What’s Up with 4K Video?

4K videoIt seems like I can’t read tech news lately without seeing an article mentioning something new going on with 4K video. So I thought I would talk a bit about what 4K is and how it differs from other current types of video.

4K is the marketing term to cover what is officially named Ultra High Definition (UHD) video. UHD video is distinguished from current high definition video by having a higher picture resolution (more pixels) as well as more realistic colors and higher frame rates (meaning more pictures per second).

Let’s start with some definitions. 4K video is defined by the Consumer Electronics Association as a video stream that has at least 3,840 X 2,160 pixels. This contrasts to existing high definition (HD) video that has 1,920 X 1,080 pixels and standard definition video (SD) that has 720 X 480 pixels. These are not precise standards—for example there is some SD video that is broadcast at 540 pixels. There is also an existing standard for some video cameras that record at 4,096 X 2,160 pixels which is also considered 4K.

The 4K standard was developed in an attempt to be able to deliver digital media to movie theaters. This would save a lot of money compared to shipping around reels of film. Standard HD does not project well onto the big screens and 4K will overcome a lot of these shortfalls. But high action movies require more definition than is provided by 4K and will require the upcoming 8K video standard to be able to be digitally transmitted for use on the largest screens.

Interestingly, there is not a huge increase in quality from shifting home viewing from HD to 4K. There is a huge improvement in quality between SD and HD, but the incremental improvements between HD and 4K are much harder to discern. The improvements are more due to the number of different colors being projected, because the human eye cannot really see the pixel differences when viewed on relatively small computers or home TV screens. It’s easy to get fooled about the quality of 4K due to some of the spectacular demo videos of the technology being shown on the web. But these demos are far different than what run-of-the-mill 4K will look like, and if you think back there were equally impressive demos of HD video years ago.

The major difference between HD and 4K for the broadband industry is the size of the data stream needed to transmit all of the pixel data. Current 4K transmissions online require a data path between 18 Mbps and 22 Mbps. This is just below the FCC’s definition of broadband and according to the FCC’s numbers, only around 20% of homes currently have enough broadband speed to watch 4K video. Google just recently announced that they have developed some coding schemes that might reduce the required size of a 4K transmission by 40% to 50%, but even with that reduction 4K video is going to put a lot of strain on ISPs and broadband networks, particularly if homes want to watch more than one 4K video at a time.

I recently read that 15% of the TVs sold in 2015 were capable of 4K and that percentage is growing rapidly. However, lagging behind this is 4K capable settop boxes; anybody that wants to get 4K from their cable provider will require a new box. Most of the large cable providers now offer these boxes, but often at the cost of another monthly fee.

Interestingly, there is a lot of 4K video content on the web, much of it filmed by amateurs and available on sites like YouTube or Vimeo. But there is a quickly increasing array of for-pay content. For instance, most of the Netflix original content is available in 4K. Amazon Prime also has Breaking Bad and other original content in 4K. It’s been reported that the next soccer World Cup will be filmed in 4K. There are a number of movies now being shot in 4K as well as a library of existing IMAX films which fit well into this format. Samsung has even lined up a few movies and series in 4K which are only available to people with Samsung 4K TVs.

One thing is for sure, it looks like 4K is here to stay. More and more content is being recorded in the format and one has to imagine that over the next few years 4K is going to become as common as HD video is today. And along with the growth of 4K demand will come demand for better bandwidth.

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.