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The Road to 2160p: How 4K UltraHD Will Get into Your Home

By Matthew Braga

Price is just one of many hurdles that will prevent widespread 4K adoption anytime soon. We examine the rest of the challenges this new standard will have to overcome to be practical for your living room.

One major theme heard loudly at this year's CES was the promise of 4K – the ultra high-definition video format that television manufacturers hope will make all of our current HDTVs obsolete. The idea is that we'll get a crisper, sharper, more detailed image from a TV that is the same physical size, thanks to an increase in pixel density similar to what's occurring with the displays on tablets and phones.

The story that many people are focusing on, however, is price. 4K televisions are prohibitively expensive; the early models cost as much as $25,000 and so are unlikely to make it into the average home anytime soon. And these stories are, for the most part, correct. But they give the impression that price is the only obstacle preventing our transition to a truly 4K world. It's not.

Rather, price is just one of many hurdles that will prevent widespread 4K adoption anytime soon. There are concerns about content – or the lack-thereof – and what benefits 4K can offer over HD, not tomorrow, but today.

Contrary to what reports from CES might have you think, 4K is a still a dream – and it's going to take an industry-wide shift in consumer, manufacturer and content creator habits to make that dream come true. Let's examine exactly how tv makers are defining 4K, where consumers are likely to get 4K content, and the truth about upconverting 1080p video.

What Exactly is 4K?

By now you've probably heard of Ultra High-Definition, or UltraHD. The "ultra" indicates an improvement over boring old high-definition, but exactly how much of a difference does that extra adjective make?

As you can probably guess, it all comes down to pixels. High-definition refers to an video image that is 1920x1080 pixels in size. UltraHD, however, has more pixels – about four times as many, give or take. That means content displayed in UltraHD has four times the resolution of regular 1080p HD. Often times you'll hear this referred to as 4K.

The Consumer Electronics Association (or CEA, otherwise known as the folks who organize CES), formed a working group last year to discuss how 4K technology would be marketed and named. After a unanimous decision by the CEA's board of "industry leaders" – executives from the big tech companies pushing 4K – the working group settled on UltraHD.

The group also provided a clear definition of what, exactly, UltraHD, or 4K, means. Televisions, monitors and projectors must have a resolution of at least 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, and an aspect ratio of at least 16:9. That minimum is important, because it allows manufacturers to include displays that are 4096x2160 pixels in size – a standard used in many 4K cinema projectors and some TVs – under the UltraHD name.

If the average person's eyes can't resolve individual pixels on a 50" HDTV when sitting 6.5 feet away, just imagine how close you would have to sit to get the full benefit of 4K.

In other words, there are two different resolutions that we consider 4K, or UltraHD, but both are more or less the same.

The real question, of course, is how much of a difference will the Ultra in UltraHD actually make when compared to your existing 1080p HD set? When you consider that the average person's eyes can't resolve individual pixels on a 50" HD television when sitting more than 6.5 feet away from their TV, give or take, just imagine how close you would have to sit to get the full benefit of 4K (the answer is pretty damn close).

In reality, the difference between viewing content in HD versus UltraHD is similar to the increase in pixel density from older Apple smartphones to Retina quality displays. More pixels are being packed into a screen that is still the same physical size, and the result is an image that looks sharper and more detailed – especially when viewed up close. It's an experience that's hard to convey in words or pictures, however, and something you'll need to see in person at, say, your local Sony Store or Best Buy.

What 4K TVs Are Available This Year

There was lots of 4K talk at last year's CES, but less in the way of actual TVs. Aside from select manufacturers and prototype demos, few UltraHD televisions were actually announced, or ultimately sold – and those that were cost more than a small car.

This year, 4K is still expensive, and its unlikely you'll have an Ultra HD TV in your home any time soon – but the prices are starting to come down as the number of sizes and models begins to increase.

Sharp announced two UltraHD TVs in 60" and 70" sizes, as well as a 32" UltraHD computer display. LG had 55" and 65" models on the floor, with the former shipping in March for $12,000 USD, in addition to the 84" model it began selling in the U.S. last fall for a suggested retail price of $20,000. (LG told The Verge that, after five months of Korean availability, they've sold about 300 units.)

Sony teased 55" and 65" UltraHD TVs, which are supposed to be more accessibly priced, though specifics have yet to be announced. The company also demoed the 84" display it unveiled last year, which Sony has been selling for a wallet-destroying $25,000. Panasonic, meanwhile, had a 56" OLED UltraHD TV and even a 20" 4K Windows 8 Tablet.

Vizio, introduced 55", 60" and 70" 4K televisions, which the company claimed, like Sony, would make it "one of the first technology innovators to bring the expensive new technology to mainstream consumers." Toshiba had 58", 65", and 84" models on the show floor, in addition to the company's previous 55" UltraHD TV announced at CES last year.

Because of our inability to resolve pixels on the average HD display from more than a few feet away, it's unlikely the market for Ultra High-Definition in the 30- or 40- range will be very big.

Samsung, however, had the most impressive 4K display of the show with its floating frame 85" TV (the display hangs from a modernist looking frame, and was touted as both furniture and art). The Verge quoted a Korean newswire as saying that only 77 units will be available for pre-order – for "40 million won, or about $37,900 USD" each. There was even a 95-inch and 110-inch variant, but with no word on when these would go on sale.

At this point, it's easy to identify a few trends, with most manufacturers opting for a massive 84- or 85-inch flagship model (or larger), and more accessible mainstream models in the 55- or 60-inch range, give or take. And with the exception of a few niche use cases – namely, Panasonic's 20" Ultra HD tablet and Sharp's 32" computer display – all of the 4K displays we saw skewed big. Because of the human eye's inability to resolve individual pixels on the average high-definition display from more than a few feet away, it's unlikely the market for Ultra High-Definition in the 30- or 40- range will be very big (at least, until the cost of manufacturing 4K panels in those sizes becomes more economical than conventional HD).

Where 4K Content Will Come From

Here's the problem: while there were lots of 4K televisions at this year's CES, there was little 4K content. Most demos on the show floor were either upconverting 1080p HD signals to UltraHD, or streaming 4K from an unknown source. And this probably won't change anytime soon.

But when it does, there will be likely be three different ways that 4K content can be delivered to consumers: via digital distribution, a disc-based physical format, or over broadcast TV.

Digital Distribution

Netflix and Samsung teamed up at CES to demo early results of their work on streaming video in 4K, though neither would offer any information beyond what was visible on the show floor. And while the thought of streaming four times as many pixels might sound daunting to those with small bandwidth caps (as of last year, the company's 1080p video streams could reach up to 4.8Mbps), the actual implementation may not be as bitrate-heavy as you think.

Netflix partnered with video encoding startup eyeIO early last year on optimizing its streaming content, which has the potential to cut bandwidth usage by up to half while delivering similar quality to other encoders. And then there's h.264's successor, High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) h.265. The first edition of the HVEC standard was finalized this month, and its main goal is to enable "significantly improved compression performance relative to existing standards – in the range of 50% bit rate reduction for equal perceptual video quality." Of course, whether Netflix uses either of these technologies in encoding its 4K streams is still anyone's guess.

To the surprise of no one, Sony is also betting on a distribution service of its own. Though details on pricing and content are scant, the company announced at CES that it will introduce "the first 4K Ultra HD Video distribution service in the U.S." this summer, with feature length films from Sony and "other productions."

As a temporary solution, Sony is loaning buyers of last year's 84" 4K display a home media server preloaded with ten movies in native UltraHD.

The only caveat? You'll likely need to be a Sony customer to use it, similar to its existing Video Unlimited service – at least for now. “We should be able to bring it to anybody," Sony CEO Kaz Hirai told The Verge in an interview during the show, "but again that is a key differentiator from a Sony perspective... for the time being that is something we bring exclusively to our customers."

Sony will also introduce a dedicated 4K media player for use with the service, which explains, in part, how owners will get all that streaming and downloaded content to their 4K TVs. As a temporary solution, Sony is loaning buyers of last year's 84" 4K display a home media server preloaded with ten movies in native UltraHD.

Of course, this is all well and good if you're planning to buy into Sony's product ecosystem – but what about the rest of the market? There's not much. RED was on the show floor with Toshiba, demoing its RED Ray streaming box, but we wouldn't exactly call this a tool for the masses. For starters, you can only playback native 4K content encoded with RED's proprietary compression technology (which is actually quite good, apparently). The problem here is that there is virtually no consumer content being distributed in the RED Ray format at present, and although the company has promised a distribution network of its own, it didn't sound like the service would be carrying Hollywood films.

As if the $1450 price tag wasn't sign enough that this isn't intended for the mainstream, consider that RED's CES representative talked up its use for digital signage, and in RED-based production environments.

At the very least, when devices do become available to the masses, it doesn't look like we'll need to change the way we connect 4K capable playback devices to our TVs. The most recent version of HDMI, 1.4 (yes, every HDMI port supports a specific software firmware revision of the HDMI specification, which dictates how much data can be squeeze through a single cable, amongst other things) has enough throughput to push 4K content with the same old cables you probably already own. And this could bode well for certain HDMI 1.4 devices already on the market. Sony, for example, could theoretically imbue its PlayStation 3 game consoles with the ability to output 4K content in certain scenarios. In fact, it's possible this is exactly what the company did at CES with a demo of Sony's PlayView 4k art gallery software for displaying works of art on in native 4K (details next to the demo television certainly seemed to suggest this was the case), but no one on the floor would comment either way.

In fact, it might actually be gaming that leads the way to the wider adoption of UltraHD – or at least, the console hardware on which next-generation games will run. All of the rumors and leaked specs for Microsoft and Sony's next generation consoles seem to at least suggest the possibility that these devices will be capable of outputting 4K – if not at launch, then a year or two down the road. Gamers have long pushed PC games past 1080p resolution on high-end displays, and it's not out of the realm of possibility to assume that the next generation of consoles – the ones we'll be stuck with for the next decade at most – will too. And as Wired.co.uk editor Nate Lanxon rightly points out, "when you consider how devoted Sony and Microsoft are to have their consoles as home entertainment hubs," from Netflix to the BBC, console gaming as the breakout 4K delivery device isn't so hard to believe.

Disc-based Format

While the promise of streaming or distributing video content in 4K over the internet is surely enticing, it's also not entirely feasible for most where bandwidth is concerned. You might think it would make sense to keep a disc-based format around; this is, after all, how the gaming industry mitigates the oft-large size of its digital games.

But with poor DVD and Blu-Ray sales, and the success of digital distribution platforms such as Steam, there's a growing indication that our appetite for physical media is in the decline – and Sony seems to think so too.

“I think as the industry evolves 4K, [it] might decide that a disc format might be something that the consumers are looking for,” Kaz told The Verge in the same interview. “But at this point, before we get into that sort of format, we’re looking for distribution through the network.”

With "Mastered in 4K", Sony is simply reencoding movies filmed in 4K or higher resolution to regular old 1080p.

The company did announce "Mastered in 4K" Blu-Ray discs at CES, but it's not exactly what it sounds. Rather than delivering native 4K content on existing Blu-Ray discs, Sony is simply reencoding movies filmed in 4K or higher resolution to regular old 1080p, but at a higher bitrate than what you'll find on existing Blu-Ray discs. This is done by removing special features and other space-hogging material so that less compression is required for the film itself.

But that's not to say a true, physical, native 4K format is out of the question. The Blu-ray Disc Association formed a task-force last fall to explore the feasability of delivering 4K content on Blu-Ray, but it will be some time before the group determines if the technical requirements (for example, concerns regarding capacity and compression) can be overcome, and consumer demand exists.

Broadcast

The last piece of the 4K content puzzle is broadcast television delivered by satellite and cable providers. During the early days of 1080p HD, when high-quality online streaming wasn't quite as accessible, broadcast television was practically the only way to enjoy a new HDTV. Over the years, most major networks and speciality channels offer some or even all content in high-definition – and the hope amongst manufacturers is that 4K will be the same.

One Samsung floor rep told me that the company anticipates Satellite broadcasters in Europe will get onboard with 4K streaming content over the next year – and, indeed, satellite operator Eutelsat Communications has already begun broadcasting a demonstration 4K channel for customers. The Hollywood reporter says that "BSkyB in the UK, Sky Deutschland in Germany, Japan’s Sky Perfect Jsat, and Brazil’s TV Globo have all started to explore the potential of 4K, which would include coverage of events such as sports," and that the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic games might even be broadcast in UltraHD.

The big question here, however, is what sort of role streaming services such as Netflix might play. As consumer talk about cord cutting their cable and satellite subscriptions for internet access to films and TV, 4K might be the broadcasting industry's trump card for keeping users on board. Bandwidth issues and cost concerns might actually make 4K content delivered via satellite or cable more attractive than what may be available online, assuming that content includes the majority of programs and events people want.

As is, the broadcast industry already has issues with delivering native HD content in 1080p.

But even then, there are concerns here too. Many shows broadcast in so-called HD are actually delivered in 720p, or interlaced 1080i, which isn't exactly full HD. And that doesn't even take into consideration all of the compression and re-encoding applied to a signal on its journey from source, to broadcaster, to distributor and eventually to your television. As is, the broadcast industry already has issues with delivering native HD content in 1080p, and even improvements to 4K compression techniques, impressive as they may be, won't make things any easier – far from it.

The Deal with Upscaling

Without much native content to show, manufacturers are doing the only thing they can, and talking up their television's upconverting capabilities. It was a party line that most representatives had clearly been told to stick to when pressed on the lack of native 4K video at CES (and its easy to imagine how quickly this stance will be disowned in the coming years).

What we heard, time and time again, is that the upconverters in these new televisions are actually quite good – particularly when upconverting 1080p HD. And there's actually some truth to that.

There are a few different things that happen when a television – be it 4K or HD – is fed a video with a resolution that is lower than the native resolution of the TV. First, the resolution of that video must be upscaled, or resized, to match the display's native resolution. Think of it this way: standard defintion or 480i/480p content has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels. If you tried watching this on a 4K television, which has a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160, without upscaling, you would end up with a tiny square of video in the center of your screen. An upscaler's job is to stretch that image out to fit the entire screen.

This process isn't as simple as it sounds. Because there's simply no way to make a standard definition image look like high definition, extra pixels and image data must be filled in. In the early days of upconversion, telvisions might have employed crude methods such as pixel doubling – simply duplicating groups of pixels, so that one pixel became four – to make an image fill the screen. And if the aspect ratio didn't match – say, a 4:3 video on a 16:9 TV – then pixel mapping might have been used to stretch an image across the screen. Both approaches got the job done, but the results weren't always pretty, and would often leave standard definition images looking blurry and smeared.

Most modern scalers, however, are much smarter, and aren't just concerned with making pixels fit a differently sized display. For example, many upscalers now employ edge detection, which involves analyzing groups of overlapping pixels for areas where one colour ends, and another begins. That way the television can sharpen edges and smooth out colors separately (if you've ever wondered why upscaled cartoons often look so good, this is a big reason why).

At CES, for example, sharped talked up a new light-sensing algorithm in its ICC Purious line that could supposedly better separate obejects in a scene. Or take Marvell' Qdeo chip, which is used in a number of Onkyo recievers and video players. Onkyo describes the chip as "a versatile video processor that uses algorithms designed to erase video noise and artifacts such as jaggies and feathering."

Sony's 4K X-Reality Pro engine, included in its new 4K TVs, actually consists of three separate image processing chips - one of which contains a database of several thousand image patterns against which lower resolution content is matched.

"It becomes possible to create more realistic and optimal super-resolution by process of analyzing wave form from video signals and increasing resolution of various patterns within picture characteristics, instead of simply interpolating pixels," explained Yosuke Yamamoto, project leader of Reality engine development, in a interview on Sony Asia's website. "This database has thousands of patterns that are available for High Definition (HD), Standard Definition (SD), SD up-conversion, IPTV and so forth."

Most of the 4K TVs we saw at CES were playing upconverted Blu-Rays, and the results actually looked quite good.

What all of this means is that upscalers have come a long way from the early days of high-definition – and on a high-end 4K display, can probably make HD content look pretty good. After all, upconverting 1080p video gives edge and motion detecting algorithms more pixels to work from, which is good for preserving complex or detailed sequences and scenes.

In fact most of the 4K TVs we saw at CES were playing upconverted Blu-Rays, and the results, for the most part, actually looked quite good (nothing like the oft-blurry mess of upconverting SD). And that's good news for early adopters of 4K TVs. But the fact remains that this a stopgap solution, and upscaling, as good as it may be, is not the reason to buy UltraHD.

So When Will 4K Be Practical?

The market for 4K today is small at best. The televisions are prohibitively expensive, from $10,000 and beyond. Those that can afford them will find content is scarce. It sounds like the early days of 1080p all over again.

But things are actually different – and not necesarily for the better. While broadcast cable and satellite providers will likely be the first to carry 4K content en masse, their hold over the industry isn't what it was during the advent of HD. There won't be a single, common pipe as there was with HD. Services such as Netflix have established themselves as big players in delivering home entertainment over the internet, and the networks themselves are inceasingly streaming their own shows and events.

And while interest in delivering 4K is certainly there, the bandwidth required is not. Disc-based formats have potential, but we've yet to hear concrete plans, and manufacturers are grappling with physical media on the decline.

And as for the content itself, film and television have yet to adapt – the exception being Hollywood's big names. As for everyone else, early prosumer 4K cameras have been announced, but it will be years before these are cheap enough to put in everyone's hands. Outside of film, 2K content is scarce enough – and all anyone wants to talk about is upconversion. It's hard to imagine widespread proliferation of 4K content anytime soon.

The point here is that the market is extremely unclear, and to buy into 4K now is to buy into a industry that is not fully formed. No one quite knows how 4K content will be delivered, and when it will be available – or even how it will be made. There are few guidelines or standards beyond the definition of UltraHD itself. There's still little reason to convince consumer to change.

This won't always be the case. But it's how things are now. And we could be waiting for a while.