Ready or not, 4K video is on its way

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.
Written by John Morris, Contributor
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 Amazon.com 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.

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