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Outlook for 4K Video Sources in 2013

This blog discusses how the technology pieces are starting to come together in support of “4K” video.  The first consumer 4K video projector that made it to market (in early 2012) was Sony’s excellent VPL-VW1000ES projector.  As of the date of this blog, the VPL-VW1000ES is still the only available consumer projector with a native 4K resolution and capable of accepting a 4K video input.  Several consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sony, LG and JVC, are now introducing 4K resolution 84 inch flat panel LCD/LED displays.  All of these 84 inch displays appear to be using the same LCD panels that are, by some unconfirmed reports, being sourced from LG.  While some may point out all of these 4K display devices, with retail prices in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, are far too expensive to be affordable to all but a very select group of consumers.  However, they do represent a modest first step in what will certainly develop into a broader market,with lower priced products, over time.  What has been missing up to this point is any 4K video sources or video material (e.g., movies).  This blog is focused on what we can expect for 4K video sources over the next year.

Background of 4K Video

Let us first provide a little background on 4K video.  The term “4K” comes from the commercial digital cinema world where it corresponds to a projected image with a maximum resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels (i.e., a total of 8.8 Mpixels with each pixel being square). Thus the term 4K is derived from the approximately 4,000 (i.e., 4K) horizontal pixels that make up the image.  The 4K digital cinema format, when all 8.8 Mpixels are used, has an aspect ratio of image that is approx. 1.9:1 while fewer pixels (i.e., 3996 x 2160) are utilized when displaying the more common 1.85:1 aspect ratio image used for many commercial movies.  4K video with its 8+ Mpixels offers approximately 4 times the number of pixels of the consumer 1080p HD format and as a result is capable of providing an extremely detailed image, even on very large displays (or screens). 4K as being developed specifically for consumer products is sometimes referred to as “Ultra High Definition” (UHD) TV or “Quad Full High Definition” (QFHD) TV. Consumer HDTV uses an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and a similar industry consumer 4K standard for QFHD has been defined with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, which is exactly double the vertical and double the horizontal resolution of Full HD 1080p.  While some 4K display devices, such as the Sony VPL-VW1000ES, support the full resolution of the digital cinema standard (i.e., 4096 x 2160 pixels), such displays can also accommodate the slightly less horizontal resolution defined for QFHD by simply not using all of the display chip’s pixels (in this case leaving vertical black bars on the sides of the image).  

Enabling Technologies

There are two new industry standards currently being developed that can be considered as essential for enabling the full potential for future 4K video sources.

Next Generation HDMI

I discussed this at some length in my August 1, 2012 blog (HERE).  I suggest you read that earlier blog more details, but the following is a very quick summary as related to 4K video.  The current HDMI standard is version 1.4b and that version offers very limited support for 4K video with only provisions for 2D 4K video at 24 Hz.  The Next Generation HDMI standard (perhaps to be called ver. 1.5) is expected to support 4K video at higher refresh rates (e.g., 48 Hz, 60Hz) and perhaps 3D at full 4K resolution.  The updated HDMI standard has been under development for one year and is expected to be released very soon.

Enhanced Video Codec

Currently the most widely used consumer HD video encoding/decoding technique, outside of broadcast digital TV, is called Advanced Video Coding (AVC) as defined by the part 10 of the ITU H.264 standard (wiki article is HERE).  This codec (developed jointly by the International Telecommunications Union – ITU and by the MPEG group within the International Standards Organization - ISO) is one of three different codecs used for Blu-ray Discs and is also widely used for consumer HD video camcorders.  AVC evolved from earlier MPEG-4 versions and is now nearly a decade old.  The H.264 standard was extended in 2009 to add support for 3D video and the 3D version of the codec is called Multiview Video Coding (MVC), which is now used for all Blu-ray 3D video discs.   While AVC does include an option for 4K resolution, it is limited in refresh rate similar the HDMI 1.4b limitations at that resolution.  This 4K option is not supported by the current Blu-ray Disc standard.  Also the current version of the AVC codec (i.e., as used for Blu-ray Discs) is limited to an 8-bit (per color) color depth. A joint ITU/ISO technical working group is now finishing up the standard for the next generation codec, to be defined within the new H.265 standard.  The H.265 standard defines a new codec called “High Efficiency Video Codec” (HEVC).  HEVC is not just for 4K video as it supports everything from low resolution video, as used for web videos and video captures by mobile phones, all the way up to 8K video, which may be coming in the not far too distant future as the top-of-the-line standard for commercial digital cinemas.  While the H.265 standard will support many different applications, at the core all of these will use a common very efficient encoding/decoding technique.  AVC has been around for nearly a decade and by comparison the new HEVC codec provides improved coding efficiency that is achieved with the use of increased processing power that has been made possible through technology advancement.  Improved coding efficient is important for the distribution of 4K video, either in support of delivery via the internet or via a future version of Blu-ray discs.  A stated goal for the new HEVC codec is that it will be (at least) twice as efficient as AVC and this will be an enabling technology in support of the distribution of 4K video, i.e., requiring only one half the data rate and storage space as for the same video encoded with AVC.

4K Video Players

Two companies have recently announced first generation 4K video players. _______________________________ Sony is providing a 4K video player that will be loaned exclusively to their customers that purchase the new Sony 84 inch model XBR-84X900 flat panel Ultra HD LED TV.  The hard drive-based video player is referred to as the 4K Ultra High Definition Video Player. The player will have 10 feature films pre-installed plus some independent movies and short subjects.  Sony says they will subsequently provide, at no cost to the customer. Additional 4K content on Blu-ray data discs that can be loaded onto the player's hard disk using the player’s built-in Blu-ray optical drive.  The pre-loaded Hollywood feature films include:
  • The Amazing Spiderman
  • Total Recall (2012)
  • The Karate Kid (2010)
  • Salt
  • Battle Los Angeles
  • The Other Guys
  • Bad Teacher
  • That’s My Boy
  • Taxi Driver
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Sony press release includes a statement from Chris Cookson, president, Sony Pictures Technologies indicating: “Sony Pictures leads the industry in building a library of new releases and restored classics mastered in 4K, so it is both exciting and appropriate that we can provide the first 4K movies that consumers will be able to experience in their homes.” Although Sony has only announced plans to loan their 4K Ultra High Definition Video Player to customers purchasing their 4K 84 inch Ultra HD TV, there have been hints they have something in the works to offer to their customers that already have, or will be purchasing their 4K video projectors.  Perhaps an announcement of the longer term plans will be forthcoming from Sony next month at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  Also one must wonder if Sony views the loaner 4K video player as a short term solution while the longer-term plans are based on a 4K version of Blu-ray discs (see below) along with a future 4K video download service perhaps supported by the next generation of Playstation and/or a dedicated standalone 4K video player. _______________________________ Red is a well known U.S. based manufacturer of 2K and 4K video cameras for the commercial movie industry.  for example, the recently released "The Hobbit" was shot using Red Epic cameras.  They have announced, and are now taking orders for a 4K video player called the “Redray 4K Cinema Player”. Red describes the Redray as the first 4K Cinema Player to bring ultra high-definition content to your home, business or local theater using internet file based distribution. Capable of playing HD, 3D or 4K media, REDRAY utilizes a 1TB internal drive to store all of your content. Advanced networking and low data rates let you distribute content via FTP transfer or solid-state media.” The Redray 4K player sells for $1450 and 4K video content will be available, for a fee, that can be downloaded to the Redray player via an internet connection.  Red is using a video encoding codec (perhaps a Red proprietary codec) that offers a high level of compression such that the average data rate used for the 4K video in only about 20 Mbps, which is well under the 30+ Mbps data rate used on many 1080p Blu-ray discs (encoded using  Blu-ray’s AVC codec).  Also the Red Player’s codec provides increased color depth with 12-bits per color vs. Blu-ray’s 8-bit per color.  Also Red states that REDRAY delivers with playback of 3D media at up to 60 fps per eye in 4K.” Unlike Sony, who owns a movie studio and has an in-house source for 4K video content, Red will need to rely of outside sources for video content and content distribution  To this end Red has linked their Redray player with the Odemax distribution network which Jarred Land (Red co-owner) says is the “only comprehensive distribution solution for 4K.” However, while Odemax will initially be able to offer movies from some independent film producers, it is still unknown if or when any of the major movie studios will offer their movies for distribution by Odemax in 4K format.  The Odemax service is scheduled to come online in January 2013 and the Redray players should begin shipping early in 2013.  I expect more details will be released soon about what Odemax will be offering. The Redray player should be compatible with the existing Sony VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector, as well as Red’s own laser-based 4K projector planned for release during 2013.

Blu-ray Disc 4K

The current Blu-ray Disc standard limits the resolution to 1080p.  There are no confirmed reports out of the Blu-ray Disc Association as to if or when we can expect to see an update to the Blu-ray Disc standard to add support for 4K video.  However, a Sony representative at the CEDIA trade show in September 2011 indicated that such a upgrade to the Blu-ray standard was likely and subsequently a representative from LG earlier this year indicated he expected to see the first Blu-ray 4K players/software by the end of 2013.  Note such true 4K Blu-ray players (i.e., capable of playing discs recorded with 4K resolution video) are not to be confused with the few currently available Blu-ray players that offer upscaling of standard 1080p video to provide a 4K output.  Only industry members of the Blu-ray Disc Association have access to any draft materials and status information related to Blu-ray 4K, so at this point I can make no fact-based claims about when we might see 4K Blu-ray players available along with a selection of Hollywood blockbuster movies released in 4K format.  However, it is interesting that we do know that there are updated standards for both more efficient coding of 4K video (the H.265 codec) and for the next generation HDMI standard with more comprehensive support for 4K.  Both of these standards would likely be needed, and incorporated by reference, into any updated standard for Blu-ray that adds support for 4K video.  So the bottom line is that the technology pieces are now falling to place to make Blu-ray 4K possible and perhaps there will be some form of announcement concerning Blu-ray 4K at next month’s Consumer Electronic Show. ______________________________________

I will be keeping my eyes open for any news about 4K video sources that may come out at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (January 2013).  I’ll cover any such news in a future Blog.

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