By Justin W. Sanders and Charlie Smith
It’s a question as old as… well, as old as the television industry: Which came first, the TV or the content?
Ultra-high definition television (UHDTV), or 4K sets, which generally offer four times the resolution of 1080 HD, are nothing new in retail, with models already on the market from Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Toshiba. Still something of a luxury item, the sets are a ways from catching on with mainstream consumers, though that hasn't stopped Sony from recently pairing content with the new format. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sony is loaning out a hard-disc-based UHDTV video player to each purchaser of its UHDTV set, the XBR-84X900 4K LED TV, this holiday season, arriving pre-loaded with 10 major Hollywood films presented in glorious 4K.
With an introductory price tag of $24,999, we’ll have to take Sony’s word that absorbing such perennial classics as "The Karate Kid," "Total Recall" and "That's My Boy" on the new 84-inch TV offers an unparalleled crisp, clear viewing experience. What seems clear is that, with broadcast content nowhere near to ready for transmission over 4K TVs, these up-scaled versions of non-4K films feel a little like getting tossed a proverbial bone. Just like with 3D, to experience ultra-high definition as it was meant to be seen, the content you’re experiencing needs to have been shot on a 4K system as well, and this gap between content production and evolving methods of displaying said content may be the primary barrier in technology advances like UHD becoming mainstream (and therefore, affordable).
Broadcasters are historically behind TV manufacturers in the HD arms race (how could we forget the havoc wreaked on the industry when 1080 first hit the mainstream?), not for lack of will, but because of pure logistics – it is neither cheap nor convenient to convert all the data they have zinging around into a new viewing format. In September, at the IBC trade show in Amsterdam, Sony demonstrated a compression technique using current H.264 technology, which lets them squish the mighty 4K footage into a broadcast-friendly 50Mbps stream. If implemented, the transmission system would let broadcasters start streaming 4K without a costly upgrade of the physical infrastructure, though one has to wonder how much compressing such a mighty video feed might affect image quality.
Meanwhile, has content struggles to catch up to 4K, companies have already showcased the NEXT evolution of HD. At the London Olympics last summer, the BBC and NHK trialed Super-Hi Vision, a live 8K broadcast of the opening ceremony on an eight-meter-wide cinema screen in surround sound. Unlike HDTV or even 4K, the whopping 8K system avoided displaying even the merest hint of pixilation or compression. The tiniest details, from blades of grass on the field to bugs circling in the air, were crystal clear and with 60 progressive frames per second of clean digital footage, there were none of the flickers or low frame rate issues we are used to experiencing on our HDTVs.
Along with content, the question remains whether our eyes and brains can catch up to these sophisticated viewing mechanisms. Some reviews of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” shot in 5k at 48 frames-per-second, have described the picture as feeling like daytime television, with others claiming they left the screenings feeling queasy. Scientists have said that the human eye can see up to about 300 pixels per inch; anything over this and our vision can no longer discern detail in the image. The resolution of a 40-inch 1080 HD TV offers about 50 pixels-per-inch, while a 40-inch UHDTV throws out around double that, at 100ppi. Super-Hi Vision doubles it again, to 200ppi. Yet another advance would exceed the eye’s capacity to process it, which is why 8k is widely considered to be the holy grail of high definition broadcast.
Only time will tell if we’ll ever have widespread content to pour into that grail.
Have an opinion about the future of 4K-and-beyond content production? Chime in by taking our weekly member survey!