Is it time to bring home a 4k UHD TV ?
In US alone, over 1.5 millions households bought an UHD TV in the first quarter of 2016 but with current environment, the short answer is a No and the long answer will need some more reading below.
CES saw it and so did NAB and for best part of last two years, UHD remains an all favorite theme for TV, Blu-ray and STB chipset manufactures, camera OEMs, studios, media production houses and OTT platform players in each and every technology show. Ironically there is neither enough content out there nor production and distribution setup for mass supply but the urge to sell and get greater and richer pixels remains the high decibel marketing call which is only getting louder. Trust any campaign and it is no brainer that unless you have upgraded to 4K you are losing out on all the great stuff out there. But is it really the case?
While enough is already written on (non) availability of UHD content, there remains little understanding on UHD itself. Do we really understand what is 4K or UHD or 4K UHD? Are we as consumers aware of what advantages does UHD brings – does it requires a larger screen or moving your couch nearer to the TV to enjoy the experience? It is time we take a step back from the marketing jargons and understand what makes UHD so different and special from HD (read here). Compared to HD, UHD roadmap indeed brings significant improvements across the spectrum with emphasis shifting away from only resolution (aka more pixels) to enrichment and experience.
Parameters for Immersive Experience, from SD to UHD
Upgrade from SD to HD was about getting digital and higher spatial resolution but upgrade from HD to UHD is about the immersive experience. Immersive experience, these two words weigh a lot in TV industry and are guiding torch for years of research in bringing the next generation TV technology to the living room. In 2014, Dr. Kazumasa Nomoto from Sony laid an interesting relationship with five key attributes, which influence quality of display. Spatial Resolution (pixels), Range of Colors (Wide Color Gamut), Contrast or High Dynamic Range (HDR), Quantization or bit depth and temporal resolution or High Frame Rate (HFR). I am extending the relationship by adding field of view, and below are the six parameters which one should know to understand what UHD has to offer. Each of these parameters play a significant role in bringing the next level of enriched experience as we move right -> across the X axis.
Among the crowd HDR is the poster boy and promises to bring instant enrichment to the visual quality. HDR increases the difference between the darkest dark and the brightest bright parts of the image and hence creates a more real life like experience. In lot of ways, HDR technology is even more important than 4K resolution expansion.
What to Buy – UltraHD Premium Certification
HD evolution saw multiple phases as the technology and devices matured from HD ready to Full HD and UHD shift is expected to be no different. Although late but still very important, we now have a grand body in UHDAlliance which published the standard for Ultra HD Premium certification during CES 2016. UHD premium certification is a strong benchmark and lays down a robust set of criteria to ensure maximum compatibility between content creators, distributors and hardware vendors. Below are the requirements for Ultra HD premium certification for display devices.
1. Image Resolution: 3840×2160
2. Color Bit Depth: 10-bit signal
3. Color Palette (Wide Color Gamut)
- Signal Input: BT.2020 color representation, device must be able to accept Rec.2020 signal
- Display Reproduction: More than 90% of P3 colors
4. High Dynamic Range
- SMPTE ST2084 EOTF (Electro Optical Transfer Function), support for HDR technology – HDR10, Dolby Vision, Technicolor/Philips HDR.
- A combination of peak brightness and black level of more than 540 nits peak brightness and less than 0.0005 nits black level for OLED technology. Similarly more than 1000 nits peak brightness and less than 0.05 nits black level for LCD LEDs
Most leading TV manufactures have already launched or given product demos for UHD premium certified units. CES 2016 itself saw many releases with Panasonic introducing DX902, Samsung KS9000, LG with G6 and E6 series, Sony XD93 and XD94 and TCL, Hisense and Vizio also coming with their UltraHD premium certified units. The device ecosystem from specifications standpoint has started to stabilize but devices themselves are not sufficient.
UHD Media Services and Media Players
Sadly, 4K UHD media services are still scarce with limited offerings from handful OTT service players; practically no service from broadcasters and so for most part the only option is upscaled HD content. Sony recently introduced Sony’s Ultra 4K streaming service but is limited to Bravia 4K 2015 and 2016 models, Netflix has launched Marco Polo’s first season in HDR and plans to bring Daredevil series and over 600 hrs. of content in 4k and Ultraflix offers a decent 4k library. In the Pay-TV service segment, larger providers have started to explore the territory with AT&T/DirectTV introducing 4K channel, Dish launching 4K VOD services and Comcast planning to introduce HDR/4K capable Xi5/Xi6 STBs later in 2016. Comcast recently also announced to stream live HDR video from the Rio Games. While streaming players have an early lead, UHD services from traditional broadcaster are expected to get real only after huge investments and acceptance of ATSC 3.0 standard. ATSC3.0 which brings a massive shift to digital broadcast with support of IP-based delivery can open up VOD functionality for broadcasters but none of it is there yet.
In the last decade consumers upgraded their living rooms from SD to HD relatively inexpensively, but 4K is in a different league. It is fairly expensive for service providers to roll out an UHD pay-TV service, studios to produce one and consumers to hook an expensive display to consume it. And without enough services the math does not works out . Below graph from IHS shows 4K UHD TV penetration trends across major countries from 2014 till 2019.
It is still early for UHD and it is likely that industry will first see a transition from HD to HDR+ (HDR, WCG and 10 bit color) devices before moving to full UHD. It is interesting to note that content sourcing involves multiple phases starting from capturing, editing, post production, encoding, distribution, delivery, decoding and then finally display. And unless the entire digital supply chain is cost and infrastructure enabled for new technology, barriers will continue to remain. Today it does not excites me to bring home the 4K UHD, not yet. Like the other 95% homes still enjoying their full HD TV, I am also happy with mine and plan to hang on to it for some more time. HDR and UHD is the future reality but the buy time is still away. And this concludes the long answer.