Just increasing the resolution to 3840 by 2160 pixels won't be enough to make consumers replace existing TVs with 4K models: Improvements such as higher frame rates and better color reproduction will be equally important, according to two industry experts.
TV manufacturers are going all in with 4K, hoping it will give them the sales boost 3D never did. But for broadcasters, the upgrade needs to be about more than just resolution.
"Broadcasters know consumers can barely see the difference between HD and 4K if you do nothing more than change the resolution, and this is well based in solid trials methodology. It isn't just a bit of prejudice. The higher numbers are good for marketing, but not much else," said Paul Grey, director of European research for NPD DisplaySearch.
For the new format to make a real difference, improvements other than a higher resolution are needed, including higher frame rates, better color reproduction and a higher dynamic range for brighter whites and deeper blacks, according to Grey.
Henri Caddeo, CTO at Swedish cable operator Com Hem, agreed:
"Depending a bit on what you mean with 4K it can be very impressive looking or not at impressive at all," Caddeo said.
4K needs 60fps
For example, the demos that have wowed him have all used at least 60fps (frames per second). The 30fps most commonly seen just isn't good enough, Caddeo said.
Caddeo was one of many in the TV industry that made the trip to the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam last week, where 4K hardware and content was the big trend.
"No one is talking about 3D. It has been buried, so now everyone is talking about 4K instead," he said.
At IBC, vendors showed a new level of maturity, according to Grey. They are going from hardware and software that were just cobbled together to solutions that are being designed with 4K in mind. Prices have also started to come down, Grey said.
4K at IBC
Everything that's needed, from the studio to the living room, is on display at IBC.
Chip makers showed products that will go into 4K-compatible set-top boxes. Broadcom announced the company's chipsets will power TiVo's set-top boxes. Demonstrating its 4K capabilities is an important next step in bringing the technology to consumers everywhere, according to TiVo. However, it isn't ready to reveal any launch dates, a spokesman said via email.
Broadcom is also working with Vodafone in Germany on a set-top box for the operator's IPTV subscribers, which is expected to become available during the first half of next year, Vodafone said.
Even if the parts are falling into place for broadcasters and operators to back 4K, the decision to do so isn't an easy one. For example, many have just completed investments in HD equipment and think it would be nice to pay that back before doing it all over again, Grey said. They also need to come up with effective ways of handling 4K content in a studio setting, which hasn't yet been standardized.
Strategy Analytics expects 4K or Ultra HD TV sales to begin rising this year, but doesn't expect them to become common for some time. It will be 2017 before 10 percent of North American households have a 4K TV, and 2018 before that level is reached in Western Europe, the market research company said.
In the short term, Caddeo is more interested in using HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), the video compression standard used in 4K systems, for regular HD broadcasts. HEVC is a key part of making 4K file sizes and bandwidth use manageable, but it can also be used to reduce the bandwidth required to stream or broadcast HD programming. Lower bandwidth requirements means room for more channels, and content that's easier for home networks to handle.
Caddeo isn't ruling out introducing 4K at Com Hem, but says the technology's promoters at IBC will all have to pull together if it is to be ready for prime time. To convince TV networks, "The whole chain has to work even under the heaviest loads, on a Sunday night or something like that," he said.