Now We’ve Got 4K TV, But What Will We Watch?

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Sony XBR-55X900A 4K HDTVby Andy Patrizio

One of the breakout technologies at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the advent of “4k TVs,” a reference to their resolution. These TVs, called “Ultra High-Definition” by some, show a display in 3,840×2,048 pixels per inch resolution. By way of comparison, high definition is 1920×1080 and standard DVD is 720×480.

However, those TVs are expensive table-top ornaments without content. The industry has just gone through a massive and expensive conversion to high definition, it’s not about to go through a 4k upgrade next.

Which means the method of delivery is either going to be on-demand over the Internet, or on a form of hard media. Given data caps are now standard with every cable provider, the idea of blowing dozens of gigabytes to deliver one movie seems unlikely.

Streaming is also greatly restricted by the fact most households don’t have the bandwidth they would need to get an adequate picture, said Andy Parsons, a spokesman for the Blu-Ray Disc Association and a VP with Pioneer Electronics.

“The average household has 6 megabits of bandwidth. Blu-ray is 48 megabits for its stream [off the disc in the player], and that’s half of what 4k video would require. It’s impractical to believe you will be able stream that kind of content any time soon,” he said.

“If there is a platform that’s in any way viable it will have to be packaged media like a disc,” added Parsons. Any disc format for Ultra High-Def would need a lot more space. HDTV is six time as sharp as standard definition DVD, but the jump from DVD to Blu-Ray was only five-fold. Advances in Codecs helped compress the video. Still, it means a lot of capacity.

The good news is that we won’t have to go through another whole format change, like the jump from standard DVD to Blu-ray. Standard Blu-ray uses two layers, but Parsons said that Blu-ray OEMs have gotten discs as dense as ten layers in the labs. So it’s much easier to add capacity to a Blu-ray disc than create a whole new optical format.

“It makes the most sense to go that way. The intriguing thing is what if you can make a version that has a scalable factor like 3D Blu-Ray,” said Parsons. 3D Blu-Ray discs will default to 3D if you have the proper DVD player and TV, but if not, it just downscales automatically to 2D video.

The BDA formed the task force to discuss Ultra HD about three months ago. Its mission is to study various new technologies to add to the Blu-Ray spec to see whether or not it makes sense to add them. The first consideration is the technical feasibility; the second is market demand; and third is the impact of the extension on the installed base, which is over 50 million households.

But there’s also the piracy concern for the studios. Bill Hunt, publisher of The Digital Bits, has followed DVD since its inception in 1997 and saw what an ordeal it was getting the studios on board because they feared piracy. In 1999, their fears came true when DVD encryption was broken. Blu-ray has also since been broken, but piracy is not as common due to the very large file sizes of the movies (20-30GB).

“A lot of studios are concerned because 4k is essentially print master resolution. If they start releasing these films digitally in 4k, if you pirate the 4k edition, you got a studio master quality video,” said Hunt.

All of this is long-term talk. Ultra-high definition TVs have no release data and broadcasters have only just finished migrating to HD. Neither Parsons or Hunt expect 4K TVs any time soon. For now, Blu-ray is doing quite well, despite talk of the demise of physical media.

“On-demand is definitely increasing, but it seems to be affecting DVD sales and rentals rather than Blu-ray sales. The back catalog is selling well on Blu-ray now. There are people replacing DVDs with Blu-ray. There is still real growth in a lot of areas,” said Hunt.

Parsons said Blu-ray unit sales rose 21.3% in 2012 over 2011 numbers, and the industry has seen increases like that every year since the beginning and that isn’t slowing down.



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