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Where we stand on 4K/UHD - 2014 Wrap-up

4K/Ultra HD standards, products and services continued their roll-out during 2014.  While consumer electronics manufacturers are aggressively marketing 4K/UHD TVs for the 2014 year-end holiday shopping season, the roll-out of this new video technology is experiencing a number of bumps along the road.  This blog discusses where we now stand and provides a look forward to what 2015 may bring.

4K UHD logo

The 4K/UHD Puzzle

Just because a consumer electronics (CE) manufacturer can build a 4K/UHD TV does not make that technology or product a success.  As we learned with the introduction of HDTV, this puzzle has several pieces that must be fully defined and implemented before they can be fit together to produce complete entertainment solution that will become a commercial success.    There are 6 major groups of puzzle pieces that must come together in order to create a successful outcome for 4K/UHD (there are certainly other ways to divide this up with more or less major areas).
  • Content Creation
  • Content Marketing/Packaging
  • Content Distribution
  • Consumer 4K/UHD Source Electronics
  • Consumer 4K/UHD Distribution Electronics
  • Consumer 4K/UHD Displays
I will touch upon each of these areas plus the role of 4K/UHD standards, in the sections below.

4K/UHD Standards

While I have not above identified 4K/UHD standards as being one specific piece of the puzzle, but in a sense the size and shape of several of the above listed puzzle pieces are defined, or at least constrained, by industry and/or government standards.  I contend that the "foundation" of this new 4K/UHD technology are the assortment of industry and government standards that are intended to achieve interoperability/compatibility between the products and services offered by various manufacturers/vendors.   Several of my previous blogs have discussed a number of 4K/UHD related standards, so for this blog I will briefly summarize, or at least mention, some of major standards activities and where we now stand on each one.  Different standards bodies may have published standards, guidance and/or recommendation documents that have inconsistent or even conflicting technical "requirements" or guidance.  For a given 4K/UHD device or service, the manufacturer or provider must decide which combination of these standards they will support and this increases the potential for consumer confusion as to what they are really getting with their new UHD purchase.

4K/UHD Top-Level Characteristics

 ITU Rec 2020 provides recommendations for the top level technical characteristics, such as resolution and bit depth, for the 4K/UHD video.  This was discussed in my previous blog - HERE.  This was one of the first published UHD standards (2012).

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has put out a set of guidelines setting minimum requirements for products labeled as being UHD.  This was discussed in my previous blog - HERE.

4K/UHD Content Characteristics

In 2013 a group of movie studios, through their industry joint venture called "MovieLabs", put forward their "Specification for Next Generation Video – Version 1.0".  This lays out the position of the participating movie studios for what the requirements should be for programming released in 4K/UHD format.  This was discussed in a previous blog - HERE.

4K/UHD Coding

At this point there are generally three different CODECs being used or proposed for encoding/decoding of consumer 4K/UHD video.

ITU-T Recommendation H.264/AVC - This is the same codec that is widely used for encoding HD video, up to 1080p, but a variation is also capable of encoding 4K/UHD video, but with some significant limitations.  This codec is being used for some early implementations because it is readily available and until recently there was no other available alternative based on a widely supported standard.  However, this is expected to only be a interim solution until  the hardware and software supporting the more advanced codecs becomes widely available.

ITU-T Recommendation H.265/HEVC - This is the new codec offering higher efficiency compression of video content, including 4K/UHD.   Hardware and software implementations of version 1 of this ITU-T standard ("recommendation") came into use for consumer 4K/UHD services and displays during 2014.  Several streaming video services (e.g., Netflix, Amazon, etc.) are using, to plan to use, the HEVC codec for their 4K/UHD internet streaming video services.  HEVC (Ver. 1) decoding is implemented in a number of smart UHD TVs and in a few external 4K/UHD video players.  In mid-2014 version 2 of the H.265/HEVC standard was approved and the first consumer products supporting this expanded standard are expected out by the 2nd half of 2015.  This was discussed in my pervious blog - HERE.  Perhaps the first such product supporting the ver. 2 HEVC codec will be the upcoming Blu-ray 4K/UHD discs and players and beyond that future broadcast UHD services.   The second version of the  HEVC standard adds support for more advanced features capable of supporting higher quality 4K/UHD formats with greater bit depth, higher refresh rate, high color resolution, etc.

VP9 Codec - Google has developed an open (and royality free) codec called VP9 that supports 4K/UHD.  While VP9 is was not developed by a national or international standards group, it likely to continue to find some use for 4K/UHD videos offered to consumers.  Google is currently using VP9 for coding of 4K video on YouTube.  Like H.264 and H.265 based codecs, VP9 supports encoding video at many different resolutions up to 4K.  VP9 decoding is built into the Chrome browser and is available as an add-on for certain other browsers.  It has been reported that VP9 has been proposed as a second codec for Blu-ray 4K/UHD, but at this point it is unknown if the final Blu-ray 4K/UHD standard will include VP9 (either as a required or optional capability) in addition to required support for HEVC.

4K/UHD Content Distribution Standards

Streaming and Download Services- Generally streaming and download video services are based on each companies own combination of industry standards and propriety software.  For streaming and downloaded 4K/UHD video, one of the three above mentioned codecs will typically be used and the video output format will also conform to industry standards, such as the CEA guidance for UHD and the interface standards for HDMI (in the case of external video player boxes or sticks).

Physical Media - The only planned physical media that I am aware of for 4K/UHD content is the Blu-ray 4K/UHD discs.  The Blu-ray Disc Association, an industry standards body, is currently finalizing the standards for this new expanded disc format and the standards are expected to be finalized by mid-2015.  The Blu-ray 4K/UHD disc standard is expected to invoke use of a number of other standards such as H.265/HEVC for the encoding of the 4K/UHD video and HDMI 2.0 w/HDCP for the player's output.

Broadcasting - For terrestrial (over-the-air) broadcasting of UHD video (be it 4K or 8K resolution) there are standards activities ongoing in a number of countries and regions around the world.   In the USA the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), with broad industry support, is actively working on the ATSC 3.0 standard, that includes support for UHD.  The ongoing work is considering not just the technical standards for broadcasting UHD but also the transition from today's standard and high definition digital broadcast services to the next generation UHD capable broadcast services.  While engineering trials for UHD broadcasts are expected to begin within the next 2 to 4 years in several parts of the world, the actual transition from HD to UHD broadcasting, on a routine basis, is realistically not expected until sometime beyond 2020.   In Japan, TV broadcaster NHK is targeting 8K/UHD broadcasts to officially begin with the 2020 Olympics following earlier engineering trials that are expected to begin in the 2016 timeframe.  The terrestrial broadcasting technical characteristics will need to comply with standards from the national (e.g., FCC in the USA) and international (i.e., ITU) regulatory authorities.  Also such broadcast standards are expected to rely on industry standards where appropriate, such as HEVC for the codec.

Satellite broadcasting of UHD video is expected much earlier as many of the technical and economic decisions can be make by the individual satellite broadcast operator.  In the USA, Directv has indicated they expect to offer initial satellite delivered 4K/UHD programming by late 2015 or 2016.  In Korea and Japan limited 4K/UHD satellite distribution is already available.

Cable TV companies are also considering for 4K/UHD distribution.   Of course internet services provided by Cable TV companies will be able to support 4K/UHD streaming services, but there have been not specific announcements as to the expected timeframe to offer TV channels carrying 4K/UHD programming.

4K/UHD Consumer Signal Connection Standards - The HDMI 2.0 standard was issued in September 2013 and most new UHD TVs and Projectors models released in from 2nd quarter of 2014 onward have at least one HDMI 2.0 input.  Also most AV Receiver (AVR) manufacturers now offer HDMI 2.0 input(s) and output on some of their mid and higher end models.   While these products may have HDMI 2.0 ports, this does not mean these ports support the full capabilities defined by the HDMI 2.0 standard.  More specifically, HDMI 1.3 and 1.4 standards supported data rates of up to 10.2 Gbps while HDMI 2.0 increased the maximum to 18 Gbps.   Where some available devices do support the full 18 Gbps data rate, up until now these implementations do not also support the latest copyright protection standard (HDCP 2.2).  So the choice has been either a HDMI 2.0 input configured to support the limited bandwidth version of HDMI 2.0 (with 10.2 Gbps max. rate rate) and support for HDCP 2.2 - OR - HDMI 2.0 support with the full 18.0 Gbps data rate but only with an earlier version of HDCP.  This is important because the highest fidelity sources for 4K/UHD video (including the upcoming Blu-ray 4K/UHD) are expected to require the UHD source, all intermediate devices (such as an AV receiver) and the UHD display to support HDCP 2.2.

There have been 2 major suppliers for the HDMI 2.0 chips being used by the major electronics manufacturers.  The Panasonic HDMI 2.0 chip supports the full 18.0 Gbps data rate but a earlier HDCP version.  Silicon Image (SI) on the other hand has been producing a HDMI 2.0 chip, used by many consumer electronics manufacturers, that supports HDCP 2.2 but is limited to 10.2 Gbps data rate.  However, SI has just recently starting shipping a next generation HDMI 2.0 chip (model Sil9777) that offers support for both the maximum 18 Gbps data rate and HDCP 2.2.  As a result, many new UHD TVs and 4K/UHD projectors introduced in 2015 should for the first time fully support the capabilities of HDMI 2.0 w/HDCP 2.2 that will be necessary to support the more advanced 4K/UHD features.

Display Standards - The CEA guidelines for UHD labeling calls for certain minimum requirements from the UHD display device while other standards such as ITU-T Rec. 2020, the MoveLabs specification and various industry documents may provide guidance as to what bit-depths and color gamut should be supported.  However, in the end each manufacturer for each model of UHD TV or projector will decide what capability they will support, or not, beyond the minimum.  One of the features of HDMI is it allows a source device and a display device to exchange information on their capabilities and after this negotiation the source will then ideally provide the highest quality video format that can be supported by that display.  Thus, two different UHD displays may both claim compatibility with the future Blu-ray 4K/UHD discs, but the first display may, for example, only support 8-bit depth, chroma in 4.2:0 format and ITU rec. 709 color gamut (as used for today's HDTV).  The second, more capable, display on the other hand might support up to 12-bit depth with chroma also supported in the higher resolution 4:2:2 format and also offer support for  a wider DCI P3 color gamut.  This hypothetical Blu-ray 4K/UHD player may be able to accommodate both of these displays and while both will display the video with the same 4K resolution, the second display will produce a noticeable better image with increased dynamic range and higher color resolution and fidelity.

Content Creation

More and more movies and TV programs are being shot using 4K cameras.  Also many older movies filmed on 35mm (or larger) film can be scanned at 4K resolution to produce improved images as compared to 1080p scans.  As a result the potential library for material that could be released in 4K/UHD is rather large.  However, the studios will need to make the financial investment in the necessary hardware/software and personal to actually produce high quality 4K/UHD transfers that are ready for distribution.  This is not unlike the situation from when HD was first introduced and it took several years to build up a significant library of titles available to the consumer in 1080p format (on disc) or 720p and 1080i formats for broadcast programming.

Content Distribution

We basically have 4 primary distribution channels for HD programming today and these are expected to carry over to 4K/UHD.  Namely these are:
  • Steaming or downloading over the internet.    Sony is already offering a download service for 4K/UHD movies (100+ titles) and documentaries, while Netfix and YouTube have some 4K video material available today by their streaming services.  Amazon's 4K video steaming service is scheduled to come on-line by the end of this month (i.e., Dec.) and various other providers of streaming video are also moving to expand their services to support 4K videos.
  • Physical Media - Blu-ray 4K/UHD discs are expected to be available in the second half of 2015 with players and the first batch of movie titles available for purchase by the 2015 holiday shopping season.  These new discs will nominally support up to 100 GB of storage and use HEVC encoding of the 4K video.
  • Satellite and Cable TV Services - In the USA, DirecTV has indicated they are considering adding a few 4K/UHD channels, perhaps starting as early as late 2015 and several cable TV providers have also shown interest in providing 4K/UHD programming.  I would expect some such offerings to be provided for fee-based video-on-demand and as premium services.  A new generation of set-top-boxes/DVRs is expected to be required to support the 4K/UHD video services (except for certain internet based services offered by the satellite or cable companies).
  • Over-the-Air, Terrestrial Broadcast Services - In order for this to happen there must be new technical standards created (i.e.., by ATSC for the USA) and approved by the regulatory authority (i.e., FCC in the USA), then new hardware/software must developed for both the broadcasters and the consumers.  Even with those hurdles, the biggest hurdle may be the transition from the current digital broadcast system to a new one that supports UHD.  This is not unlike the long and costly transition from analog to digital that spaned about a decade in the USA, even after the technical standards had been agreed upon.  The lessons learned from that experience may benefit the transition to UHD broadcast and reduce the time required to complete the process.

Consumer 4K/UHD Source Electronics

With Smart TVs becoming the norm, the consumer end of internet-based streaming services are becoming more integrated with their UHD TVs.  So far this hasn't happened for projectors, but in the future it may happen or alternatively the projector manufacture will provide an external media player that supports the 4K/UHD streaming services.   With such smart UHD TVs will need to support the 4K version of the popular streamings apps (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).  Also existing media player manufacturers, such as Roku, may offer 4K/UHD versions if they feel there is enough demand. Satellite and Cable TV based 4K/UHD services are expected to require a new generation of set-top-boxes and DVRs. Blu-ray 4K/UHD disc players are expected to reach consumers in late 2015 and will be required to play the new generation of discs that are recorded with 4K content (not to be confused with the currently available "master in 4K" discs which are actually 1080p recordings). No UHD TV or other device can support reception of terrestrial over-the-air 4K/UHD broadcasts, as the standards for such broadcast do not yet exist.  It is expected to be several years (perhaps 2020 or beyond) before UHD TVs are equipped for such reception.  However, external 4K/UHD tuners will likely become available when such UHD over-the-air broadcasts become a reality and it will not matter at all for those consumers using Cable TV or Satellite for their TV services as they will have no need to receive terrestrial broadcasts.

Consumer 4K/UHD Distribution Electronics

So once you have your 4K/UHD source device (i.e., media player, Blu-ray 4K/UHD player, new 4K satellite DVR, etc.) and a 4K/UHD TV or projector, then what is needed to get the video from the source device to the TV/Projector.  Basically, for most people it comes down to HDMI cables and perhaps an AV Receiver (AVR).  For more sophisticated home theaters owners there may also be a video processor in the signal chain.   When upgrading a system from HD to one offering full UHD support, it is important that every cable and electronic device in the signal chain support the most advanced capabilities shared by the 4K/UHD source and display (including any likely upgrades to those devices coming within the next few years, if possible).  For now that would mean making certain all of the HDMI cables are rated to support the full 18 Gbps data rates of HDMI 2.0.  HDMI cables are not officially labeled by the version number and are normally only labeled as standard speed or high speed.  For passive cables of short to moderate length, then "high speed" HDMI cable should work, but some of the "high speed" HDMI cables that work OK for 1080p video may be hit and miss for successfully supporting 4K/UHD video, especially for longer cable lengths.   Some cable manufacturers in their descriptions of their "High Speed" HDMI cables may specifically indicate their cables can support the full 18 Gbps of HDMI 2.0, but the lack of such a description does not mean the specific high speed rated HDMI cable is not fully compatible with the full 18 Gbps of HDMI 2.0.  Some active HDMI cables are now available that are specifically rated for the full 18 Gbps data rate of HDMI  2.0, but currently these don't seem to be available in longer lengths (e.g., beyond 15 ft.). Another connection options for longer cable runs include HDBaseT which runs video, audio, control and Ethernet over a network using CAT 5e or Cat 6 cables.  However, HDBaseT equipment does not yet support the 18 Gbps data rates associated with full bandwidth HDMI 2.0, so currently it is not a good option when considering future 4K/UHD sources and displays that may be able to use full bandwidth offered by HDMI 2.0. AVRs and Video processors need to have HDMI 2.0 with support for HDCP 2.2.  Ideally these should support the full 18 Gbps data rate that HDMI 2.0 is capable of.  This full bandwidth version of HDMI 2.0 is sometimes listed as 600 MHz, versus 340 MHz for the older versions that support a max. data rate of 10.2 Gbps.   The first AVRs and Video Processors providing support for both the max. bandwidth version of HDMI 2.0 as well as HDCP 2.2 should be appearing in 2015.  If you must purchase an AVR or video processor now, look for HDMI 2.0 (even if it is limited to 10.2 Gbps) and support for HDCP 2.2.

Consumer 4K/UHD Displays

By the term "4K/UHD Displays" I'm including both UHD TVs and 4K/UHD projectors.   Let's face it, the consumer electronics manufacturers are faced with a "chicken and egg" situation for selling UHD TVs. Looking back a little than a decade ago, by the time HDTVs first started have much visibility on dealer's shelves, the over-the-air HD broadcasts were slowing rolling out across the USA as local TV stations upgraded their equipment and as the broadcast networks offered increasing number of HD programs.  In fact, the first commercial broadcasts began in 1998 while very few HDTVs were available for until well after 2000.  This time around, with 4K/UHD we have had the UHD TVs and projector being offered to consumers before there were any 4K/UHD video sources or even standards established for such sources.  As a result, there are some early UHD TVs that are not be compatible with some of the current and perhaps most of the future sources for 4K/UHD video.  If buying a 4K/UHD TV or projector today look for HDMI 2.0 input(s) with HDCP 2.2 support.  If not buying your new 4K UHD TV or projector until sometime in 2015, then also look for a model that supports full bandwidth HDMI 2.0 (supporting 18 Gbps) along with support for HDCP 2.2.  Among the set of supported 4K/UHD signal formats, the following more advanced formats should ideally be supported.
  • 4K (2160p) at 60 Hz with 4:4:4 chroma at 8-bit depth and with 4:2:2 chroma at 12-bit depth
  • 4K (2160p) at 24 Hz and 30 Hz with 4:4:4 chroma with 16-bit depth
  • Support for these formats would be a good indication the display is actually taking advantage of the more advanced capabilities supported by full bandwidth HDMI 2.0.
Beyond HDMI 2.0 and the supported signal formats, also look for other advanced capabilities including 10-bit (or greater) display panels and processing (i.e., supporting over 1 billion colors that can be displayed) and support for an expanded color gamut (colorspace) that includes DCI-P3 color gamut, in addition to the HD standard Rec. 709 color gamut.

The Bottom Line

At that point it is really difficult for the consumer to know what they are actually buying let alone how to ensure their new purchases are as future-proof as possible.  While it is reasonable to believe that the most capable of today's 4K/UHD TVs and projectors will be compatible with most of the 4K/UHD video sources coming to the marketplace over the next several years, this does not mean these displays will be able to take full advantage of the features, including some offering enhanced image quality, that these 4K/UHD sources will be capable of providing.  So the bottom line is there cannot be a guarantee that the state-of-the-art 4K/UHD TV or projector you purchase today will be considered state-of-the-art a year from now, but isn't that true for all electronic products supporting relatively new technologies.  However, if you note the points I've raised above then hopefully you will be able to make a more informed 4K/UHD purchase that will help ensure that, at least, it be compatible with future 4K/UHD sources, such as Blu-ray 4K/UHD discs.

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