TV’s will be available this year, but adoption will be slow.

Not surprisingly, Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV for short) was the big buzz at CES last week. All of the major TV manufacturers were demonstrating UHDTV sets running at 4K resolution, with Sharp showing an updated prototype 85” TV running at 8K resolution. But even as the TV sets themselves are approaching availability, the picture is becoming increasingly clear (pun intended) that uptake will be slow.

  • Although UHDTV sets will be available as soon as March of this year, initial pricing will be prohibitively high (>$10,000). According to CEA analysts, UHDTV units will account for only 5% of TV’s sold in 2016.
  • No 4K or 8K content is available currently to view on UHDTV sets and likely won’t be available in quantity for years to come.
  • There is currently no distribution method for UHDTV content. Data rates for UHDTV can be at least four to sixteen times higher than for 1080p HD.
  • Broadcasters are generally unconvinced that a viable business model will emerge for UHDTV.
  • Most industry analysts and TV vendors now acknowledge that UHDTV has little (if any) value for displays smaller than 50 inches. For my thoughts on the relative value of higher spatial resolution, please read my earlier post on this topic.

In short, UHDTV is a really impressive technology that is desperately in search of a market opportunity. It’s hard to dispute that UHDTV represents a future we can all get excited about, but (like HD before it) the market for UHDTV will likely take several years to develop. Read on if you want more of the gory details. If you’re a UHDTV novice, feel free to check out the primer on UHDTV I posted last September.

Samsung S9000 85-inch 4K UHDTV at CES 2013
(photo courtesy of

UHDTV’s Will Be Available Soon

Virtually all of the major TV vendors demonstrated UHDTV sets at CES last week. Note that none of the sets is currently available, but some will begin shipping as soon as March 2013. Early units will include 94-inch displays from Sony and LG that will be priced at $20,000-$25,000. Smaller models will cost less – the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that the average wholesale cost of 4K televisions will drop to $7,000 by late 2013, then to $2,800 in 2014. Even with this steep decline in price, only 1.4 million unit sales are projected for the U.S. in 2016, equivalent to roughly 5% of the market.

“It’s a very, very limited opportunity,” said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the CEA. “The price points here are in the five digits (in U.S. dollars) and very few manufacturers, at least at this stage, have products ready.”

Content is (Lac)King

No UHDTV content is available to consumers currently. But the technology is available to create 4K content. Increasingly, feature films are shot with 4K cameras and are mastered at 4K for theatrical distribution. 4K consumer camcorders are already on the market. Classic films archived on 35mm film could be retransferred at 4K for distribution. And gaming engines could fairly easily render images in 4K or 8K. So the technology is available, but until a compelling market opportunity exists, content owners may not jump on board.

Upscaling and Other Sources

Early UHDTV sets from vendors like Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, will support upscaling of HD content to 4K. For example, Sony recently announced plans for a “Mastered in 4K” Blu-ray library that will offer content mastered in 4K that is downscaled to 1080p HD for Blu-ray release.

“When upscaled via the Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs, these discs serve as an ideal way for consumers to experience near-4K picture quality,” according to Sony.

While this may seem like a sketchy marketing ploy (because the discs are no different from today’s Blu-ray titles) I have to admit that standard def DVD’s look much better when upscaled to HD, so there is a possibility that Blu-ray discs will look even better when upscaled to UHDTV. Still, upscaling of 1080p content is at best a stopgap until UHDTV-native content becomes available.

One source of UHDTV-native content could be your computer. Graphics cards have long since surpassed the 1920×1080 resolution of HD. Home movies and photo montages will look great on a huge UHDTV. I can also imagine UHDTV’s becoming commercially viable as high-end displays for retail and corporate applications. But for television viewing, the lack of native UHDTV content will definitely be a barrier to adoption.

Bandwidth and Distribution

At 4K, UHDTV content has more than four times as many pixels as HD. At 8K, that multiplier jumps to >16x. Carrying that much data will require significant advances in compression technology as well as increases in network bandwidth. Ironically, at a time when sales of physical media are plummeting, these challenges may make physical media the most practical method for distributing UHDTV for the next few years. Recently, the Blu-Ray Disk Association has formed a task force to study the viability of extending the Blu-ray format to support 4k.

As for television, some broadcasters seem interested in exploring UHDTV. Recently, satellite operator Eutelsat Communications launched a demonstration 4K channel in Europe. And an experimental Ultra HD channel is also being planned in Korea. NHK in Japan hopes to begin experimental 8K broadcasts in 2020. But these technology experiments are primarily focused on exploring the technical viability of UHDTV broadcast.

Business Model

Market viability is perhaps the biggest question surrounding UHDTV broadcast. As with the 3D hype two years ago, some industry analysts expect sports programming to drive consumer interest in UHDTV.

The Hollywood Reporter recently stated that “BSkyB in the UK, Sky Deutschland in Germany, Japan’s Sky Perfect Jsat, and Brazil’s TV Globo have all started to explore the potential of 4K, which would include coverage of events such as sports…with an eye toward offering the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics (both of which will be held in Brazil) in [UHDTV].”

But other broadcasters have gone on record as much more jaundiced about the market opportunity. During the Broadband Unlimited conference at CES last Monday, Sheau Ng, VP of research and development for NBC Universal says there’s no business model for UHD TV yet.

“Therein lies the rub,” Ng said. “It’s not the technology, it’s the business model. Where is the money? Unlike the previous revolution of HD, we have the device manufacturers selling the device when people are still scratching their head and saying ‘What do I do?’ That’s something we’re wrestling with every day. For us to say ‘We’re going to do this,’ we need somebody to say ‘here’s the business model, here’s the number of devices in the market, here’s how we’re going to make money.’”

And Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning and development at ESPN, hinted that some broadcasters will wait for 8k.

“By the time we get [to 4K] we will be on to 8K or whatever. I don’t want to make the capital investment [in 4K]. There might be a gradual evolution…but I don’t see us heading to 4K production or an ESPN 4K channel.”

In Summary…

With the proliferation of high resolution cameras and displays, the question surrounding UHDTV is no longer “how,” so much as “why” and “when.” From my perspective, until there is critical mass of UHDTV sets installed in homes, content owners won’t spend the extra dollars to make UHDTV content available. Until the content is available, broadcasters won’t create UHDTV channels. And until a lot of compelling content is both available and affordable, consumers won’t pay extra for UHDTV sets or service.

If this circular “chicken and egg” dynamic sounds to you a lot like the uphill battle faced by HD technology fifteen years ago, or 3D TV two years ago, I think you’ve gotten my point: UHDTV is definitely coming, but not quickly.

For several years, I have enjoyed watching NHK’s technology demonstrations of their outlandish Super Hi-Vision format. With an 8K image (sixteen times the resolution of 1080P HD!) running at 120 frames per second, it’s like IMAX on steroids. And with 22.2 channels of surround sound, the theatrical experience is truly immersive.

NHK Demonstrates the Latest Super Hi-Vision Camera at IBC 2012
(click to enlarge)

But, like many people, I confess that I’ve been treating Super Hi-Vision like a science experiment – something cool and futuristic, but impractical and over-the-top (no pun intended). Imagine my surprise to see that last month Super Hi-Vision has spawned a bona fide ITU standard (Ultra-High Definition, ITU-R BT.2020). What’s more, at the IBC convention in Amsterdam last weekend, the NHK was showcasing a Super High-Vision camera that is actually a lot smaller than a washing machine! Some broadcasters and vendors were even speaking up in support of UHDTV as the “next big thing,” although not without lively debate from the doubters. I found myself wondering if maybe UHDTV might be on the brink of becoming more than just a science experiment.

I also wondered what UHDTV actually is, what variants it supports, and whether it is equivalent to Super Hi-Vision. This post provides a quick summary of UHDTV, what it is and what it isn’t. In a future post I’ll opine about who (if anybody) really needs UHDTV, but first it would help just to understand it.

UHDTV is a specification for a new motion image format derived from Super Hi-Vision, originally developed by NHK’s Science & Technology Research Lab. UHDTV specifies two image sizes: UHDTV1 has 4K resolution, while UHDTV2 has 8K resolution, that can run at a variety of frame rates. Super Hi-Vision is not exactly equivalent to UHDTV2, although it incorporates one variant of UHDTV2 as its image format. Here is a chart I put together to illustrate the areas of equivalence (marked in green) and variance between UHDTV and Super Hi-Vision:

UHDTV SHV Comparison Chart

Basically, Super Hi-Vision is equivalent to one of the variants of UHDTV (4320p running at 120 fps) plus 22.2 channels of audio. From my reading, ITU-R Rec. 2020 doesn’t specify anything about audio. Sadly, it appears that the ITU has decided that UHDTV should specify 18 permutations of image size and frame rate. That number increases when you consider color sampling and coding options. It seems to me the ITU should have taken this opportunity to simplify things, rather than repeating the unfortunate approach taken by the ATSC twenty years ago that resulted in fifteen HD variants.

To illustrate the spatial resolution of UHDTV, I have created a colorful graphic (see below) that accurately depicts the relative sizes of SD, HD and UHDTV images. By comparison, whereas an individual frame of 1080p HD content contains roughly 2.1 megapixels, a single frame of UHDTV1 contains roughly 8.3 megapixels, and UHDTV2 contains 33.2 megapixels. How’s that for spatial resolution?

Broadcast Standards: Size Comparison
(click to enlarge)

I have always found it interesting that motion imagery can get away with much lower spatial resolution than still imagery. Although scientists have described two phenomena that explain the human perception of motion (the phi phenomenon and beta movement) recent studies indicate that human interpretation of motion video is more complex than had been previously thought. It turns out the brain is not a camera capturing a fixed number of frames per second. The brain has much more work to do to interpret motion video than a still image, and therefore doesn’t have the cycles to ascertain spatial resolution in each passing frame.

This explains why a Bluray disc looks great on my TV when 24 frames per second are flying by. But an individual 1080p frame, at only 2 megapixels, can look blocky. And at only 24 frames per second, fast motion looks jerky. Clearly UHDTV does not have either of these limitations, given its massive spatial resolution and a temporal resolution that ranges up to 120 frames per second.

Not surprisingly, all this resolution comes at a cost. In case you’re wondering, at 120 frames per second, a UHDTV2 sensor is spitting out roughly 4 billion pixels per second at data rates that can exceed 40 Gbit/s. That’s a lot of data! Imagine having to gang together fourteen 3 Gbps dual link SDI signals to carry one uncompressed stream of UHDTV2! This explains why HVEC encoding is seen as necessary to efficiently store UHDTV streams, even though UHDTV is compression agnostic.

So, that’s the quick story on UHDTV. Wikipedia has a good article on UHDTV that I recommend you read, especially if you’re interested in the history of the format. In a future post, I’ll opine on the more difficult questions: is UHDTV practical? And who really needs UHDTV? Stay tuned…