4K TV – Sooner Than You Think!

A few days ago, I was on the phone with the FCC and an interesting question came up. Will broadcast stations have enough over-the-air bandwidth to provide 4K service to the public? I was struck by the question because 4K is such a new idea, and because I’d never really thought about it as broadcast idea.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

What’s 4K TV? It’s a much higher-resolution version of HDTV. And the first 4K TV sets are arriving soon (see below0. In order to provide all of that picture information, more data is required, which means larger storage devices, and, in order to provide that data to connected TV sets, more bandwidth is required, too. That’s the basic theory, but it’s important not to think about 4K in terms of the current systems because of that always-astonishing digital magic trick: compression. Yes, 4K requires a lot of data and a lot of bandwidth. But “a lot” is a relative term. And yes, there are new digital broadcast standards on the way. Good news for consumers and for broadcasters, who will be able to pack more and prettier program material into their TV signals, not-so-good news for broadcasters who are attempting to build a coherent strategy related to the upcoming FCC TV spectrum auction, in which many stations will trade their licenses for cash, or for the opportunity to share a channel with another broadcaster in the market.

panel2_imageAnyway… I woke up this morning to an announcement from Sony… with all sorts of enticing promises: improved detail, improved color rendition, better audio, screen mirroring so what’s on your tablet can be viewed on your new TV (albeit it in lesser detail, a service currently available to Apple users).

How much? $5,000 for the 55-inch model, and $7,000 for the 65-inch model.

What are you going to watch? Well, yeah, that’s always the problem at this stage. Here’s a terrific article about “upscaling” the currently available media, which seems to require 24x improvement. More data will require more robust local storage, and so, we move closer to a complete convergence of television, home network, home digital storage devices in sophisticated home library systems, and, perhaps far more likely, streaming solutions in their next phase: advanced versions of Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, tweaked to serve big files for 4K TV sets.

Which brings us back around to the TV station wondering about its 4K future. Sure, it’s technically possible to broadcast 4K, but in the few years remaining for the current broadcast standard, this seems fairly unlikely because (a) it will be expensive for television stations to install in their master control facilities, and (b) relatively few people will leap from their new-ish HDTVs to 4K sets in the next year or two.

Sony-4KTVDo we want or need even more resolution than 1080i HDTV sets provide? Maybe for microscopy or astrophotography or other science work that demands the highest possible resolution. Do I think ESPN is investing in a whole new 4K operation–cameras, video switcher, storage, transmission, etc. so I can watch baseball in even higher resolution. You know they are, or will soon be, doing just that. And when they do, we’ll buy the sets because, you know, people will come…

4K will be 4x better than HDTV

Even higher definition TV. Much higher. With 3D. Without glasses. We may never leave home again.

So says long-time consumer electronics public relations executive Lois Whitman in her blog, DigiDame. According to Lois: Current HD maxes out at 1080 lines or a 1080p picture. 4K HD is 4096 lines, or 4096p.

Ars Technica is a whole lot more critical.

IMHO, this is going to make spectrum reallocation more complicated. Right now, television stations and broadband operators are wrangling to use over-the-air spectrum for delivery of, well, television and broadband services. HDTV is a heavy user–and this new 4K technology will require a lot more bandwidth. Perhaps not over-the-air bandwidth, which might be put to better uses, but when we consider the available bandwidth built out by cable and satellite operators, well, 4K is likely to overwhelm their infrastucture, too. We’ll need new superDVDs or some other medium to carry the data associated with this new format… and I’m certain that will arrive soon enough.

As we Americans (and folks around the world) consider public telecommunications policy and the use of all sorts of bandwidth for television signal delivery, will 4K make the discussion, well, at least 4x more interesting? Will Snow White and the Huntsman be 4x more fun in 4KTV? Apparently, the answer is yes if (a) you sit really close to your new 4KTV, or (b) yes, if your screen exceeds 60 inches (not popular in most homes, just too darned big).

The question is: will viewers find 4x four times more interesting than HDTV? As Apple pushes its retina displays, and camera manufacturers begin to push the 20+ megapixel sensors for even-better-than-the-best imagery, when do we reach the point of diminishing returns? Does anybody need or want a 4K TV? And how might that answer change when 4K TVs are the only kind of TV that Best Buy (or whatever retailer manages to stay alive) sells in 2015?

Cool stuff, but I sure would like the manufacturers to focus on something more important than RHDTV*.


* Ridiculously High Definition TV, a term I made up. You may also see the term QFHD (Quad Full High Definition), which somebody else made up.

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