CES 2013: 4K - The format everyone wants but nobody can (yet) deliver
Ultra High Domination
As we suspected, if there’s one overriding buzzword that is emerging from CES 2013, it’s 4K or Ultra High Definition, if you prefer the CEA’s official nomenclature.It’s been mentioned in the context of smartphones, tablets and – most interestingly to us - a growing number of TVs that will be available over the coming 12 months. It’s becoming the ‘take-home’ technology of this year’s show with numerous mentions in the mainstream media as well as specialised websites, such as ours.
We got our first look at a 4K TV at the end of 2012, in the shape of LG’s monstrous, 84 inch LM960V but of course at that kind of size, it’s not going to fit comfortably in the average living room so it was inevitable the manufacturers would move to satisfy those with more modest living conditions, not to mention funds. We labelled the LM960 as a ‘glimpse of the future’ but perhaps that tomorrow is closer than we originally thought, if the manufacturers can produce conveniently sized Ultra High Definition TVs at prices the public is willing to stomach. Realistically we’d estimate that being 3-4 years down the line but things move quickly in the display market and the clamour to be the first to break the market with mainstream pricing is evident. Whether there’s a real need for 4K TVs is another matter and the manufacturers seem to be taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to the launch of the technology.
Amongst the major TV manufacturers, LG was again first out of the blocks at CES 2013 with the announcement of 55 and 65-inch Ultra HD TVs but others soon followed suit; Sharp, Samsung, Vizio and Sony amongst them. In outlandish fashion, Samsung also took things the other way with the bizarre, ‘blackboardesque’ 110-inch S9000 but that’s pipedream fodder for the man in the street. 55 inches is emerging as the sweet spot and largest growth area for big-screen in the home and if 4K is to gain leverage domestically, it’s likely around that size where it will begin to gain some traction.
We’ve become accustomed, in recent years, to returning from CES having had little to nothing by way of surprise announcements, so the news that Sony – and then belatedly, Panasonic - both had concept 56-inch 4K OLED displays on show came as something of a revelation. Panasonic’s decision to hold back their prototype from the press day, instead saving it for their Keynote presentation, has baffled some but, in the long term, that’s unlikely to matter. It’s going to be some time before either Sony or Panasonic are in a position to launch their U-HD OLED’s so it’s interesting how each is positioning itself in these uncertain times. Both companies are beset with financial difficulties but clearly Sony is being more aggressive with 4K; they do, after all, have the most to gain by it hitting the mainstream on a number of fronts. Panasonic seems to be taking the stance that neither technology is ready for primetime so the marriage of the two for general release when the dust settles could be a smart move.
Just because the manufacturers want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, of course. A number of stars need to align before 4K can get in to our homes. Studio’s need to be convinced it’s worth their while to justify the expense; broadcasters need to get on-board, facilitated by more efficient video codecs and then – most crucially – someone needs to find a viable means by which to deliver it. We expected Sony to be at the vanguard of this at CES 2013 and we weren’t disappointed, even if details are scant at this time. Purchasers of Sony’s XBR-84X900 out in the US had already been promised some kind of delivery system, which is essentially a hard drive player pre-loaded with native 4K content from their own portfolio with titles such as The Amazing Spider-Man, Lawrence of Arabia, and Taxi Driver. Sony announced at their CES press event that this summer they are to launch the World’s first 4K Ultra HD Video distribution service in the U.S. Consumers will be able to enjoy native 4K content such as feature-length movies from not only Sony Pictures but other providers, although they were keeping a lid on as to exactly who they were. To facilitate the service Sony will also introduce a dedicated 4K Media Player which will also, presumably, come with some pre-loaded content.
We’d foresee Sony’s service may well be subscription based and include some form of Cloud storage and/or the ability to re-download titles as and when the hard drive fills up. For those with internet connections unsuitable for such huge downloads, Sony’s plan to send out BD-ROMs with the content split across multiple discs might prove suitable although it does sound clunky. Digital download is the ultimate future for this kind of venture, the infra-structure just needs to catch up. Who knows, perhaps 4G – or even 5G – will be the answer but a solution will materialise sooner or later.
Hopes that some form of Super Blu-ray Disc and Player would come forth from Vegas seemed to have been scotched, for now, with Sony CEO Kaz Hirai stating it’s unlikely that a new disc format will be introduced to support physical distribution, speaking to The Verge after Sony’s press presentation. Sony and its Blu-ray and OLED partner Panasonic are said to be in talks about the possibility of a higher capacity Blu-ray disc capable of storing 4K movies, but there are yet to be any official agreement on a 4K industry standard.
"I think as the industry evolves 4K, [it] might decide that a disc format might be something that the consumers are looking for," said Hirai, "but at this point, before we get into that sort of format, we're looking for distribution through the network."
We read that as saying, ‘forget it’ but the market will likely ultimately dictate the realities. The other possibilities of 4K reaching the living room come in the forms of broadcast and streaming but, again, obviously there are currently a number of hurdles to overcome before either can come to fruition. At least year’s IBC (International Broadcasters Convention) Sony, in conjunction with SES, demonstrated a means of sending 4,000 lines through a satellite connection and, along with fibre optic cable, it might become a viable means of sending broadcast 4K. Meanwhile, a surprise appearance at the back of the Samsung booth from Netflix, displaying streamed 4K content gave a hint at the formats IPTV future. The project is described as ‘in beta’ by Samsung and it’s unclear if the material is coming via the internet or straight from the Netflix servers but the fact so many of the big hitters are looking in to Ultra HD delivery can only be encouraging.
Other major players actively looking in to 4K – and beyond – include the BBC, Sky and, at the very forefront, Japan’s NHK. Tellingly Korea’s leading broadcaster, KBS, is also on-board after it formed an ultra-HD content agreement with LG, who are also seeking out deals with other global content providers. NHK and the BBC even gave a further glimpse in to the future with ‘Super Hi Vision’ 8K footage being shot during the London Olympics 2012. Of course, everything needs a standard to endure and to that end an ITU Study Group recently reached agreement on the key technical details for a U-HD TV standard. According to Christoph Dosch, Chairman of the Broadcasting Service Study Group:
"UHDTV promises to bring about one of the greatest changes to audio-visual communications and broadcasting in recent decades. Technology is truly at the cusp of transforming how people experience audio-visual communications."
And those words ring very true. It’s so close we can almost touch it but the final, tantalising pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place. We want 4K, the manufacturers want 4K and the content providers seem willing to deliver it. What we don’t want is for Ultra High Definition to go the way of 3D, stifled by a lack of content and killed off before it really gets going. The next two to three years will be very telling for this nascent technology but we feel, more than ever after developments at CES 2013, there’s just enough momentum for it to prevail. Just.
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