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The Time For 4K Monitors Is Now

Agencies adopt hi-res technology

4K cameras are being used by NASA on the International Space Station, and the Marshall Space Flight Center now has two 4K monitors to view this footage in its native resolution. Note the meteor streak near the center of the photo—see inset. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

4K (a.k.a. Ultra HD) may not be a mainstream video format yet, but 4K monitors are already proving their worth in government video production facilities. In fact, 4K monitors are currently being used by NASA as part of its ongoing video production chain.

NASA has been exploring the use of high-resolution video formats as an affordable replacement for film since the 2003 Columbia accident. Today, the space agency relies on Red digital cameras to shoot historical and archival footage in both 4K and 6K, to capture the highest level of detail possible. It has also sent a 6K Red Dragon camera to the International Space Station for the same reason. (Previous use of large Imax cameras in orbit ceased to be possible once the Space Shuttle was retired.)

“Until recently, we rarely got to view all of this imagery in 4K due to the expense of 4K monitors and our difficult play-out work flows,” said Rodney Grubbs, the NASA Imagery Experts program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

However, reductions in monitor prices and workflow improvements have made it possible for MSFC staff to view 4K video in its native resolution, rather than having to downconvert it to HD. This is why the MSFC now has a 65-inch Sony XBR-65X900B consumer-grade 4K monitor (sold for $3,800 online) installed in its lab, and a 32-inch Sharp PN-K321 professional-grade 4K monitor ($3,000) that “we purchased from Apple and connected to the Mac Pro system we put together,” Grubbs said.

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Having 4K monitors has delivered a number of benefits to NASA.

“For several years, we have shot 4K but never got to actually see it in its native 4K. Seeing the native 4K gives the shooters confirmation of good focus and exposure,” said Grubbs. “It also helps if a producer or editor is considering taking a portion of the 4K video for HD use, such as a 720p or 1080p slice from the larger full framing of the 4K video. Meanwhile, having 4K monitors aids our engineers in making very close inspections of events in the video; for example, a piece of debris falling during a launch.”

NASA has been using Red One 4K camera at the Kennedy Space Center since 2010. The April 5, 2010 launch of STS-131 (using the Space Shuttle Discovery) was recorded in 3D, using five pairs of Red One cameras arranged for stereoscopic shooting around the launch pad.


Given NASA’s overall use of 4K video, both to increase the detail of its footage for current analysis and to future-proof its footage for years to come, it only makes sense for the space agency to use 4K monitors.

So, is there a place for 4K monitors in other government production facilities? According to Randall Dark, the answer is yes.

A pioneer in the use of high-resolution video production — he shot the analog HDTV series “Chasing Rainbows” for CBC-TV in 1986 — who is currently producing the SMPTE documentary “Moving Images” in 4K, Dark believes that this format will inevitably find a home in government video facilities.

“I think certain government video production facilities will benefit greatly by implementing high-resolution monitors and getting into 4K production capabilities today,” Dark said. “Having talked to a few individuals employed in that area, they feel that the science-related agencies — NASA, NOAA, USGS and others — have data visualization and other materials that they will want to be able to see in 4K.”

This said, adding 4K capabilities doesn’t mean throwing out HD, because the two formats can live side-by-side in today’s digital production environment. This is why government agencies who can benefit from 4K’s enhanced video capabilities may want to consider adding a low-cost 4K camera, production chain, and 4K monitor to their HD plant; even if the monitor is only consumer-grade. If nothing else, getting familiar with 4K today will prepare government video producers for this change when it comes—because, like HD, it likely will.


Inexpensive 4K monitors are now available to government video producers. For instance, ViewSonic has launched a line of low-cost 4K monitors ranging from 24- to 28-inches; all of which cost less than $800.

ViewSonic’s VP2780-4K professional-grade 28-inch monitor

The 24-Inch ViewSonic VX2475Smhl-4K monitor only costs $450, while the $650 28-inch VG2860mhl-4K display offers multiple connectivity options, plus a height-adjustable stand with swivel, tilt and pivot.

“The VX2475Smhl-4K is one of the industry’s first Ultra HD monitors with HDMI 2.0, which enables 3,840 x 2,160-pixel resolution at 60 Hz to ensure smooth content display and increases the monitor’s compatibility with HDMI 2.0 systems,” said Kenneth Mau, ViewSonic`s senior product manager. “The VG2860mhl-4K is great for customers who need Ultra HD resolution along with an easy-to-use and flexible ergonomic design.”

For $800, video producers can get the professional grade 28-inch VP2780-4K monitor.

“The VP2780-4K delivers all the high-grade features and future-proof connectivity ports a demanding user needs for color critical applications, while ensuring flexible connection to a variety of devices,” said Mau.

Planar’s family of 4K monitors

Planar’s $600 28-inch 4K IX2850 display is also configured for desktop use. Beyond offering up to 4K resolution with a 60 Hz native refresh rate, the IX2850 can view up to four full HD sources on a single display using Planar’s FlexFour software. A built-in USB 3.0 Hub lets users connect external video sources directly to the monitor. Up to four of these units can be integrated to create a 16-window HD display. (Planar offers dual and quad monitor display stands.) The IX2850 also has two DisplayPort and two HDMI video inputs.

Sony offers two 4K monitors “that could be suitable for government applications,” said Gary Mandle, Sony Electronics’ senior product manager for professional displays. These are the 30-inch PVM-X300 LED and the 30-inch BVM-X300 OLED models.

“Sony’s new BVM-X300 is its first OLED master monitor to combine 4K resolution, high dynamic range and a wide color gamut display,” Mandle said. “It provides an OLED option for professional video production applications, including color grading, on-set monitoring and quality control in a 4K workflow.”


Of course, the inevitable addition of 4K to a government video producer’s supported formats will require a level of signal monitoring capability. One way to get ahead of this requirement is by purchasing equipment today that can also monitor HD; thus adding a level of future-proofing into a video production facility. Wilbraham Public Access Cable TV (WPACTV) has done just that.

WPACTV is the government-run channel in Wilbraham, Mass. It is a busy production facility: Last year WPACTV produced 191 government programs and 221 community programs.

Despite this heavy content output, “our station relies mostly on volunteers for the day-to-day production being produced out of our facility,” said Anthony Aube, WPACTV’s executive director. “It is very important that we utilize equipment that has a fair price point and has been constructed in a robust way that can hold up to the wear and tear that comes when working with many different volunteers.”

Anthony Aube, WPACTV’s executive director, with the Blackmagic SmartScope Duo 4K.

Since it produces its programming in HD, WPACTV doesn’t have a need for a 4K monitor in its production chain. However, it is ready to monitor 4K signal quality today, along with HD and other formats.

This is because “we are using three Blackmagic SmartScope Duo 4Ks in our Master Control room for Quality Controlling all of our outgoing signals,” said Aube.

Priced at less than $1,000, the Blackmagic SmartScope Duo 4K is a dual monitor that allows broadcast-accurate waveform monitoring on two LCD 8-inch screens of any SD, HD and 4K/Ultra HD (connected using 6G-SDI cables) video sources.

“SmartScope Duo 4K’s monitors are independent and can display any combination of video feed or scopes,” said Bob Caniglia, Blackmagic Design’s senior regional manager in Eastern North America. “With seven types of independent waveform display, users can select between waveform, vectorscope, RGB parade, YUV parade, histogram and audio phase level displays with 16 channels of SDI audio and audio phase meter. SmartScope Duo 4K can be remotely adjusted via Ethernet and includes full tally features, so it is perfect for live broadcasts.”

For his part, WPACTV’s Aube likes “being able to display our signals on the waveform and vector functions of the scope. We also like being able to calibrate the monitor’s image by using a software GUI so that a volunteer can’t accidentally change a setting by turning a knob on the front of a monitor. This adds a level of consistency and reliability.”

Aube also likes the fact that having the Blackmagic SmartScope Duo 4K in place lays the groundwork and an upgrade path for 4K, “when that day comes.”

There is room for 4K monitors in today’s HD-dominated government video production facilities. And now that 4K monitor prices have come down, it’s a good time to get such a monitor, a low-cost 4K camera, and start experimenting!