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4K, the New ‘Big Thing’

Unlike 3D, 4K will probably replace HD as the consumer format

Wayne ColeAt the 2013 NAB Show in Las Vegas, the proposed next big thing was 4K, not just for digital theater productions but also for broadcast, non-broadcast and home theater consumption.

While 4K was supposed to provide excitement and punch to the NAB Show, it seemed to land with a soft thud in the eyes of many attendees. However, that could be the result of cynicism left over from the 3D fiasco of the 2012 NAB Show, where 3D was touted as the “next big thing” but which consumers continue to regard as a nice night out at the movies.

In addition, the Consumer Electronics Association was the prime proponent of the failed consumer 3D adoption effort, and the CEA is the force behind the 4K-for-consumers hype-fest. That fact alone is inducing disinterested yawns from many industry insiders with regards to 4K.


Some of the less-than-enthusiastic response to 4K for broadcast and consumers stems from the fact that CEA’s supported format is different from the digital cinema format folks have considered to be true 4K; that is two times 2K, or a raster of 4096 × 2160 pixels in a 17:9 aspect ratio.

CEA’s “almost 4K,” Ultra-HD (UHD), is 3840 × 2160 pixels with a 16:9 aspect ratio. To get a 4K-cinema production into an undistorted form for UHD display, the source imagery needs to be cropped or letterboxed. Either non-square pixels, or some sort of scaled horizontal distortion of the picture might also be used.

Creating further confusion is that many suppliers of UHD equipment have a tendency to use the term “4K” in their advertising and sales pitches. It is only when they are questioned or the fineprint of their ads is scrutinized is it discovered they should be saying “UHD” and not “4K.” It does make a difference.

Users of UHD equipment will have to accommodate losses through cropping, letter boxing or scaling. The argument in support of UHD is that only “professional viewers” would notice the degradation or distortion, and, like HD production for SD viewing, 4K for UHD or even HD makes sense because of the increased quality of the final result. In a era when horrid Web and cell phone video is accepted, consumed in copious quantities and has increasingly made its way onto “broadcast” television, the question has to be asked if the increased quality of 4K acquisition for all things other than digital cinema makes economic sense in the near term?


However, multi-camera sports and surveillance operations are areas where production equipment manufacturers have been able to demonstrate an economic advantage to 4K. Using “region of interest” processing on a single 4K feed, control room personnel can scan or zoom into selected areas of the view to send out multiple HD or SD “camera” views.

Both Sony and AJA Video Systems demonstrated ROI processor/scalers at the NAB Show for just that purpose. That approach could reduce the number of cameras — and operators — production companies need to cover a venue, thereby lowering overall production costs. At the same time, producers can ease into 4K production and acquire the needed equipment in anticipation of providing future 4K or UHD for wider broadcasts or distribution.

Sony is doing its part to stimulate demand for UHD at the consumer level through new TV and media player offerings. In January, Sony unveiled two “4K Ultra HD” TVs, the XBR-55X900A (55-inch) priced at $4,999 and the XBR-65X900A (65-inch) priced at $6,999. In April, Sony launched the FMPX1 4K Media Player, which will initially ship loaded with 10 Sony Pictures releases in 4K, with another 10 to follow late in 2013. As a smart device, the FMP-X1 will also be able to download 4K titles purchased over the Internet.

When compared to Sony’s previous 84-inch, $24,000 UHD TV, the prices of the XBR-55X900A and 65X900A are much closer to what videophiles might pay. In addition, the smaller sizes of the new models make them more compatible with most consumers’ living spaces. What remains to be seen is if those, and 4K TVs from Sony’s competitors, can scale current HD to full-screen displays with better results than HD TVs do with SD signals. If not, consumers are unlikely to purchase 4K TVs to enjoy the few available 4K movie titles available while making their day-to-day HD look like crap.

Sony’s FMP-X1 smart 4K media player will be able to download 4K titles from the Web, and at some point, be able to play 4K HEVC content from Blu-ray media.In addition, a Sony representative seemed to hint that an adaptation to Blu-ray data standards would eventually provide capacity to allow 4K-distribution on optical disks. However, while the physical disk may remain the same, consumers will need new 4K, UHD capable players to view the content.

Those product approaches show that Sony is attacking UHD from both the content and consumer electronics front at the same time it forges ahead with 4K production equipment introductions.


Many broadcast, cable and satellite operators, still paying off the bills from the analog-to-digital and SD-to-HD transitions, will be reluctant to step up to 4K distribution unless it can be done with much of their existing infrastructure.

Satellite operator SES, in cooperation with Broadcom Corp. and Harmonic, demonstrated the ability to broadcast UHD via an existing satellite channel shortly after the NAB Show, using “high-efficiency video coding,” a new compression scheme that reportedly increases efficiency by 50 percent over the H.264 currently in use for HD delivery.

There has also been speculation that HEVC (aka H.265) will, once the standard is finalized, be used to cram 4K movies onto existing Blu-ray media, albeit in a form that will require new playback hardware.

Since the obstacles and objections to 4K seem destined to fall relatively soon, it seems likely that 4K will replace HD as the de rigueur consumer format over the next five to 10 years despite the lack of wild enthusiasm on anyone’s part other than the CEA.


AJA Video Systems:

Sony Electronics Inc.:


Broadcom Corp.:

Harmonic Inc.: