AVent Horizon: Crank Up The Hype Machine

4K Is Here!

As I write this, the 2014 NAB Show is barely two weeks away. In Las Vegas, I fully expect to be inundated with a barrage of press releases and products that carry the “4K” and “Ultra HD” banners. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much emphasis we saw on 4K at CES back in January.

It’s hard for the average Joe to make sense of this “next step” in video technology. Given the tepid response to “smart” televisions (integrated with web browsers and apps) and the cyclic failures of 3D TV (it comes around every 20 years or so, like a comet), it’s understandable that the public regards 4K as just another crass attempt to sell us more televisions.

Given the decline in worldwide TV shipments in 2013 from 2012 (down about 3%, according to NPD DisplaySearch) and a race to the bottom in TV pricing, it wouldn’t be surprising if manufacturers are jumping onboard the S.S. UHDTV in hopes of jump-starting the moribund television marketplace. There’s not much money left in selling 2K TVs; certainly not for Japanese manufacturers, which are slowly dropping out of the business to focus on more profitable pursuits.

Cynicism aside, I can say with reasonable certainty that 4K is real, and it’s coming. The simplest way to clarify my statement is that LCD panel manufacturers, in search of elusive profitability, will eventually move to 4K glass exclusively for larger panel sizes (say, 60″ and up). We do have a precedent, and that is the movement we saw from 720p/768p resolution in 42-inch and 50-inch LCD and plasma panels about seven years ago for much the same reasons.

Whether you want or need a 4K-resolution flatpanel display is immaterial. At some point, that’s all you’ll be able to purchase for consumer and commercial applications. There is some question about the underlying technology that will be in that panel: LCDs with LED backlights? LCDs with quantum dot backlights? OLEDs? Or something that hasn’t been invented yet?

What we do know is that anything with an LCD panel in it won’t cost much. Two of the early leaders in marketing Ultra HD TVs (Sony and Samsung) have priced their offerings at about $50 per diagonal inch. But CE brand Vizio has already announced that it’ll be peddling a 55-inch 4K smart TV this fall for all of $1300, or just under $24 per diagonal inch. (A 60-inch model will sell for a similar price multiplier.)

What that means is, we’ll see commercial 4K displays before long with similar pricing. But there’s a catch, and that’s going to be getting display signals into these products. The HDMI interface, so firmly entrenched in the world of consumer electronics and so firmly despised in our universe, has recently been upgraded to version 2.0 to support faster frame rates with Quad HD (3840×2160 pixels) video content.

The catch? Good luck finding HDMI 2.0 interfaces on your commercial displays. That’s not to say you won’t find them; just that you should peruse the specifications for each product carefully to make sure you are indeed up to level 2.0.

You can also opt to use the current iteration of DisplayPort (1.2), which is out-of-the-box-ready to support Quad HD with 10-bit color at 60Hz, something HDMI 2.0 still can’t do. Or, twiddle your thumbs until the next release, version 1.3, makes its debut this fall. V1.3 will boost data rates to an astounding 32Gb/s, more than enough for Quad HD and DCI 4K with deep color.

OK, so we’ll have cheap 4K displays before long. And if we’re careful, we’ll make sure they’re equipped with HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2/1.3 interfaces. But what about content? Where will it come from, and how the heck will we get it to media players?

Here, all signs point to digital delivery as opposed to optical disc. Work is certainly being done to upgrade the Blu-ray format to support Quad HD playback but, then again, a blue laser optical disc isn’t quite as popular in our market as solid-state drives and flash memory for content storage and playout.

The good news is that memory is cheap. Check the Sunday newspaper ads, and you’ll find 32GB thumb drives for $15 to $19 each. At CES, I saw a few media players that could stream 4K content at reasonable prices. One in particular wasn’t much larger than an Apple TV box, had 16GB of internal memory (expandable), Ethernet, USB and HDMI 2.0 ports, and cost all of $299.
How about transporting 4K signals in a serial digital format? The current data cap for 3G HD-SDI is just that: 3 gigabits per second (3Gb/s), fast enough to carry a 1920x1080p/60 signal. To transport four times that much data (which is why they call it Quad HD), we’ll have to kick data rates up to 6 and 12Gb/s, depending on the color format used in encoding.

Indeed, there are groups within the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) studying the use of multi-link HD-SDI to transport Quad HD, DCI 4K (4096×2160) and even 8K signals (7680×4320 pixels, but who’s counting?) with frame rates of 50, 60, 96 and 120Hz. That’s a lot of data to move over copper wire!

The last link in our still-evolving 4K ecosystem will be a new encoder standard, MPEG4 H.265. Also known as High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC), H.265 promises to slice the bit rate in half for any encoded video streams. That means Quad HD served up somewhere in the vicinity of 15 to 20Mb/s with 4:2:0 coding. (It also means 2K video will travel efficiently at just 2 to 3Mb/s, which might be even bigger news.)

At NAB, the promise of HEVC from last year should be realized with a bunch of ready-to-ship hardware and software encoders. At least one codec manufacturer is showing real-time H.265 encoding on the show floor, presumably with live cameras. And there will certainly be many new 4K media players vying for attention in Vegas. Let’s see how many can hit that $299 price target!

Bit by bit, the 4K ecosystem is coming together. Yes, there will be the usual marketing hype and BS, and lots of confusion about UHD and 4K. Your job (should you choose to accept it) is to get smart and learn as much as you can about UHDTV.

To help, I’m teaching a first-ever class on the subject at InfoComm next month. It will be a “soup to nuts” approach and cover everything from pixel counts and aspect ratios to high frame rate and dynamic range imaging, plus quantum dots, REC 2020 and IGZO…all parts of the next-generation of UHDTVs. It all happens Wednesday morning, June 18. See you there?

Editor’s Note: For more about 4K, see Shonan Noronha’s April “Sign Age” column, “Everyone’s Talking 4K.” In addition, Shonan’s
NAB Review next month will most certainly cover more about what the 4K trends are.

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