When will signage embrace it?
The talk about 4K is all over the place and at times, some of it could be misleading or at best, confusing. This year, the 4K buzz at tradeshows and other events has been at an all-time high, with the aggressive introduction of 4K displays and supporting products for the consumer, commercial and broadcast markets. That’s why it is important to gain a better understanding of what’s really involved in deployment, and from who, where and when the initial demand for 4K signage will come.
Sometimes referred to as UHD (Ultra High Definition), 4K resolution is around four times higher than Full HD 1080p (1920×1080). For many applications the resolution is 3840×2160, while for cinema and projection applications, the resolution is higher (4096×2160). The resulting image at either resolution is vastly superior to HD, and almost irresistible to anyone responsible for place-based (DOOH) signage at cinema, sports and high-end retail venues. Luxury-brand marketers and ad agency executives, especially those involved in the automobile and fashion industries, look to such deployments to provide the highest quality display to attract and influence affluent consumers.
Although the 4K TV push will undoubtedly stimulate consumer adoption, 4K broadcasts and packaged media are a few years away. The gating factor in delivering sustainable 4K content to displays is often bandwidth, and streaming native 4K video can throttle most networks. The good news is that, with the latest H.265/HEVC codec and HDMI 2.0 connectors, 4K content can be delivered at up to 60fps, with much higher resolution and at about the same bit-rate or file size as 1080/60p H.264 files. For 4K/UHD resolution, advanced codecs must be at both ends of the transmission or transport pipeline: encoding of the video signal from source, and decoding of the signal at display. Basically, all components from capture to display must support 4K with integrity.
Various sectors of the industry are working to overcome 4K’s bandwidth, storage, transmission and connectivity challenges. For example, LG recently announced 105-inch and 98-inch digital signage displays with an embedded chip that decodes H.264 and H.265 video signals at 30p or 60p. In addition, the upscaling function and connectivity options enable display of content from virtually any input source, including HDMI 2.0, USB and LAN. Haivision’s recently unveiled solution for HEVC streaming within its transcoding product line offers several advantages, including Secure Reliable Transport technology. Crestron offers an alternative, codec independent approach to 4K switching and distribution with its new HDBaseT Cat 5/6 extenders and 4K-ready DigitalMedia matrix switchers.
A bigger challenge for signage applications may be acquiring relevant 4K video content, but 4K graphics and animation combined with HD video are within the state of the art. Creative services for 4K video may be too expensive for all but the best-heeled clients at this time, due to the high cost and scarcity of equipment and expertise. On the other hand, “wrapping” new or existing full-raster HD video in high-res graphics for 4K signage display can create an engaging viewer experience. For high-end signage, often the solution is to use full resolution HD video as one aspect of a 4K display, incorporating multiple video and graphic elements. If you or your partners can post-produce in 4K, this multi-image approach might be a viable way to take advantage of the growing number of compatible displays and media players. Videowall 4K systems employing hardware and software from Barco, Matrox, Orad and others offer another way to get this level of visual impact for high-end deployments.
At the recent Digital Signage Expo (DSE), I asked Mark Stross, Chief Technology Officer of ANC Sports Enterprises (a sports marketing and signage company), what he saw as the key obstacles to 4K deployments in signage. His response: “Although displays may be capable of displaying 4K, the backend of technology infrastructures do not support that resolution in its native format. Instead, software systems use various compression methods and scaling techniques to display content, particularly on large-format digital signage, which does not maximize the benefits of the 4K display. Bandwidth, processing power and other limitations, including the amount of time it takes to create and transfer 4K content, are currently preventing many display systems from realizing their fullest potential.”
However, reminiscent of the early days of HD in signage, FTP, local store-and-forward or even content on physical media delivered via the old, reliable sneaker-net method can provide viable delivery options for 4K content. For example, BrightSign’s new 4K media player features an optional reader for SDXC, mircoSD and mSATA cards of various capacities.
At DSE, there were many 4K displays, including the earlier-mentioned LG 105-inch commercial-grade LCD, Samsung’s new 85-inch UHD (positioned as a teaser for its upcoming 4K lineup) and Planar’s 84-inch touch display. You can read more about this proliferation of 4K at DSE in my show report elsewhere in this issue. At InfoComm this June, expect to see many new 4K displays, players, projectors, processors and system solutions.
For now, 4K signage may only be suitable for clients that need to make an ultra-high impact and have the deep pockets to pay for premium content, delivery and display. But, as costs come down, connectivity abounds and innovative vendors overcome technical hurdles, high-end clients in luxury retail, sports and transportation will be jumping on the 4K signage bandwagon.