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

Moderated by Andrew Nusca | January 28, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (23:00 PST)

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


It's all a pipe dream

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Best Argument: It's all a pipe dream


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

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.


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  • Is it a big enough difference?

    Is it a big enough difference?

    I'm sure that I'll likely notice a difference - but I'm not so sure that most people will care.

    Especially the tech press who claims that the difference between 720p and 1080p is indistinguishable (although I personally beg to differ - I can tell the difference). I can see similar claims popping up with 4k.

    There's also the issue of we have nothing that supports it. We'll likely need a new optical media format to fit an entire movie (increasingly unlikely as more people just use the internet for video), and it would require even larger internet bandwidth. Nevermind that it's currently really hard to get an internet connection that can handle 1080p.

    And of course it will likely require we do something to how changing channels works on both broadcast and cable. And I don't think there are very many channels that go the whole 1080p even now.

    It's the chicken and egg problem all over again. Except this time I don't think people are really gonna be convinced to move to the new format.

    I'm sure I'd personally love it. But selling to to the public and the tech press may be hard.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for It's all a pipe dream
  • Similar to Retina

    Everyone laughed at hi-DPI displays, too, until they saw one. Now it is a must-have feature on phones and tablets.

    Beyond crunching the numbers on pixels and 20/20 (or less) visual accuity, there is something inherently satisfying about a display that looks great close up even after you step away from it. At around 50 inches or bigger, which isn't rare these days, even the John Q Publics will want one.
    Reply Vote I'm for The future
    • A note about that 20/20 thing . . .

      A note about that 20/20 thing . . .

      . . . it's not a maximum.

      20/20 is basically "you don't need glasses or contacts." It's not the maximum possible vision for humans. Some people have vision as good as 20/10, and possibly as good as 20/8. I'd imagine that before age starts deteriorating their vision, most people likely had better than 20/20 vision at some point in their lives. There are of course exceptions. Most doctors will simply stop the test at 20/20, and most people won't bother to ask their doctors to test their vision beyond 20/20.

      On my iPhone 4: In 3D games (and yes, at a comfortable distance, at about 10 inches which the phone is designed at), I can see the stairstepping effect from a lack of antialiasing - that means even on a so-called "retina" display, it's still possible for some people to still see the pixels.
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • Stair steps

        But are the "stair steps" you are seeing a result of the display resolution or the games picture resolution? From what I have seen, many "John Q Publics" can't tell the difference between NTSC and 720p of 1080i(which is all ATSC braodcast allows!). Indeed many can. One of the biggest visible differences between old analog and newer digital TV, is the lack of "snow". That... people notice, resolution.. not so much. My opinion comes from 35 years experience as an inhome Television technician.

        There is also a bit of the, "I just spent $2500(well, $800 today) on this new tv, of course it looks better!", going on as well!

        In the next 2 years? Pipe Dream! in the next 20? I don't have a crystal ball!
        Reply Vote I'm Undecided
        • on an iPhone, they are the same.

          "But are the 'stair steps' you are seeing a result of the display resolution or the games picture resolution?"

          On an iPhone, they are the same, unless it's a really old game that never updated to add retina support. iPhone games generally don't render at a different picture resolution than the display resolution.

          The "stair step" effect is caused by a lack of antialiasing, and I very much know it when I see it, as somebody who has played games for years. I can certainly tell the difference between upsampling and aliasing. Photographs and live action videos are naturally antialiased, but game images aren't, due to the way that rendering technology works for 3D games.

          The Wikipedia article on "Aliasing" shows the stairstepping effect I am talking about.
          Reply Vote I'm Undecided
    • While the screens are simply gorgeous, content will be a serious issue.

      The issue of content will persist for many years. HD content is only now becoming truly common place and even it comes at a price premium. HDTV got started in the early 90's. That is 1990's and it is now 2013. 20 years. 20 years to go from SD to HDTV once the tech was available.

      The move to 4K will be even slower.
      Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
    • Much bigger than 50

      50" is a good sweet spot for 1080p, but just like a 30" HDTV, the higher resolution is lost on a smaller screen and 720 is fine for those. Thus it will be for 4K...I'm thinking massive, wall-size screens. On typical screen sizes that we see today, the difference in quality vs. price will only appeal to hard core enthusiasts. But the possibility of good quality, massive displays will bring something to the table that 1080 can't touch.

      I don't think 2014/15 is going to be the coming out year though. 10 years maybe? We'll see. Bandwidth must get much bigger and much cheaper for this to gain traction.
      Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
  • 4k TV

    It is bizarre while there is supposedly are demand for higher and higher TV resolution much of the news broad casts consist of very low res picture shot on mobile phones or SKYPE hook ups where little attention is paid to lighting or microphone placing.
    much of the information content of TV broadcasts is carried by the sound channel but lapel mikes are commonly used which lead to very muffled speech also there is an increasing tendency to deliberately blur pictures to prevent people being recognised.
    The only things that would benefit from higher resolution are adverts where no expense is spared to get the best sound and picture quality.
    Reply 3 Votes I'm for It's all a pipe dream
  • Talkbacks need to keep in mind the subject of the debate

    Do I see a use for 4k TVs? Yes, I think it would be awesome and I look forward to it. But that isn't the question. The question is delivering 4k content to the TVs. BluRay can scale to support it, one of the reasons it was a better choice than HD DVD. But outside of that? You can't stream it. 1080p stresses most connections. I'm not sure how existing providers would be able to deliver that bandwidth without major overhaul of the infrastructure. By the time that happens I think we'll be past even 4k TVs. Perhaps the 8K TVs that Sharp showed off would be more likely. When we have gigabit to the house.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for It's all a pipe dream
  • 4K is about movie distribution - or not

    I feel both are off the mark. A new video technology is about the distribution of content. We do remember that Hollywood held up release of Bluray for more than 2 years while encryption was improved, right? Despite the fact the media and burners could benefit ordinary DVD quality in terms of less compression, size of the media, or use for backup. No mfg produced Bluray burners until Hollywood agreed to movie distribution.
    This will play out again: no serious use or driver to the larger displays without media content, and the question becomes: when/how will Hollywood agree to near-theater-quality material being distributed? I feel the encryption and protection will take many years to sort out. In any case it is not about the technology or Internet bandwidth, it is about the content protection.
    Reply Vote I'm for The future