This year’s International Consumer Electronics Show was dominated by the rollout of Ultra High Definition TVs (UHD). These new TVs are capable of rendering content at as high as 3840x2160 lines of resolution, or 4K, with some TVs in the $25,000 range. We even saw TVs at 7680X4320 resolution, or 8K. Every TV manufacturer of note showcased some type of UHD technology at the show. Early reports state there will be 7 million UHD TVs in the market within the next three years (NPD). And while it may take a while for prices to come down for widespread market penetration, companies like Westinghouse are already touting units for as little as $2,499 for a 50" set, as reported by TWICE.
Is it Real?
As with most new technology rollouts, the viability of UHD is being hotly debated. Skeptics seem to view UHD as an unnecessary marketing ploy by consumer electronics companies focused on getting consumers to buy bigger and better technologies they don’t really need.
Arguments from this camp rally around things such as a lack of UHD content, the consumer’s inability to perceive appreciable quality differences in home viewing settings and a dearth of enabling technologies needed to make UHD a reality. For the skeptics, UHD smells like 3D TV all over again.
Proponents of the technology appear to view UHD as the next logical and indeed inevitable evolution of the TV viewing experience and have made the argument that UHD has broader applications than 3D as there is no special equipment necessary and it is not constrained to specific content genres.
Additionally, UHD provides a superior viewing experience more closely matched to commercial content capture and already has sufficient content because existing HD content can be up-scaled to look even better on UHD TVs.
Proponents also admit that the rollout out will take years, but that UHD is as inevitable as HD was many years ago. Having seen many of the UHD TVs on the CES show floor, I can report that they looked good – really good. Even 1080p content up-scaled on higher-end UHD TV’s looked noticeably better, giving companies with superior scaling algorithms a distinct advantage.
I was also surprised by the number of manufacturers on the floor showcasing market-ready 4K cameras for the pro, prosumer, and home consumer segments.
It would appear that content availability won’t be the largest limiting factor in the UHD equation. In fact, CBS is already shooting in 4K and will be using six 4K cameras during its coverage of the Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday, as reported in TV Technology.
These 4K cameras will be capturing all the vital moments of the game and serve as the most sophisticated replay system to date; making it possible to capture close-ups in fine detail without blur or pixilation and ensuring the officials don't blow a call.
If memory serves, it was the NFL’s and other sports leagues deployment of HD that was the key catalyst for market adoption of that technology.
The Real Problem So if UHD TVs are ready to ship and the broadcasters are ready to shoot in 4K, when we will we actually watch the game in UHD at home?
Not soon. Admittedly there are some foundational technology challenges with data compression, chip design, device heat dissipation and so on. However these problems are fixable and solutions are already in the works. The problem is delivering the signal. Those that recall the rollout of digital television will recall a jumble of numbers and letters: 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p -- it was enough to make your head spin. These different formats represented the variety of resolutions possible with the new digital format.
Simply put, the higher the resolution the better the picture and the bigger the signal. A big issue at this time was that the pipes that delivered the TV signal to your living room could only handle so much information. Stakeholders battled over a trade-off between picture performance and maximizing bandwidth. The result was a very messy rollout. The good news is that a resolution standard has been set for Ultra HD, so manufacturers and content creators can rally behind 4K and make the appropriate investments.
The bad news is that bandwidth is even more of an issue for UHD. Four times the issue. In fact, the current infrastructure will simply not be able to handle the data size required to deliver a 4K signal to your home. Here at the BitTorrent tower, we've tackled this issue before. The BitTorrent protocol was invented to solve problems exactly like this – to create a more reliable, durable, and efficient Internet capable of delivering vast amounts of data.
The application of BitTorrent to UHD is obvious – and may be the only viable solution for delivering 4K broadcasts with fidelity and efficiency in existence. This dovetails nicely with the fact that we’ve been working with the consumer electronics industry since 2008 through our BitTorrent Certification program, helping manufacturers to leverage the speed of the BitTorrent protocol and key downloading, transcoding, sharing and media-shifting features. As the introduction of UHD starts to take shape, we look forward to working with the industry to make this a reality for consumers. So no, we won't be watching the Super Bowl in Ultra HD this year. But maybe the FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil in 2014, even if it's in 8K.
Shahi Ghanem is the Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President for BitTorrent Inc.
Sha works closely with the Consumer Electronics industry with the BitTorrent Certification program. He previously served as president of DivX, Inc., one of the world’s leading developers of video compression, digital rights management and media language technologies.