P3 Update Blog
Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
Categories Displays a list of categories from this blog.
Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
Team Blogs Find your favorite team blogs here.
Login Login form
Is 4K Really the Next Big Thing?
By Gordon Meyer
Resolution standards for both digital cinema and home entertainment are on the rise. For the past couple of years, there’s been a drive to bump up the Digital Cinema standard resolution of 2048 x 1080 to 4096 x 2160, commonly referred to as “4K.” The latter resolution quadruples the resolution of the original digital cinema standard. But here’s where it gets potentially confusing. Because the HD standard for consumer displays is 1920 x 1080, which is not quite as wide as the digital cinema standard. Likewise, the new consumer version of 4K, officially called Ultra HD, is actually 3840 x 2160. Again while it’s 4x the resolution of HD, it’s not quite as wide as digital cinema 4K. So there are two different standards for digital imaging using the same name, even though they are slightly different resolutions.
Sony, of course, has been very aggressive in promoting the 4K format as an exhibition standard. But there’s a chicken and egg dilemma for exhibitors being asked to invest in these higher resolution projection systems because the majority of movies being digitally released still master their DCPs to the 2K standard, so, at least for now, the number of movies available in a native 4K format are still the exception. The good news is that most 4K digital cinema projectors have up-conversion circuitry built in to artificially create a 4K image. And with the growing use of cameras shooting native 4K and higher resolution, the number of movies available in native 4K DCPs should be growing steadily. But what about the consumer version of 4K (aka UHD)?
Like the theatrical version of 4K, there’s a dearth of native 4K content available for home consumption. Among other things, unlike HDTV delivered via Blu-ray, there is yet to be an industry standard for UHD packaged media. That’s key to getting a foothold in the market because the bandwidth requirements for a format that has four times the amount of data per minute means that it will probably be at least five years before there’s anything even remotely resembling a broadcast or streaming infrastructure that could support a full UHD signal. As a stop-gap measure, both Sony and RED have UHD compatible home servers on the market. Sony’s even comes pre-loaded with 10 features from their extensive library. But it’s still a very niche and expensive market with most UHD displays starting at $5,000 for a 55” display. This fall, that entry level threshold will come down dramatically with the introduction of a 50” UHD TV from Chinese manufacturer TCL, but that’s still pricey for a lot of consumers.
As for packaged media, it’s up in the air as to whether we’ll see an UHD version of the Blu-ray standard or something else. A single layer Blu-ray disc can hold up to 25GB of data. If it’s a double layered disc, that could go up to 50GB. According to Blu-ray.com, future generations of the BD format could incorporate enough layers to store as much as 200GB, which theoretically should support feature length content in the UHD format. Meanwhile, Sony and Panasonic recently announced that they are jointly developing a 300GB disc format that should hit the market sometime in 2015. But this triggers the issue of a potential UHD disc format war as there was between Blu-ray and the now defunct HD-DVD format.
But in the home, having native UHD content is just part of the challenge. Until the industry gets its act together, it’s probably going to get messy with so many different UHD delivery systems, which will inevitably not only confuse consumers, it will also encourage hesitancy. After all, who wants to invest thousands of dollars on a high end display and hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on software if you’re unsure as to how long your format of choice will even be around? Think about all those poor suckers who invested in HD-DVD players and discs, only to have them turn into over-priced DVD players and coasters once HD-DVD lost the format wars.
But there’s an even more fundamental issue at hand. One of the reasons that DVD, and later HDTV caught on with consumers is because, in both cases, there was a dramatically noticeable improvement in picture quality over the prior format. VHS looks like you’re watching video through a dirty fish tank compared to DVD. And HDTV in both its broadcast/cable/satellite and Blu-ray flavors delivers near digital cinema quality picture and sound. Most consumers can easily see and appreciate the difference. But we’re rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to screen resolution, even theatrically.
When we get to these higher resolutions, the bigger the screen, the more you’re likely to see a tangible difference between 2K and 4K (or HDTV and UHD). But how many people do you know can tell the difference between 2K and 4K images on a 50 foot wide movie theatre screen? Now shrink that down to a 50” screen in the home. How much of a difference will most people really see between HDTV and UHD resolutions? I’ve seen a number of UHD prototypes and now floor models in retail stores. As good as they look (and they do look good), if you were to put a UHD display side by side with an HDTV display, I’d be willing to bet that most people, if they can see a difference at all, will say it’s a subtle one.
Frankly the biggest benefit I can see for UHD displays is to use them for RealD compatible 3D displays which already cut horizontal resolution in half. With a UHD 3D screen that uses passive display technology, that would restore full 1080 resolution per eye. But short of that, I’d have a hard time justifying paying a premium for UHD over HDTV, at least at current pricing. And now, the consumer electronics industry is already talking about 8K UHD (7680 x 4320) resolution.
While I can see the benefits of having cameras having that high a resolution as it gives so much more flexibility in post, I think for all but IMAX sized screens on steroids, that’s overkill even for theatrical exhibition. Who the hell is going to be able to notice a tangible difference between 8K and 4K on even the largest home displays? At that point, it becomes more about bragging rights than truly enhancing the home viewing experience.
All that having been said, when it comes to content creators, I do agree that it makes sense to future proof your content by creating and mastering your shows in a 4K format. But beyond that just seems like overkill to me.
Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.