One of the many buzzwords being kicked around at CES is “4K.” For the uninitiated, I’ll give you a quick definition before getting into the news.
“4K” stands for a TV resolution of 3840x2160 pixels per inch. So 4K isn’t quite four thousand pixels but it’s close and in some cases they may be able to bump it to a true 4096x2180 resolution. It’s also known as Ultra High Definition, or UHD. By way of comparison, high definition TV (HDTV) is 1920x1080 and the old school TV signals we all grew up on was 640x480.
It’s not a doubling of high definition, it’s actually a four-fold increase in resolution. UHD has 8.3 million pixels in a square inch while HDTV has 2.2 million pixels.
It’s the next step in high definition TV, and it is drop dead gorgeous to view. If your local Best Buy has a Magnolia home theater store within the store, it will have a 4K TV running a demo and you can see for yourself how incredible it is.
Now that that’s out of the way, back to CES. UHD sets were shown last year but the price was high -- $10,000 or more. Over the course of 2013 the prices dropped to as low as $4,999. At this year’s CES, Vizio broke the $1,000 barrier by one buck with its TV. So the price is falling fast.
The problem was there was no content. Sony made a few 4K movies but not many and they were the only studio to do so. Cable and satellite companies are nowhere near able to send a UHD signal. The CEO of DirecTV has said 4k would be a “challenge.”
Cable companies especially can barely handle HDTV now and often run into limits. For example, we can’t have more than four simultaneous signals in my house because the copper wires can’t handle more than four HDTV transmissions at once. If UHD is four times the size of HDTV, then homes will be lucky to get one signal.
So here comes physical media to the rescue. No sooner was everyone ready to hold a funeral for DVD and declare physical media dead in favor of streaming media, we have a new format so big that only one medium can handle it: recordable media.
The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a report that the Blu-Ray Disc Association, the industry group that developed the Blu-ray specification, has approved work “to extend Blu-Ray to include 4K and will be exploring the best possible technical blueprint.”
The Blu-ray spec is highly expandable. For instance, regular DVD and Blu-ray are dual layered, meaning they have two layers of data to double capacity. Blu-ray vendors were working on a four-level disc, to hold twice as much content as current Blu-ray. That never made it out of the labs but with technological advancements, it just might.
Unfortunately, you will need a new player. Your existing Blu-ray player will not be able to handle UHD, even with a firmware upgrade.
All told, 17 companies including Sony, Technicolor, Dolby, Fox, and Disney are all working on the UHD spec. Separately, Samsung at CES confirmed it is working on UHD as well. Meanwhile, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), the group behind the UltraViolet cloud streaming spec, is planning to add 4K support as well.
This will be interesting to watch, because the industry has been moving away from recorded media in favor of streaming. And the trend in the favor of streaming. Last year, physical media sales dropped 8% over the prior year to $7.78 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. DVD rental subscriptions dropped 19% to $1.02 billion, while rentals at stores fell 14% to $1.04 billion. Streaming subscriptions rose 32% to $3.16 billion.
But as I said earlier, UHD is just too large for most streaming pipes. About the only service that could handle it is Verizon’s FiOS, and it is not widely available. So physical media might get a revival simply because we don’t have the bandwidth to support 4K.
On the other hand, there is the issue of content. Do we need every movie in UHD format? It’s likely most early UHD content will be travel, documentaries, travel and other non-fiction works, where the realism would have its appeal. Also, will everyone go out and buy a 4K TV, even if they drop below $1,000?
Well, I know I will.