Why 4K UHD Television is nothing but a CES wet dream

Why 4K UHD Television is nothing but a CES wet dream

Summary: Forget the costs of the 4K UHD displays themselves. The infrastructure challenges to deliver the content would be massive.

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God Bless the Consumer Electronics Industry.

Without them, we'd have no innovation in gadgetry and tech toys. Without the companies that are showing their wares at CES, guys like me, James Kendrick and Matthew Miller would have nothing to oggle at. 

The technology that is making the biggest splash at CES and making guys like us salivate like rabid dogs right now are 4K UHD TV sets. 

What's a 4K UHD TV set, you ask? And why do you need one? Very good question, I'm so glad you asked.

4K is an extremely high video resolution that is currently being used in theatrical movie releases. When you go and see a new theatrically released film, and you view it in digital projection, you might be lucky enough to see it in 4K.

2012's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" was one of the first films to be produced and distributed in this format. Approximately 17,000 theater screens on the entire planet have the proper equipment to display 4K films in their native resolution.

Digital films are still for the most part produced in 2K, which is roughly one quarter of 4K resolution, if you reference the graphic below.

A lot of the problems have to do with the fact that a lot of popular feature films are in 3D, and the frame rates/bit rates required in order to do 3D films in 4K would outstrip the capabilities of the projection and digital storage/playback technology in just about every 4K-equipped theatre.

So if this stuff is hard enough to do in a movie theatre, why is the consumer electronics industry rushing to put this in your living room?

At CES, SONY introduced a new line of Bravia XBR 900 LED 55" and 65" 4K UHD TV sets, with prices TBA. Last year's 84" model is currently priced at $25,000. Yep, these things are pretty pricey.

But boy, technologically, are they shweet. Just to get a better understanding of how cool these new UHD sets are, let's talk a bit about the existing HD standard and how much higher resolution 4K really is.

Broadcast HD digital television is transmitted at 1080i (interlaced) or 720p (progressive) resolution. That is, over the air, non-subscriber DTV is capable of 1080 or 720 lines vertical resolution.

DirecTV and FiOS and other subscriber services like iTunes and Netflix can transmit or push (via Internet-connected On-Demand) at a much higher quality 1080p (progressive) for selected premium pay-per-view content.

1080p is 1920x1080 pixels per frame. To store a 1080p feature film in high quality, it requires anywhere between 25 and 50 Gigabytes per movie on a Blu-Ray disc, depending on the bit rate and the encoding method used.

4k-blowup

And even so these films are still compressed from their original theatrical 2K format, but using a "less-lossy" encoding method so you still achive very high video quality.

Are you starting to understand the scale of the problem yet? No? Well keep following.

Naturally, services like DirecTV, Netflix and iTunes cannot stream "less lossy", high-quality films like you can store on a Blu-Ray, because nobody in their home has the kind of Internet broadband that would be needed to achieve that kind of sustained data rate required to do it consistently and reliably.

Instead, those companies send highly compressed data streams and you end up seeing "artifacts" and pixelation in the films.

You need to be able to achieve 5 Megabit to 10 Megabit per second data rates in order to sustain high quality "lossy" video with a 1080p film, whereas a 720p film's requirements are less than half of that.

Never mind if your cable connection is 20 Megabits, your actual throughput to Amazon's cloud to stream Netflix or to Apple's iCloud will be less than that because of overhead, routed traffic between the links and contention with other people accessing the service.

So what precisely would you need to store a 4K movie, so you can play it back in native, uncompressed format on your UHD set, assuming that the costs of these things will go down tremendously in the next 5 or 10 years?

If we want to use the digital workprint of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a benchmark, every single frame of the film is 45 Megabytes in size, and has an approximate resolution of 4352x2176.

The two hour and thirty-eight minute film has approximately 230,000 frames at 24 frames per second.  If we do the somewhat inexact back of the envelope math, 45 megabytes per frame * 230000 frames equals 10,350,000 Megabytes, or 10,107 Gigabytes, or just under 10TB

That is what is needed to store a single 4K feature film shot at 24 frames per second, at full uncompressed workprint quality.

Oh you want to watch The Hobbit at the director's original 48 frames per second? Double it.

The only way to make it practical to distribute films in this format would be to use the industry's existing methods of using lossy compression to deal with the problem, trading off computational complexity for reduced data rates, such as with SONY's new XAVC recording technology, or the High-Efficiency Video Coding (HVEC) compression method that is currently in draft by the MPEG group.

Even with these advanced compression techniques we're still talking about severe storage requirements (128GB to 256GB per movie) and probably something along the line of 100 Megabits per second sustained data rates to stream it over the Internet so we can play it at 30 frames per second, so it doesn't look like complete crap on that expensive 4K set.

Oh did I mention that 4K is going to eventually be replaced by 8K? Which is four times the resolution of 4K? Yup, the maxi-zoom dweebies in the labs are already figuring out how to get that into our theatres and living rooms next. That's assuming CES even lives to see 2025, anyway.

Most people have enough problems getting anything faster than 25 Megabits into the home, let alone 100 Megabits or even 1 Gigabit.

In my ordinance-crazy, permit-loony bureaucratic town in South Florida, nobody wants to break up the sidewalk to bring fiberoptics to the home (FTTH) and that would at best give me 100-150 Megabits of sustained data rates for that 4K video stream, assuming the content was cached on the edge of my ISP's network using a CDN like Limelight or Akamai.

So instead I have to live with VDSL, which is an 18 Megabit downlink technology. That's way, way short of what 4K On-Demand would need.

Unless you live in South Korea where Gigabit to the home is fairly commonplace, we're talking Star Trek-level stuff, people.

So you're probably wondering, if the native data storage and broadband required to pull it off isn't ready for the home, what exactly are you supposed to do with that $25,000 TV set?

Well, for the time being, you play existing Blu-Ray movies on a player that can upscale. In other words, a pixel quadrupler. To quote my contact at SONY, 

"At the moment, there’s no physical 4K format for the movies. That’s why we’ve launched the 4K server, and announced the new distribution service + media player to bring 4K to consumers. It’s up to the industry to standardize the format now."

What is this media player, you ask? Well, SONY hasn't released a ton of details about it yet, but it's essentially a computer that is pre-loaded and given to you on loan with 10 feature films on it.

Presumably, if you want new movies loaded on it, somebody has to come visit your house and perform service on it, or a single film download might take days. SONY hasn't really detailed how the distribution service for your on-premises equipment will work.

Will the US broadband infrastructure ever be ready for 4K on-demand video? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: CES, Networking, Servers, Storage

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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86 comments
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  • Favorite article of yours I've read all year (Including last year that is)

    Definitely the most entertaining and informative.
    urbandk
    • Entertaining is right.

      The GoPro 3 Black shoots 2.7K full rate and 4K at low frame rate, (uh when the device actually functions) but it shows that the tech is there in a tiny $400 device. RED cameras are pretty well worked out too. I have a friend that works there. 30-100Mbps internet connections are pretty common. You could stream HDV over a connection like that but you are right that the providers will struggle for capacity today. Even Youtube is often taxed to deliver a 2Mbps stream to me but Netflix has no trouble testing at 20-30Mbps and only needs 4-5 to deliver HD content. It will come, just like HD did.
      LarsDennert
  • Also, a fool and his money are soon parted...

    or who am I kidding, the people buying these TVs will have plenty of money left over to build car elevators and underground bowling alleys.
    urbandk
    • Slap an Apple logo on it and...

      you'll get plenty of iSheep to buy one.
      BrewmanNH
    • or given away...

      Like Al Gore, John Kerry, or the Kennedys? All of whom are worth more than Mitt Romney (the man I assume you are referring to), but all combined wouldn't add up to 1% of what Romney gives to charity just by himself. Romney Tithes 30% of his income every year, and always has since his early 20's. He has more than justified his comforts and recreations.
      time waster
  • Will the US broadband infrastructure ever be ready for 4K

    Here in Australia 97% of the population is getting fibre to the home, currently at 100mbs but can be easily increased to 1gbs and later 10gbs. So in 5 to 10 years Australia will be ready to stream 4k from house to house.
    The lucky country
    frank0-3f91e
    • Not really sure about that:

      Not really sure about 'Lucky'

      http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/1/8/1357646861584/Australian-Bureau-of-Mete-008.jpg
      Juan Cerda
    • Tongue in cheek?

      Hope you were joking franko. I would LOVE your statement to be true but as long as Mr Destructo Malcolm Turnbull actually has a chance of getting into power this may only be a dream....
      Ramrunner-5dd3e
      • Yeah it makes a lot of sense

        Yes - let's spend $50billion plus of borrowed money to build fibre to the EVERY possible home so the fattest people on earth can watch 4k and 8k movies. What a really good use of resources.

        What we should be doing is making use of the 100MB hybrid network that passes 2.5 million homes out of 6million and focusing on business access to cheap fast networking. Forget about stupid time wasting technologies. We should be expanding the 4G and further Wireless Networks and spend the $$ to get decent connections to the areas that cannot get a connection at all.

        Its all about allocation of limited resources. As an Australian think "Collins Class submarines", give bureaucrats access to unlimited $$ and they will waste every last $.

        South Korea is about as big a Victoria with more people - so don't go there for support.
        kyleamadio
  • A practical consideration regarding 4K UHD TVs and upscaling tech

    Sony has introduced (at CES) their upscaled 4K movie distribution plans incorporating their Blu-ray disk formats. (As Jason noted)

    They say that UHD TV sets will contain enough CPU "horsepower" to upscale content for an enjoyable simulated 4K experience.

    Here are some questions that require "eyes on" experience.

    Will upscaled simulated 4K content look "better" to the consumer than current 1080p displayed content? Of course, other important considerations must be factored into that equation such as the type of UHD TV display tech. For example, will those UHD TVs use OLED displays or current LCD -LED tech?

    Will upscaled simulated 4K content allow the same viewer enjoyment on ultra large displays (greater than 80 square inches) than current 1080p content displayed on screens smaller than 56 square inches?

    Will high speed motion scenes (as in live sports) be displayed without additional digital artifacts on UHD TVs? In other words, can the chipsets inside the UHD TVs keep up with the action? (Personally, I hated blurry - pixelated viewing experiences caused by the compression schemes used by certain telcom providers coupled to HDTVs that had poor image processing capabilities)

    I'm not too worried about price issues. Within 5 years, UHD tech will become avoidable "for the masses". (I'm thinking $2,500 for an 80 square inch UHD OLED TV - $1,217 dollars and 47 cents for a comparable Samsung 56" model. My crystal ball is amazingly sharp tonight. Grin)

    BTW, I have seen the Hobbit in both 24 fps 3D format and the 48 fps 3D format. My recommendation is, if given a choice, always view 3D movie content in the 48 fps format. The clarity and crispness of the 48 fps images compared to the 24 fps is startling. In the Hobbit, the outdoor panoramic 3D scenes of native New Zealand (or Middle Earth for truly New Zealand is) was worth the price of admission alone.
    kenosha77a
    • HFR 3D

      I LOVED The Hobbit in HFR 3D even if some of the scenes looked artificially hyper-real. I did feel that I was watching actors acting and matte paintings looked a bit false but overall, the experience was WOW. So clear! The best 3D I've ever seen. Loved the process. Too bad, HFR wasn't well-received.
      Steve Anson
  • This article is pathetic

    It's completely obvious that 4k is in no way designed for over-the-air transmission.
    It's definitely a format designed to be played from a BluRay successor. That'll take some years. The same as it took some years until almost every household had a BluRay player. But even today one may take advantage of such a TV. Every $500 camera exceeds 4k resolution and is therefore best suited to generate content for a 4k TV. Imagine you could watch your photos on an 80 inch 4k monitor. Awesome.
    Will it deliver a much better visual image quality than 1080p ? I guess not on anything smaller than say 60 inch.
    But listen ... Apple gives us 2500x1440 on a 13 inch MacBook and most users like it. Smartphones give us 1920x1080 on 5 inch.

    I guess 4k TV is a luxury today but once the average sales price comes down to $2000 or less it's a nice thing to have.
    EnticingHavoc
    • BluRay Successor

      I agree this is a very negative article that shows a lack of foresight.

      I understand a group including Sony are working on something but no word yet as to whether it will use optical media or something else.
      ITenquirer
    • Does almost every house have a Blu-Ray player?

      I still know of a lot of people who don't.
      Zogg
      • I -had- a Blu-Ray player

        But it was more convenient to subscribe to Netflix and pay for premium movies with iTunes on Apple TV. This would not be practical to do with 4K, you would need physical rental media or buy the movies to store to a home media server and have VERY SLOW DOWNLOADS. Nobody wants to rent physical media anymore, that business model has been destroyed, video rental stores are kaput. We either get our butts in gear and get 100 megabit plus to each house, or this just plain isn't doable.
        jperlow
        • Huh?

          I don't know what you have for a TV but those digital sources have compression artifacts like crazy and on my Plasma they make the movie unwatchable... I will take an uncompressed Bluray any day of the week over your methods.

          As for renting, Red box would disagree with you!
          slickjim
          • I think I've used my Blu-ray player twice to watch movies

            I've owned it for about 18 months and have used it twice...to watch movies someone has lent me. Just about everything I watch is over the air or streamed.
            ye
          • And

            Your TV is?

            Look, good or bad, LED / LCD TVs don't show every imperfection and Plasma does. I own like 25 Movies on Apple TV and I was very happy with the quality on the LED / LCD TV I own but, the Plasma shows the artifacts big time.
            slickjim
          • BlueRay is still pretty much compressed, to be correct

            Though the bitrate is much higher so you do not see the artifacts.
            DDERSSS
          • You can see the artifacts...

            ...if you stand right in front of the screen. At "normal" (or even not-soi-normal) viewing distances, they aren't visible.
            GrizzledGeezer