that we won't see 4K being used in computer displays or even tablets in the near future. In fact, I'm absolutely certain that the prices of these things are going to come down and become commodities and low margin products -- just like the current generation of 1080p HD displays are today. In three years or less, I won't even be surprised to see 4K screens on a full-size iPad, a 10" Android device, or even a Windows RT tablet. My issue is not the price of the screens themselves, it's how the content that will be delivered to the displays will be achieved. And right now, if you examine the state of consumer broadband in the United States, most households are barely able to stream 720p movies reliably, let alone 1080p, which is Blu-Ray quality. To move 4K movies across the Internet, we're going to need to move bureaucratic mountains at the state and municipal government level to get gigabit connectivity to the last mile in every major metropolitan area, unless we are prepared to distribute content on 128GB high-speed flash drives at Wal-Mart or figure out how to free up broadcast spectrum that doesn't exist.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mike check

    Everybody ready?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    I'm here

    Ready to go

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    All set

    Let the games begin

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The problem is...

    What's wrong with today's TVs, anyway?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Just OK

    Today's TVs are fine. I could wish that color and black and white were better on LCD and LED screens and that OLED and plasma sets were cheaper, but for the state of TV shows today, they're OK.

    What we don't have is enough content that makes use of their capabilities. Except for some over-the-air (OTA) and Blu-Ray, nothing really makes use of 1080p. We really need is a lot more last mile Internet bandwidth and for Blu-Ray discs to come down in price.

    Looking ahead, 4K is going to need even more bandwidth. In the U.S. Today, we're still looking at an average of 7.2Mbps. That's barely cuts it for compressed 720p, never mind 1080p.

    On the other hand, the just approved High Efficiency Video Coding’ (HEVC) is going to require only only half the bit rate of today's video codecs. That will make both today's HDTV video and 4K much more bandwidth effective.

    Between HEVC and a major step up in last mile Internet speeds in the next few years, 4K will rise to the top.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    No huge problems

    Fundamentally I do not believe there are huge problems with today's TVs themselves, if you look at the entry level and middle-market end of the scale, where the majority of units are being sold.

    Since the digital transition during 2008-2009 as consumer have enjoyed a very high level of content quality overall compared to what existed before, and I do not think most most of us would choose to go back to analog SD.

    Now that being said, we are severely under-utilizing the capabilities of the current installed base of HDTVs. All of this has to do with the fact that to get the majority of that content distributed, we have to leverage the limitations of the existing broadband Internet infrastructure that is lagging far behind the capabilities of our content playback devices.

    Very few people have been using the 1080p capabilities of their TV sets and set-tops because their content suppliers restrict much of this to pay-per-view on-demand, and to really take advantage of quality 1080p content you have to use Blu-Ray discs because nothing is over-the-air broadcast in this resolution.

    Many households still do not have Blu-Ray players, nor is it as convenient a medium as Internet streaming.

    To complicate this further, Internet-distributed 1080p and even 720p content has to be heavily compressed in order to be pushed by On-Demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Video and Apple TV, so the amount of visible artifacts during playback is significant and is qualitatively not comparable to Blu-Ray discs.

    Most of these problems can be attributed to the broadband connection to the last mile and network congestion when attempting to access streamed video from the content delivery networks (CDNs) that services like Netflix and Amazon use.

    We will need gigabit or higher broadband to the home to make 4K content transport viable in the Internet, and obviously the electromagnetic spectrum cannot be expanded, so we are going to need to make massive improvements in digital multiplexing on existing DTV channels, freeing up existing spectrum and considerably advancing compression technology to even think about moving 4K Over the Air.

    If you thought the Digital TV transition was like the government trying to move Mount Everest, think about it trying to move Olympus Mons instead for a broadcast 4K adoption. The FCC has recently called for all 50 states to provide gigabit connections to the home within five years. I say Good Luck with that.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    4K enters the picture

    At CES, executives said 4K is responding to market demand. Really?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Shut up and take the money

    At CES, executives said 4K is responding to market demand. Really?

    Jason doesn't hang out with some of the people I do. Real videophiles are already going "Shut up and take my money!" for the $20,000 and up 4K sets. Are these most people? Heck no! But they are out there and there's enough of them that they make up a real market.

    Heck, if I had that kind of cash, I'd do it.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    Excuses, excuses

    No, the executives are all smoking crack. They are just coming up with excuses to push newer technology because the existing margins on consumer HDTVs have been reduced to nauseating levels for these companies.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The clear picture

    How will higher resolution impact content creators and infrastructure providers?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    It's already here

    4K has actually already been around for a while. AMC theaters, for example, completing switching to 4K projectors last year. Sony Pictures was switching over their filming most to 4K in 2008. Today, many, if not most, digital movies are shot in 4K. So, for movie creators the infrastructure is already there and has been for some time.

    What we really need, as far as Internet TV goes, is for all the ISPs to increase their bandwidth. We need that regardless of whether 4K takes off. Video now takes up most of the Internet's bandwidth> Heck, Netflix alone is the single largest consumer of Internet bandwidth.

    What this means for 4K is that in the immediate future, just like with HDTV and 1080p today, you're going to be watching most of your high-resolution movies with a 4K player.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    The question of power

    Well, the content creators are going to need extremely powerful workstations and server farms to process the data. Take a look at what Weta, the studio who produced The Hobbit movie uses. That should give you some idea.

    Every uncompressed frame of data is going to be around 45 megs apiece, and then you are going to need serious compute power to do the compression and create the workprints, never mind having 100 Gig networks in your datacenter and 10 Gig to the workstation to move data around.

    That's the kind of infrastructure TV studios are going to have to buy if network television and cable TV premium content providers have to get into this game. The storage and network companies like Cisco, EMC, NetApp, IBM and HP are also going to get rich beyond their wildest dreams if this technology enters wide adoption.

    I don't see this happening so quickly, as they all just spent big money on 1080p production facilities and would have to at least quadruple their storage capacities if not more. You can argue that this technology is going to get cheaper, and the recording and production technology is going to become more portable, but it's still going to be a very large expense if you multiply it at scale.

    Service providers, like the content creators, are also going to have to beef up their networks, and the Internet-facing switch infrastructure capability at the Tier 1, 2 and 3 companies will have to be increased at a magnitude on the order of 10 times or even more to deal with this.

    As it is today, the Internet is already overloaded with video streaming, and this would only compound the problem.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is there a need?

    Is there anything we could do in higher-definition that we can't today?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    The sky's the limit

    It's not a black and white question, it's a quality question. Games, sporting events, videos, high-end computing imaging, aka medical and modeling, all look much better in 4K. The question isn't "Can you do something you can't do?" It's is the improved quality worth it to you? For many people, the answer will be "yes."

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    It's getting complex

    Well, from an entertainment standpoint, at least as it relates to visualization intensive apps like video games, the higher the resolution you have the more complex the modeling you can do and thus the more realistic rendering of objects and textures.

    From a vertical market standpoint this would be a huge boon to data visualization and scientific and medical imaging. Font rendering would also be super-duper sharp.

    However, it should be noted that these applications are not as dependent on broadband infrastructure because these things are being rendered on the fly, using vectors, mathematical algorithms and bitmaps. GPUs will definitely need to be beefed up, without question.

    But it is safe to assume that 4K will be adopted for these things first long before we see it in any broadcast form.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Will movie theaters sink with Titanic?

    Every new home theater technology is said to threaten attendance at real theaters. Will 4K move the needle further, or is that theory bunk?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Pass the popcorn

    Watching at home and watching at a theater are fundamentally different experiences. One is just you and a few friends or family watching a movie while the other is you sharing the experience with a crowd. Think about watching say the upcoming new Star Wars movie, would you rather see it at home, even on a 4K TV, or with an audience? For a film like that I think most people will go to the theater.

    That said, the movie theater's real problem is price. I'm far from poor, but I can't recall the last time I went out to an evening, full-price movie. So sure, 4K will make staying at home to watch a film a wee bit more attractive, but cost, not an improvement in video quality, is the real driver.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    The long goodbye

    I think the movie theater is already in serious danger due to the home theater experience. And since many of them are co-located with malls and are affected by declining retail traffic they need to find ever increasing ways to attract customers (4K, 3D, high frame rates) when their home experience is more than "good enough" and ticket and concession prices are off the scale.

    4K at home may compound the problem for the theater venues but I don't think it is as significant a variable as other technologies and factors that are hurting that industry.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are they adaptable?

    Smart TV technology is rising at the same time as 4K. How will such high resolution impact online content? (File size? Format?)

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Call it a dumb TV

    Jason and I see eye to eye on this one. No one cares about smart TVs. No, not even the long-rumored Apple TV.

    None of the TV vendors have yet to come up with a good user interface. Say Apple does come out with an Apple TV, that's more than a box, so what? Do I want to be stuck with only those content providers who've struck a deal with Apple? I don't think so.

    My problems with "smart TVs" is the same one I have with TVs with VCRs and DVD-players built into them. They put multiple points of failure in one device and they usually don't have all the features I want. Give me a Roku box and a dumb TV any day.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    Who cares?

    Repeat after me: NOBODY CARES ABOUT SMART TV. Yes, people will expect that these features will be embedded in their TV sets, but nobody wants to pay extra for them and there is no standardized interactive TV content that anyone cares about. Everyone uses different content providers and they all have different UIs.

    People want to watch their shows, period, not interact with them. If any of that activity is going to occur it will be on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones that will simply replace the remote controls for DVRs and other set-tops that are in use now.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    4K's impact

    How will 4K impact other electronics: computer monitors, mobile devices?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Not for everyone

    It will become the standard for high-end computer monitors and tablets. It won't be for everyone. 4K on a Nexus 7 or iPad mini form factor? Surely not!

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    It will spread

    I expect to see this technology used in PC monitors first, within the next 3 years. As I said in my opening statement we'll probably also see it in tablets in a very similar time frame.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Living with the past

    What about backwards compatibility? How will today's "low" resolution content look on 4K?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Back to the Future

    As Jason says, "We already know what it looks like in 4K." In short, it looks great. What I'm really looking forward to though is the simultaneous rise of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) with 4K. This really will make today's video, even ordinary DVDs, look much better thanks to its improved black and white and color dynamics.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    There will be issues

    We already know what it looks like in 4K. SONY uses pixel quadrupling technology with their some of their Blu-Ray players in order to play current generation 1080p movies on their 4K TV sets. It looks fine, and is not susceptible to the same Analog/DTV translation issues we dealt with playing SD content on HD.

    So pixel "Octupling" or "Sextupling" upscaler technology will be simply built into any set-top device that has 4K output capability and has to play back legacy 1080i and 720p HDTV content.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    3D's survival chances

    How does this impact 3DTV technology?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Just another feature

    I see 3DTV as an entertaining dead-end. Yes, we'll still see kid- and big-action movies, but I, for one, just don't find it that interesting—especially not at home. I see 3D becoming just another feature in 4K TVs.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    It'll take time

    I don't see it moving the needle. Major feature films will continue to be produced in 3D as well as in HFR, but I don't see network television or premium broadcast content going in that direction for a very, very long time, so there will always be a content cap.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Just another fad?

    It took years for high-definition discs to roll out into the marketplace. Will 4K really get a shot before it's replaced?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    It will be on top for a while

    4K will get its shot. 8K is still largely an engineering experiment, while the infrastructure for 4K movie production and projection is already with us. Today, we're seeing 4K's first steps to the consumer market. 8K will just be making it out of the lab when 4K has become a mass market product.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    The shelf life

    I think it is certainly possible that before it is widely adopted in broadcast, the 8K technology will arrive to replace it.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last question

    Finally: what's the ultimate end game for TVs? Where are we headed?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Two paths

    I see two paths ahead. On the one side, the family living room TV, and for those that can afford it, the home theater, are going to stay. At the same time, the tablet is becoming the personal video device of choice.

    I don't see either one winning out because they're really about two different activities: Sharing a video and watching a video by yourself.

    The end result? We're going to be watching more TV than ever. Pass the chips.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for The future

    Bed potatoism

    I certainly do not see the family living room TV going away anytime soon, but we are going to be seeing a lot more usage of personal viewing devices. The tablet will be used to stream more and more video data, and we may see them being used more with home TV "servers" that act as centralized DVRs and tuners for these portable playback devices for cached content. The back end of the equation will require beefier CDNs and faster edge of the network connections in order to service it.

    In summary: a vast increase in couch or bed potatoism.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for It's all a pipe dream

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks to all

    Nice debate. I hope you get the picture. Tomorrow, our debaters will post their closing arguments and Thursday, I've give my verdict. Let's hear your opinion in the talkback section. Thanks so much for joining in.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

Closing Statements

4K is unstoppable. It really is

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

My dad was a TV repairman. I grew up with TVs. I can remember people not seeing the point of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, and HDTV. Every time it was the same arguments: Too expensive, people wouldn't really want the new features or they couldn't appreciate the higher quality, etc. And, every time, they were wrong.

The shift to a new TV technology doesn't happen fast. Sometimes TV evolution takes side-tracks such as HD-DVD and Super-VHS. Eventually, though, the new technology catches fire. First, with video fanatics and then with everyone else. It's going to be the same way with 4K.

It's not going to happen tomorrow. But, late this year, high-end TV fans will be switching to 4K, and by late 2014 it will be moving into the mass-market. And, by 2016, Jason and I may be having a similar debate about whether the world is ready for 8K. The answer, by the way, will be yes.

4K will arrive but the content won't

Jason Perlow

My opponent sees a future for ultra-high definition technology in the near-future time frame for wealthy videophiles and that advanced compression technology from SONY and the HEVC will make it viable for content broadcasting and video streaming, and possibly even a distributed 4K media format.

I agree with him that videophiles will jump to 4K like flies on poop and will happily throw tens of thousands of dollars away on these displays.

The problem is that for the rest of us, even when the prices of these units come down to commodity levels (and they will sooner rather than later) our broadband infrastructure, the TV production studios as well as our frequency spectrum that is allocated for digital TV broadcasting are nowhere near being ready to accommodate 4K UHD let alone the 8K UHD that will almost certainly replace it in less than a 10-year timeframe, and will have even more serious bandwidth and data moving demands.

Indeed HEVC and SONY's new recording formats will make the data streams smaller, but even at a (highly optimistic) 100 megabits per second for acceptable video quality, that's a good ten to twenty times larger than what most American homes can reliably transport from content distribution networks today.

The FCC has put out a request for all 50 US states to be ready to deploy Gigabit broadband in at least one selected community by 2016. That's nice, but when was the last time the FCC was able to achieve anything that ambitious in such a short timeframe? The FCC makes the United Nations look like an effective legislating organization by comparison.

The previous DTV transition was stalled and took over 10 years to execute, and in some markets it's not even completed yet. Getting gigabit to residences is not like freeing up spectrum, it will require dealing with municipal governments and convincing communities to jackhammer streets and bring fiber and high speed copper in to the home, or alternatively gigabit wireless which will have its own unique challenges.

So yes, we'll see affordable 4K TVs and monitors and tablets within five years. Being able to distribute content to them? That's a whole 'nuther ballgame.

It's a pipe dream

Andrew Nusca

Predicting the future isn't easy, but both participants in this week's debate about 4K TV technology made great points. Jason Perlow's more nuanced take on the subject -- acknowledging that it will soon be a reality, yes, but not for most, and not in the best way -- was more convincing. Because nothing says "pipe dream" like the hollow feeling of a brand new 4K television set playing a 480i broadcast signal.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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