Ready or not, 4K video is on its way

Ready or not, 4K video is on its way

Summary: Consumers have yet to tune in to 4K. But while the technical merits are subject to debate, the recent NAB Show in Las Vegas left little doubt that a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to make Ultra HD TV the next big thing.

The theme of this year's NAB Show, and Sony's press conference, was clear.

Consumers have yet to tune in to 4K or Ultra HD TV yet. No wonder. There’s little content available, the cable and satellite companies aren’t ready to deliver it, and even if they were, only a handful of homes actually have 4K TVs (last year around 80,000 UHD sets were sold in the U.S.).

All of this has led to talk that 4K could be the next 3D, a technology that was meant to drive a fresh wave of TV sales but instead fizzled out. But while the technical merits of 4K are subject to debate, the NAB Show in Las Vegas earlier this month left little doubt that a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to make UHD the next big thing.

Although the terms are used interchangeably, Ultra HD and 4K are not exactly the same. UHD, at 3840x2160, has four times the resolution of Full HD or 1920x1080. These are display resolutions used in high-definition TVs, as well as PC monitors and laptop displays. By contrast the 4K specification was developed for digital cinema. It has a resolution of 4096x2160 or four times the 2K standard of 2048x1080. In other words “4K” TVs do not actually have four thousand vertical lines and it would perhaps be more accurate to refer to them as 2160p—just as Full HD displays are known as 1080p--but don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

The bottom line is that four times the resolution means lots more information needs to be captured, transferred and stored, produced and distributed. That requires new cameras and production equipment, better compression, more advanced broadcast standards, and upgraded set-top boxes and TVs. All of that was on display at the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual get-together earlier this month, which attracted nearly 100,000 people and more than 1,700 exhibitors.

The selection of video and digital still cameras capable of capturing 4K video is growing. Sony already has a broad line of CineAlta 4K production cameras (the F5, F55 and F65) which seem to be very popular. Sony’s released its first 4K “prosumer” camera, the FDR-AX1, along with a professional version (the PXW-Z100) last fall. Earlier this year the company announced its first true consumer 4K camera, the smaller FDR-AX100 that costs around $2,000. At NAB Sony announced the Alpha NEX A7s, a new version of its mirror-less interchangeable lens camera with a 12-megapixel full-frame sensor designed to shoot 4K.

Panasonic, which already offers a direct competitor, the $1,700 Lumix DMC-GH4 interchangeable-lens camera, announced a professional camera with a 35mm sensor, the VariCam 35, which can record 4K video at up to 120 frames per second. (Another company, For-A, was demonstrating its FT-One slow-motion camera which can capture 4K video at up to 900 frames per second.)

Canon already has a hybrid digital SLR, the EOS-1D C, which can capture 4K video as well as a professional cinema camera, the EOS C500. At NAB Canon announced a software upgrade that, when combined with the Intel Media SDK 2014 Professional Camera Pack, will make it possible to preview 4K video on a standard laptop with Iris Pro Graphics. Nikon has been slow to embrace video and does not yet offer a dSLR than can capture 4K video, though it was exhibiting at NAB.

Blackmagic Design, which is known for its Cinema Cameras with wide dynamic range for a film look, attracted a huge crowd to booth once again this year. The big announcement was a new camera, Ursa, with a Super 35mm 4K image sensor capable of capturing 2160p at up to 60 frames per second and a 10-inch 1080p display in place of a viewfinder. Red Digital Cinema was talking about the concept of “one camera” for filmmakers and digital still photography, noting that DxO Labs just gave the Red Dragon 6K camera a record score on its sensor benchmarks edging out top still cameras such as the Nikon D800E and Sony Alpha A7R.

GoPro also attracted a crowd to its booth where it was showing its wearable HERO3+ Black Edition, which can capture 4K video albeit at only 15 frames per second. Panasonic has its own waterproof wearable camera, the HX-A500, which can shoot 4K at 30fps.

Eventually 4K video capture and playback will be built into many smartphones. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 already supports 4K video capture and playback, but current devices have 1080p displays and HDMI 1.3 out, which isn’t fast enough to feed an external 4K display. The Snapdragon 805, which will be available in devices in the second half of this year, delivers hardware decoding of HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), a compression standard that further reduces the size of high-resolution video without a noticeable impact on quality, along with support for 4K internal and external displays (HDMI 1.4). The Snapdragon 810, which arrives in 2015, will add hardware encoding of 4K video using HEVC compression.

At the other end, the prices of UHD TVs and monitors have started to come down. Larger sets from Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and LG Electronics now start at around $3,000, and you can find other UHD TVs for much less. Vizio’s P-Series will start at $1,000 for a 50-inch model, and smaller sets from lesser-known brands such as Seiki and TCL are widely available on for around $600 and up. Asus, Dell, Lenovo and Samsung have 28-inch 4K monitors that cost less than a $1,000. This week Toshiba began shipping its Satellite P55t, a 15.6-inch laptop with a 2160p display (282 pixels per inch).

To date most of the 4K content available has been limited to special events. The Summer Olympics in 2012, last year’s French Open tennis and the World Series, and the Winter Games in Sochi earlier this year all had some events captured in 4K. Sony and FIFA plan to produce three matches in 4K at the World Cup in Brazil this summer. But these are largely technology demonstrations.

Production companies are converting movie libraries and shooting many new movies, TV shows and sports events in 4K, but none of this has been broadcasted publicly. Instead the 4K footage can be used to zoom in on parts of the video, or simply for archival purposes, and the program is broadcast in standard high-definition.

The infrastructure to deliver 4K video through the traditional broadcast, cable and satellite channels simply doesn’t exist yet. The hardware and software for capturing, producing and playing 4K video--cameras, recorders, switchers, video servers, editing software, and displays--is falling into place. But distribution is a work in progress. At this year’s show, there were numerous demonstrations of 4K “broadcasts,” but it will take time to upgrade the hardware and software for coding and broadcasting--and for the cable and satellite companies to replace the set-top boxes in around 100 million U.S. homes.

In the meantime, UHD is likely to reach the home in different ways. Netflix has started streaming “House of Cards” and some nature documentaries in 4K using HEVC compression and Amazon Studios recently announced a new slate of original series, including four that will be shot in 4K. YouTube has supported 4K video upload and playback since 2010. Sony already offers an Ultra HD Media Player and has announced a new version, the FMP-X10, which adds the ability to stream Netflix’s 4K content and has a larger hard drive (1TB) for storing movies and TV shows downloaded from Sony’s own service. Samsung has its own UHD Video Pack, also equipped with a 1TB hard drive, which comes with five movies plus some documentaries and short clips, but without a download service (the company promises an updated UHD Video Pack later this year). Comcast, M-Go (a joint venture of Technicolor and DreamWorks) and DirecTV are also working on 4K content.

The 4K rollout will be different from 3D TV, and that’s probably a good thing. When the consumer electronics industry began pushing 3D, broadcasters such as BBC, Discovery Channel and ESPN rushed out new channels--all of which are dead now. With 4K, most of the initial content is likely to be user-generated or delivered through over-the-top services such as Netflix and Amazon. The debate over the merits of 4K—how close you need to sit to a 50-inch TV to tell the difference, who really needs a 4K smartphone—will continue. But judging from this year’s NAB Show, 4K is going to happen.

Topics: Hardware, Emerging Tech

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  • technical

    The technical ability to display a great image surpassed televisions quality of content years ago. No need to have better images if you have no talent / programs to watch. The Big 3 TV stations of days-gone-bye had the shows -- things to see. Just get a good streaming device, watch what is out there on your $200 to $400 TV and be thankful at least the technical TV is great and cheap now. At one time $1,000 bought a color TV with a remote -- oh yea, 19" rounded screen. Go RCA !
  • 4K is useless to me.

    I have no complaints about HD and I'm not going to buy all new equipment to view 4K content.
    • Ask me again in 10 years

      We bought a new TV a couple of years back, so won't be looking to replace it any time soon.

      As to content, the state channels have only switched to HD about 3 - 4 years ago and the advert driven stations only show SD content for free, the HD channel is the same content (and often non-HD reruns) for an additional 10€ a month. I haven't seen much quality improvement between the upscaled SD and the HD content they are pushing out (the HD content is compressed to hell and back and has more artifacts), so I don't feel the need to pay for HD.

      I can see the same happening to for 4K.
    • Comments on article and subject as well

      "a compression standard that reduces makes high-resolution video, along with support for 4K internal and external displays (HDMI 1.4). The Snapdragon 810, which arrives in 2015, will add hardware encoding of 4K video using HEVC compression."
      Reduces makes? I think th eediting left out a few words, or left one in.

      I too, won't be upgrading anytime soon, my 5 year? old Sony works just fine, I just got a Blue-Ray player last Christmas, my son gave me one.

      I see no need for anything more.
  • 4K won't happen

    the bandwidth delivery capacity just isn't there to support it, and the pixel density on that scale just isn't needed.

    I get that there are hardware guys hyping it, but 4K is an answer to a question that isn't being asked.
    • Compression

      The providers already squeeze regular HD to within an inch of it's life so that it will fit down their pipes; how in the world would any of this make it to someone's home?
      • Broadcast resolution != Screen resolution.

        The screens may be great for displaying an uncompressed high resolution source but as soon as you move to broadcast or recording the lossy compression used makes a mockery of the screen resolution.

        For domestic TV and home cinema, I can sit closer (and not see the whole screen) and yet not see the individual pixels. Wonderful, that means I won't be able to see how many pixels are the same but would have been different if the detail hadn't been compressed out.

        How much better would a 4k image compressed to death be than a 1920x1080 with lower compression using the same bandwidth?
  • 4K could turn out like Blu-Ray

    No sale, in other words.
    Sir Name
  • Pfft

    We haven't even gone to high-def. Some things just don't look as good when they're sharpened too much, especially movies from pre-HD days with effects that stand out painfully from the rest of the film when they're rendered in high definition. And I'm perfectly happy to let my favorite actors' faces remain ever so slightly fuzzy; I don't need to see every pore, mole and zit in excruciating detail.
  • 4K UHD $$$$$

    How many moles can one possibly see on an actor's face?

    Does anyone really care?

    What color is that mole, anyway?
  • Yay for 4K

    Even though the delivery systems are not there yet for 4K content, I like that the 4K TV's are coming down in price. I have several computers at home and at work that are connected to HD TV's for monitors. But they are capped at 1080p resolution. I would love a 4K 240hz tv for my computer, the video card already supports it. As they are starting to come down in price I hope to get one later this year.
  • 4k no good to me

    Comcast already compresses the $@#! out of their so-called HD, I can't see how 4k would improve anything. And since they also handle my internet, they'll probably throttle any streaming service I could use.
    • Going from SD to HD was a no brainer

      for me back in 2001 because it upgraded picture quality significantly and brought widescreen into default status. I loved when I could watch sports in HD, but I often found myself watching material I wouldn't normally be interested in simply because of my initial love affair with HD. I recall many people at the time looking bewildered at my enthusiasm for it because their favorite shows were still in SD. I knew many people who didn't even give HD TV's a thought until their own favorite shows became regularly available in HD.

      While the technical capability has to come first, I believe its quest for ubiquity will ultimately be decided by the masses and their motivations for upgrading from HD. It's difficult to tell what that tipping point of "content" might be, but I suspect it will have something to do with multiple sources or "windows" of content being made available simultaneously. That's what drove me to multiple monitors on my desktop.
  • Most of the comments so far express blatant lack of insight...

    Don't want to see actor's moles? Happy with HD, or haven't even gone to HD and happy about that? Even more ignorant, saying 4k "won't happen". But you see, it already HAS happened. I guess until you have a chance to see it, you won't understand, or maybe even then you won't. We've been enjoying "4K" or Ultra HD for some time now and yes, it does make a difference, if only that it cleans things up and allows you to sit closer without seeing the screen-door grid of the LCDs. Content having greater resolution, or even upres-ing is quite a different thing from running a "sharpening" filter in case you aren't clear on the subject, although it does upscale BD quite well. Delivery systems ARE already there and with the Sony media player, we have several UHD movies. Details pop out in surprising and subtle ways. People who say the broadcast bandwidth isn't there don't understand that broadcast is not likely to be around much longer anyway, and that 4K and the already planned 8K is not dependent upon broadcast. But you wouldn't expect someone who is still enjoying SD and proud of it to have a clue. Maybe it isn't for you and, just like with CD's, the source material determines the quality, but the system can deliver as much detail as the source can provide. Does anyone really care? Yes, discerning people do. Just because you don't have an eye for it, don't assume no one else does either.
    • Nothing to do with lack of insight.

      It has everything to do with it being an answer to a question no one is asking. Is 4K better? You bet, no question about it. If I were in the market for a new TV I'd definitely go 4K over HD...all else being equal.

      With that said I'm not going to up and replace my existing HD gear. I watch video content based on the content...the means with which to view it are secondary (assuming a minimum level of acceptability). The switch to HD brought very little additional benefit to my video enjoyment. I don't see 4K bringing even that level of additional enjoyment. Therefore I see no benefit to spending money to replace something that meets my needs just fine. If you would like to buy all new 4K gear for me I'll be more than happy to change. Until then HD is more than acceptable to me.
    • Well good for you.

      Are you going to buy the next generation tv within the next few years? There are people who do prefer spending money on something more worthwhile. Besides, i'm sure 4K tv's are better then my HDTV i just bought a few years ago but can i use that to death before buying whatever tv is good on the market today. Having the newest features is nice, but unless you can take my existing tv, upgrade it with the latest features for $40 i really have no need to buy a 4k tv.

      Not everyone wants or can afford the latest tech, especially when it's a bit pricey. I love HD, i love new and better technology but there's a fine line between NEEDING something and WANTING something. This is why we haven't adopted to better ways of living for everyone, because i guess the rich is more concerned with video quality then allowing others to benefit from that quality. I want to get a holodeck but that's clearly far off the market at this time. 4K will take twice as long as HD to make it's way into everyone's home. Heck, not everyone has adopted HD yet either. But for those who are still using SD equipment might get to benefit from the 4k depending on whether it's in their price range. Otherwise i guess HD might sell better, because HD's are on the clearance racks.
    • no, I haven't seen it yet

      I do agree with you, I (and we all make this decision personally) can't decide if it's "better" than 1080p until I've actually seen it. It may well be, and I wouldn't be surprised if I do prefer it over 1080p. But that doesn't address the technical issue of the pipe. Cable companies are already overcompressing HD content (and that I HAVE seen and CAN see). Internet access speeds need to improve to make streaming 4k viable. And/or we need some truly miraculous new compression codec.

      Perhaps it will work in the niche case of discs in a player. But for broadcast and streaming, we have significant technical issues to overcome first.
  • 4K TV

    Crappy TV is still crappy tv, no matter what the Resolution.
    • Game it

      4K PS5/XboxZero might push some units. Of course the content will probably have to be spread over multiple blu-rays.
  • Broadcasters won't be going to 4K for at least 10 years, perhaps 20 or more

    because, it's a very expensive proposition for all of them, and very time consuming, and requires a lot of preparation, and they'd also wait for the consumers to be equipped with 4k TVs ahead of the TV stations.

    Only internet transmissions will move to 4k faster than the TV stations, but then, the ISPs will be throttling those transmissions.