September 6, 2015

Three Cheers for 4K?

As sales of 4K televisions sets start to take off, the promise of Ultra HD is still unclear.

Even though sales and shipments of 4K television sets are starting to take off, the outlook for Ultra HD still seems fuzzy. At least that’s the view of a growing number of video industry experts. They argue that despite its great promise, Ultra HD's prospects are still unclear for a number of reasons, including lack of content, limited bandwidth capacity, video processing challenges, cautious content and service providers, content security hurdles and more.

In a telling sign that 4K may not catch on as quickly as some industry analysts have predicted, the 2016 Summer Olympics will not be broadcast in Ultra HD as originally expected. Back in February, Olympic Broadcast Services executives announced that there will be no Ultra HD coverage of the next Olympics because of a surprising lack of demand from TV rights holders throughout the world, including such key broadcasters as NBC in the U.S. and the BBC in the U.K.

Ultra HD Gets Poor Reception
Several experts echo that sentiment. Joseph Hopkins, VP of Global Media and Entertainment Sales for Verizon Digital Media Services, noted that his division hasn't even focused on 4K at all yet. Rather than preparing for Ultra HD, he said his team is concerned with getting 1080p (the highest version of standard HD) to work at scale.

"It's certainly incredible to look at; it's beautiful," said Hopkins, speaking at Light Reading's BTE Video Summit in Chicago this past June. "But there are higher priorities now."  

Bart Spriester, SVP of Video Products for Harmonic, observed that a major hurdle for service providers is having enough bandwidth to deliver Ultra HD signals to the home in the first place. He noted that most providers believe it will take 12 Mbps to 20 Mbps of capacity to deliver 4K signals with 60 frames/second rates to viewers, and that’s with the aid of the next-gen video encoding format, High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC). "I don't think there are going to be massive gains with compression to deliver much more," he said.

However, some industry experts are more bullish about Ultra HD's short-term prospects. Glenn Hower, a research analyst at Parks Associates, predicts that more than 46 million households worldwide will subscribe to some type of Ultra HD pay-TV service by 2018. But even an optimist like Hower acknowledges that 4K has not yet taken off as anticipated among TV programmers and other content providers for a variety of reasons. For example, both HBO and ESPN, which usually pioneer new video formats, have been extremely quiet on 4K, and in fact much of the 4K content produced so far has been nature programming.

Hower believes that the level of risk aversion among programmers may have risen after their failed forays into 3D TV content several years ago. "Nobody wants to be the first to get burned," he said. "So nobody wants to be the first to jump in."

Clearing Up the Long-Term Picture
Yet most industry experts are still upbeat about the technology's longer-term prospects. They express confidence that 4K can succeed where 3D notoriously failed, especially once 4K sets start incorporating High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology to brighten the picture and bring out more of Ultra HD's benefits for viewers. They just don't think it will happen very soon.

"Our estimation is that you'll see 4K deployed," said Spriester, whose company is now teaming with other leading video industry players to promote the development and deployment of Ultra HD content through common workflows. But he warned that Ultra HD could take even longer than standard HD, which took well over a decade to become a mainstream consumer product.

Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns with Creative Commons license



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