The future of TV: trouble with 4K TV?

Technology & Convergence

This week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was dominated by talk about ultra-high-definition or “4K”-resolution television technology. But serious challenges in distribution will have to be overcome if it’s going to take off. A new optical format to succeed Blu-ray may even be needed. Craig Wilson investigates.

There’s no other way of describing the technology: the latest ultra-high-definition (UHD) television sets look absolutely amazing. From television to cinema, the “4K” resolutions on offer represent a new frontier in entertainment. But the industry faces a big and perhaps even insurmountable challenge: distribution.

Solving the distribution problem could mean the difference between 4K becoming the new standard for video playback or just a novelty for the wealthy.

Though 4K resolutions represent the next step in high-definition video, standards for the format have yet to emerge and no one’s really figured out how to distribute video, with its massive file footprint, efficiently and cost effectively. How exactly does one distribute files that can run to hundreds of gigabytes? And will broadcasters ever realistically offer content in this format?

Even in developed markets, with high-speed, low-cost broadband, concerns are being voiced about the implications of trying to distribute UHD material to end users — to consumers who aren’t used to waiting for any length of time for content to load before they can start playing it back.

Japan’s Sony, which helped pioneer the Blu-ray optical disc format for high-definition video playback, hinted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week that it is looking at a dedicated digital distribution service for 4K content. However, Sony executives have been light on the detail.

Media reports earlier this week quoted Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai as saying that although a physical format might be necessary or even desirable to distribute 4K content — and could even be welcomed by consumers — his company is looking at network-based solutions for distribution first.

Hirai also warned that standards for 4K content still needed to be finalised. Sony has traditionally favoured creating its own formats, but with so many other competitors developing 4K products, this may not be feasible.

Although some of the parameters for 4K TVs have been all but finalised — a resolution of 3 840×2 160 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:9 for TVs, for example — for cinema there are already a handful of different resolutions and aspect ratios, and as many cameras capable of recording each format.

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