Can 4K UltraHD save Sony?

Sony was once the darling of the TV industry. Getting a Sony Trinitron TV was the bar that people interested in tech focused on. It was the best of breed and as alluring as Apple products are today. But the last few decades, Sony has lost its footing. Last year’s focus on 3-D television has cooled, so Sony is seeing a new way to capture the magic again by betting big on 4K TV. Can it succeed?

4K UltraHD is the next step in content, televisions, cinema and even mobile. Although HD currently tops out at 1920x1080 (1080p), 4K UltraHD has four times the number of pixels at 3840x2160, with cinema screens (projection) coming in at 4096x2160. If you have ever seen a 4K display (at trade shows or. lately, on Sony’s demo 4KTVs at Best Buy), the quality can be dramatic. Watching a crowd scene, say at a sports game, you can typically see all the facial reactions of the audience and the players. Clarity and detail stand out on everything from scenic landscapes to movies to entertainment programming. But it’s more than just resolution. With the increased video bandwidth, manufacturers can create TVs using 4K that have improved color, better contrast, advanced dynamic range and a host of other parameters. 4K will be coming in the form of cable and satellite, Blu-ray and streaming media players. It will also come in different names, such as UHD, Quad Full HD, QFD, 2160p, DCI and others. But, in the end, they all mean the same thing: resolution like you have never seen it before.

Will 4K make a big splash and delight the masses? It’s probably too soon to tell. But this is not stopping Sony from jumping in early. This month the company finally took the wraps off its 4K video download service. Now granted, Sony has been dealing with 4K for a better part of the last decade, mainly on the video projection end. But this current foray is pivotal because it’s the first step in marketing 4K to home users, providing an end-to-end solution, with compatible TVs and a dedicated video service. Sony just released two new 4K television sets (55in and 65in) as well as a 4K UltraHD media player, the FMP-X1. Prices to rent TV shows and movies is about $2 more than traditional services such as Amazon and Apple TV, with movie purchases going for about $10 more.

The media player unit itself has 2TB of storage and goes for about $700. Mobile is not in the picture yet, but could be soon. It would not be surprising to see tablets closing in on 4K resolutions in the coming year or two, and most portable devices and smartphones will easily pass 1080p resolution and close in on 4K in the near future. Streaming will be the only real option in mobile, because most units would not have the storage for 4K movies. It’s also debatable if 4K is really needed in portable devices, because with technology such as Retina screens, most people cannot even see individual pixels anyway. But Sony has a wide range of products, from laptops to smartphones to camcorders, and the road map plan is to support 4K throughout the entire ecosystem. So it’s coming.

Sony does have leverage because it already has access to a huge amount of movies, and can work on converting them to 4K. All of its movies will still be a small slice of the entire movie industry pie; but it is a start. The main challenge is not movies — it’s delivery. These are huge files that will take a long time to download on standard broadband. High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) is a new compression standard that will help dramatically, with double the compression of standards such as H.264. A more efficient compression is needed because some broadband providers have data caps in place and even one 4K movie download can chew through that in no time. So, there are some challenges to work through.

It’s safe to say 4K will make it, but can Sony ride the wave? A lot of it is timing, not unlike surfing, keeping an eye out for the next big wave and riding it in to success. Sony has laid a lot of ground work in 4K with its industrial, cinema and commercial video divisions, so it’s in a good position. The main thing Sony has going for it is that the technology is available now to consumers. You can order a Sony 4K Ultra HD Media Player (oh, and a Sony 4K TV) and can be watching 4K flicks at home this weekend. Of course, the content pickings are slim, with only about 100 titles available for purchase or rent, but you can wow the neighbors by giving them a taste of the future. As time progresses, the library will build up and prices will come down. But as far as being ready now, and being posed for the future, Sony has its sights set clear. 4K will take off, over time, and Sony does stand a great chance of being the go-to company that consumers curious about 4K will turn to.