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TV Connect 2015 Day 3 highlights: bumps ahead for 4K bandwagon

Ismail Patel

Ismail Patel

Ovum analysts relate their day-by-day highlights at this year’s TV Connect

Ismail Patel, TV Analyst, Ovum: The plethora of 4K Ultra-HD screens on the TV Connect 2015 floor made for fine aesthetics, and the vendors are pretty certain this is where the TV market is heading. In hindsight, the shift from HD to 3D did not feel natural and UHD has now stepped in to realign the path of natural evolution in TV viewing. However, while 4K (3840*2160) seems to be where the market is heading, there are other variants either ready or in development, including:

- 3.5K, in China – essentially 4K but with the addition of white pixels alongside the red, green, and blue; this format is cheaper to create compared with the RGB 4K model

- 5K (5120*2880) – some manufacturers such as Apple and Dell have invested in this

- 8K (7680*4320) – pioneered by the Japanese manufacturers and supported by broadcasters; in fact, 4K is considered merely  as a stepping stone to 8K in Japan, with 4K being deployed as a grand testing tool.

The manufacturers are predicting strong demand from broadcasters. Many broadcasters have already commissioned 4K cameras to shoot UHD in scripted video formats. Trend-setting broadcasters in the West have been trialing 4K in unscripted TV such as live sports.

One of the underlying drivers for 4K is broadcasters’ fear: They want to be first adopters and do not want to be left behind. 4K linear channels have already launched in South Korea and Japan, while Europe and the US are seeing similar moves at the content and channel level.

One would have thought that the shift from HD to UHD is therefore going to be smooth, but, after speaking to numerous executives on the TV Connect floor, it is clear that, while they remain confident of success, 4K is still throwing up a number of notable challenges, including:

- The enhanced experience of 4K over HD is only realized when a viewer is in front of the 4K screen in close proximity, typically within three to four height lengths of the viewed device. Any further and the difference between 4K and HD becomes insignificant. This makes the value-add of 4K over HD only marginal, relative to HD over SD. Consumers want to see a visible difference in 4K from their current home sets when they go window shopping.

- 4K is accused of providing an “unreal” – and so potentially negative – viewing experience. Specifically, when the human eye naturally focuses on individual moving things any surrounding items become blurred. A similar effect is achieved in pre-4K devices when a fast-moving object is the focus of the camera, and objects in the background blur, giving a natural and immersive experience. However, in 4K, surrounding objects are significantly enhanced, thereby rendering the object of focus not sufficiently dissimilar from the background that is not supposed to be the point of attention, thereby losing a degree of viewer immersion.

- Most legacy consumer devices manufactured up to the end of 2014 are incompatible with 4K. The process of reinvestment, as happened with HD, will be costly and will be passed on to consumers. In the Blu-ray industry, for example, one disk can hold only around half of a standard movie shot in 4K and current Blu-ray players cannot stream in 4K. Both disks and hardware will have to be redesigned and deployed. When that happens, current devices will visibly look out of date, much to the chagrin of early Blu-ray buyers.

- 4K compression has achieved a bit rate of 15Mbps. For an OTT connection, 4K will therefore be virtually impossible, as this is several times more than current HD compression rates. This is costly and also the broadband connection would have to be way in excess of 15Mbps to deliver a seamless stream, particularly when other devices are accessing the Internet from the same source as the 4K stream. If 4K aspires to mass adoption on multiple platforms, this problem has to be solved.

- The other immediate challenge is that of awareness, or the lack of it. As industry insiders, we sometimes tend to look a bit too far ahead and forget what is around us. Yesterday I talked to some of my tech-savvy friends about the 4K-studded conference floor and that it is a technology that will soon be coming to living rooms across the nation. All I got was a blank look and “What is 4K?” That, right at this moment, is where most consumers are.

4K is at a stage where 3D was three years ago. If hindsight is of any benefit, the key message for 4K is to reach critical mass before it falls into a 3D-like lull. UHD critical mass is expected to be reached by 2017, by which time 4K screens will be affordable to most HD screen adopters. If it still has not gained mass acceptance by then it will be because it has failed to address the five challenges highlighted above.

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