Will 4K Video Make It?

Samsung_UHD_TVIt usually takes a while to see if a new technology gets traction with the public. For example, the 3D television craze of a few years ago fell flat on its face with the viewing public. And now 4K ultra high definition (UHD) video is making enough waves to gets its real world test in the marketplace.

The high-end TV makers certainly are pushing the technology and 2.1 million UHD televisions were shipped in the second quarter of 2014, up from 1.6 million sets for all of 2013. Amazon announced a deal with Samsung to roll out world-wide availability of 4K video streams to Samsung smart TVs. Amazon announced earlier this year that they are building a UHD library by filing all of the unique program made for Amazon in UHD. Netflix has already been filming Breaking Bad and House of Cards in UHD. Fox is marketing a set of 40 movies in UHD that includes Star Trek: Into Darkness.

But there are some obstacles to overcome before UHD becomes mainstream. The cameras and associated hardware and storage needed to film in UHD are expensive, so filmmakers are being cautious about converting to the technology until they know there is a market for it. But the big obstacle for UHD being universally accepted is getting the content into homes. There are issues of both bandwidth and quality.

Pure uncompressed UHD video is amazing. I saw a UHD clip at a trade show of House of Cards running next to an HD clip and the difference was astounding. But it is not practical to broadcast in uncompressed UHD and the compression techniques in use today reduce the quality of the picture. The UHD being delivered by Netflix today is better than their HD quality, but nearly as good as uncompressed UHD.

For those not familiar with compression techniques, they are techniques that reduce the transmission size of video signals, which is necessary to make programming fit into channels on traditional cable systems. And the same sorts of compression techniques are applied to video streams over the Internet from companies like Netflix and AmazonPrime. There are many different techniques used to compress video streams, but the one that saves the most bandwidth is called block-matching, which finds and then re-uses similarities between video frames.

Bandwidth is another roadblock to UHD acceptance. Netflix reports that it requires a steady 15 Mbps download stream to bring UHD to a home. A significant percentage of American homes don’t get enough bandwidth to view UHD. And even having enough bandwidth is no guarantee of a quality experience as has been witnessed with Netflix’s recent fights with Comcast and Verizon over the quality of the SD and HD video streams. It was  reported that even some customers who subscribed to 100 Mbps download products were not getting good Netflix streams.

There are also the normal issues we see in the television industry due to lack of standards. Each manufacturer is coming up with a different way to make UHD work. For example there are two different HDMI standards already in use by different TV manufacturers and the predictions are that HDMI might need to be abandoned altogether as the industry works to goose better quality out of UHD using higher frame rates and enhanced color resolution. And this all causes confusion to home owners or companies that install high-end TVs.

But there is some hope that there will be new technologies and new compression techniques that can be used to improve the quality and decrease the digital footprint of UHD streams. As an example, Faroudja Enterprises, owned by Yves Faroudja, one of the pioneers of HD television standards, announced it has found some improvements that will greatly benefit UHD. His new technique basically will pre-process content before compression and after decompression to get better efficiency in the sharing of bits between frames. He believes he can reliably cut the size of video streams in half using the new technology. His process also would bring efficiencies to HD streams, which is good news for an Internet that is getting bogged down today by video.

Only time is going to tell if the technology is widely accepted. Certainly there is going to be demand from cinephiles who want the absolute best quality from the movies they watch. But we’ll have to see if that creates enough demand to convince more filmmakers to shoot in the UHD format. This is like many new technologies in that there is some of the cart before the horse involved in bringing this fully to market. But there are many in the industry who are predicting that the extra quality that comes from UHD will make it a lasting technology.