The Japanese manufacturer is heavily pushing the higher definition format but where is the native content?
It’s fair to say that Sony has more invested in the success of 4K than any other company.
The Japanese giant is in a unique position as the only manufacturer involved in every single aspect of 4K - they make 4K film cameras, 4K cinema projectors, 4K professional workflows, 4K domestic products and, of course, they own a film studio in the form of Columbia Pictures. So it’s no idle boast when Sony claim that they are involved in 4K from “scene to screen" - covering acquisition, production, distribution, exhibition and home. It should also come as no surprise, given their involvement in both the professional and consumer aspects of 4K, that the manufacturer is less than keen on the somewhat generic and confusing term - Ultra High Definition (UHD). Sony prefer to use the rather catchier and decidedly more descriptive 4K, thus emphasising their dominant overall position when it comes to the higher definition format.
As part of this drive to dominate the 4K market, Sony plans to expand their range of products extensively this year and have already launched a new 4K camcorder (FDR-AX100), which they debuted at CES. They have also cornered the native 4K projector market, leveraging their experience of making professional cinema projectors to launch the VPL-VW1000ES and, more recently, the VPL-VW500ES and VPL-VW1100ES. Now the company is gearing up for a full scale assault on the TV market with three 4K series and seven different 4K models planned for release in 2014. This is on top of the 84” X9005 that Sony released in 2012 and the 65” and 55” versions that they released last year. The manufacturer is certainly putting a lot of their eggs in one big 4K basket and although it’s a high risk strategy, the rewards are substantial.This year's FIFA World Cup will provide Sony with an opportunity to showcase their 4K technological prowess.
Sony feel that in a saturated TV market, 4K could be the answer as consumers move to larger screen sizes. Although overall TV sales have been decreasing in Europe over the last two years, there has been growth in the 46”+ sector and the higher resolution of 4K will offer a clear advantage in larger screen sizes. Sony expect the percentage of 4K TVs bought in the 55”+ sector to increase from 6% in 2013 to 24% in 2014 and this year’s FIFA World Cup should provide an additional boost as consumers look to future-proof their new purchases. As a result, Sony will launch three new series of 4K TVs - the X95, X9 and X85 - with screen sizes ranging from 49 to 85 inches.
Sony’s new line-up of 4K TVs is designed to address what market research has identified as the three key factors - picture quality, sound quality and design. The new models will include X-tended Dynamic Range Pro, Reality Creation Pro and Triluminos technology to deliver the best 4K picture possible. The use of the new Wedge design not only looks attractive and allows for a smaller footprint but also means that Sony can include larger speakers to improve the sound quality. The addition of magnetic fluid speakers, long duct speakers, Clear Audio + technology and an optional wireless subwoofer also help to boost the audio performance of their new 4K TVs.
Of course, having all these 4K TVs and projectors on the market is all well and good but without any native 4K content to watch on them, their appeal is limited. Sony obviously realise this and are better positioned than most to do something about it. First of all they are heavily involved in the professional side of 4K production through their range of CineAlta digital cameras, which go all the way back to the HDW-F900 which was used to shoot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones in 2000. Since then, Sony has continued to develop digital cinematography and recently, launched their new F55 and F65 cameras. The F55 uses a 4K sensor, whilst the F65 uses two 4K sensors for a maximum resolution of 8K. The F65, in particular, was designed to mimic the performance of 35mm film in terms of colour space and dynamic range, and has been used to shoot films such as Oblivion, After Earth and, most recently, Tomorrowland.
The aforementioned World Cup is expected to generate a spike in TV sales and the tournament is frequently used as a test bed for new display technology. Sony was testing 3D cameras at the 2010 Finals in South Africa and they plan to use football’s showcase event to demonstrate their 4K prowess this year. Let’s just hope that 4K is a bigger success than 3D proved to be. Whilst it’s unlikely that there will be any actual live 4K broadcasts from Brazil this summer, Sony is a general contractor for FIFA TV, who plan to shoot footage at this year’s finals using 12 of Sony’s F55 professional 4K cameras. Sony are providing 4K facilities at the Maracana stadium, along with 4K film kits and 4K editing for FIFA Films. Three matches will be filmed in 4K - Match 50, Match 58 and Match 64 (the final) and Sony Professional is working on this in conjunction with Telegenic (outside broadcast trucks), GloboSat (broadcaster), Fujinon (lens manufacturer) and Quantel (editing suites).
Despite numerous requests Sony refused to comment on the future of 4K Blu-ray, aside from repeating the statements already made by the BDA.
Sony has also used 4K cameras to capture the Confederations Cup, as well as “El Clasico”, the annual showdown between Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. However, it isn’t just football coverage where Sony have been taking an active role, they have also been involved in a number of other 4K sporting events including Wimbledon. They recently provided 16 F55 cameras to shoot a Muse concert in Rome and partnered Peter Gabriel in his Goes Back to Front live show. They have also been involved in ground breaking live broadcasts of stage plays in 4K, the first of which was the National Theatre Live production of War Horse which was shown in participating cinemas around the country.
Sony, of course, also make professional 4K projectors for the cinema and they were keen to point out that Theatre 7 in Pinewood, where their 4K launch event was being held, used a Sony R515 4K Digital Cinema Projector. This particular model has a 8,000:1 contrast ratio and capabilities that far exceed the current DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) specifications. To date, Sony has installed 17,000 cinema systems globally, with 2,500 in Europe, alone, and their 4K projectors are also compatible with 3D and can project at 24, 48 or 60 fps. Looking to the future, Sony is already developing a new range of 4K projectors that use a laser as a light source; providing benefits such as very high and consistent brightness, a long operating life and reduced power and maintenance needs.
Sony’s presentation about their 4K Digital Cinema Projectors was prefaced by a quote from director Christopher Nolan, who said that “2K digital projectors are basically just high-definition TVs projected.” A valid point, which brings up the elephant in the room - now that we have 4K TVs and projectors in our homes, how does the industry intend to actually deliver native 4K content? The great hope has always been 4K Blu-ray but the BDA has been suspiciously quiet of late, only promising to release detailed specifications this year. When pushed on the subject, Sony would confirm nothing more than what the BDA had already announced and, if the company that developed Blu-ray and owns a film studio can’t provide us with any concrete information, you begin to wonder if 4K Blu-ray has a future. Our industry sources have said that the technology is ready to go - four layer discs with a 100GB storage capacity and HEVC for compression - but the studios just aren’t interested in supporting another disc based format.
That left Sony still plugging their ‘Mastered in 4K’ Blu-rays which they launched last year in an attempt to bridge the obvious gap between current disc technology and any kind of 4K future. These discs use 4K masters provided by Colorworks that are down-res’d to 1080p and also include metadata that allow a Sony BD player and Sony 4K display to unlock a wider colour space. The majority of new films are mastered in 4K and many restorations are also done at 4K, so there is a big library of content available should a delivery system ever be agreed upon. It's also worth remembering that a film doesn't need to be shot on 4K cameras to produce a 4K master, in fact, 35mm film already has a higher effective resolution. The aforementioned Christopher Nolan still shoots on film, whilst Sony's recent The Amazing Spider-man 2 was shot on film and so will J. J. Abrams' new Star Wars movie. Ultimately, however, whatever master they are using, Sony's 'Mastered in 4K' Blu-rays are still in 1080p, so anyone looking for a native 4K disc format might have a long wait on their hands.Sony and most other manufacturers are placing a lot of faith in Netflix when it comes to delivering any native 4K content.So how will native 4K content be delivered? Well, now that the HEVC codec has been agreed and rolled out, it seems that streaming and download is going to be the primary method. Sony plan to start offering native 4K content via there Video Unlimited service, although this is predominately in the US, with no plans yet to launch in the UK. That leaves most peoples' hopes firmly resting on Netflix's shoulders, as the king of streaming has big plans as far as 4K goes. We had a chance to watch an episode of House of Cards being streamed live in Ultra HD 4K from Netflix onto a Sony 4K TV and the picture quality was very impressive.
There was no question that the higher resolution was immediately apparent and all of Sony's 2014 TVs will have HEVC decoding and support for Netflix 4K. If you already own a 2012/2013 Sony 4K TV or a Sony 4K projector, you can also access Netflix 4K content by buying the newly announced FMP-X5. This 4K media streamer will be released in August, will set you back about £350 and apparently will only work with Sony TVs and projectors. At the moment it only offers Netflix 4K but hopefully Sony will add their 4K Unlimited Service and maybe even YouTubes VP9 4K decoding as well.
Still that's quite a steep price just to add Netflix 4K and of course you'll also need at least 15mbps to actually use the service, which excludes a lot of people in the UK and Europe. There's no doubt that native 4K content is coming but without a physical delivery system, some of us are going to have to wait a lot longer than we would like.
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