Is 4K the next 3D?

Consumer electronics is still looking for a hit.
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Researcher Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) reports HDTV penetration at close to 80 million households, and Leichtman Research Group reports that half those households have second HD sets. Ever on the hunt for that elusive next winning product, television set manufacturers, having struck out with 3D, have stepped up to the plate for another at bat. At CES earlier this year, most manufacturers were showing prototypes of 4K receivers and promising product for later in the year.

Recent product announcements by Sony and LG and rumored announcements from Samsung and Toshiba all signal that now must be “later in the year,” as the rollout seems to have begun in earnest. The Sony and LG receivers are both 84in theater-size screens. Perhaps an option for these behemoths should be they come mounted on two-by-fours, so that you can just tear down a wall and replace it with one of them! They also come with behemoth price tags. The Sony retails for $25,000, while the LG is comparatively a bargain at a mere $19,999. So, expecting a stampede to replace that HDTV set with Ultra-HD? At those prices? Maybe not. But then again, the very first HDTV sets in 1998 were priced at $8000.

Unlike the novelty factor of 3DTV, once viewed on a sufficiently large screen, 4K delivers a compelling visual experience over HDTV, but not as compelling as HDTV vs. SD. This is understandable, as simplifying for explanation, HDTV (1920 x 1080) at 2MP resolution represents almost seven times the pixel density of SD, while 4K (3840 x 2160) at 8MP image resolution represents a fourfold increase in pixel density over HDTV. Remember though, there are theoretical numbers, and then there is the subjective psycho-visual experience.

The price of progress

But, as with everything digital, resolution improvements come at a price, and the currencies of digital video are file size and bit rate. The sheer numbers are staggering. One hour of uncompressed 4:2:0, 10-bit color, 4K-format video occupies over 80TB (that’s terabytes!) and real-time, uncompressed streaming requires a bandwidth pipe of more than 180Gb/s. You can check these calculations, or make your own using the bit-rate calculator at Peter Forret’s extremely useful site, web.forret.com. But for transmission and delivery, we don’t normally deal with uncompressed raw; that’s what compression is for.

Over the past decade, the desire for both higher-quality video and the ability to deliver it via smaller-bandwidth pipes has led to improved algorithms and newer compression schemes. As a result, H.264/MPEG-4 (AVC), which can deliver the same quality level at essentially half the bit rate, has supplanted MPEG-2 in most streaming and many distribution applications. Enter HEVC. For ever-higher-bit-rate applications, Advanced Video Coding (AVC) will eventually give way to High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC).

The ISO/MPEG and ITU/VCEG groups that have been working on HEVC have finalized a standard that is expected to be submitted for ratification in January 2013. H.265/HEVC will once again halve the bit-rate requirement for comparable H.264/AVC. So, 4K, now officially designated as “Ultra HD” by the CEA, will eventually have a more distribution-friendly compression technology available to it. And, HEVC may be off to a fast start as, despite the lack of an official standard, this year’s IBC show saw the introduction of the first HEVC encoders and decoders.

So, where does all this leave the broadcaster? The original MPEG-2-based ATSC standard was updated in 2008 to support H.264/MPEG-4 AVC. Work on ATSC 2.0 has been ongoing for a number of years, and there should be a candidate standard by the end of this year. ATSC’s stated goal is to have a standard for adoption in the first quarter of 2013. ATSC 2.0 embraces H.264, 3DTV and non-real time (NRT) transmission of files, among other things. But H.265 HEVC will have to wait until it is actually standardized.

As always, it’s all about content — and recognizing the lack thereof, currently announced 4K television sets provide for the upscaling of HD content. It seems that each manufacturer has developed its own proprietary upscaling technology, which should make for interesting comparisons. Given the pixel resolution of Ultra HD, even the tiniest of artifacts should stand out like a black cat on a snowfall. And, no matter how pristine a broadcaster’s HDTV signal, all bets are off for the 80 percent of viewers who are subject to the signal processing vagaries of their
service providers.

At today’s pricing, 4K Ultra HD is competing in the family budget with the purchase of a new car. Clearly, 4K has a long way to go before it becomes mass market, if ever; but then again, during its infancy, so did HDTV. With 4K now here, 8K can’t be far behind. Me? I’m waiting for holographic video.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.