I recently wrote a blog about market traction of 4K TV and some of the challenges to be overcome for consumer adoption to take off. With recent news about High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a couple of other developments, it’s time to revisit the 4K TV ecosystem to better understand how new technology will impact 4K TV, and explore some OTT service differentiation possibilities around these.
Certainly there are plenty of Ultra High Definition (UHD) 4K TVs on the market. Visit your favorite consumer electronics store and you will see models 40”up to 88” from the major large screen TV players in flat screen, curved screen, LED, and in a wide price range. And they are selling. I noticed several people loading them into their SUVs when I visited a Best Buy during the holiday season. When they get them home and set them up, will they notice a difference from an HDTV? Only if they purchased a 60” model or larger, and view them from a proper close enough distance so the increased resolution will be noticed. Otherwise, for most people, 4K is undiscernible from 1080P screens. If the analyst forecasts for significant 4K market penetration by 2020 are to be realized, it’s going to take something other than more pixels to drive this. There is also the issue of available content. Today there is not much available, which will impact purchase decisions. The below data from early in 2015 shows consumer feelings clearly:
So, what can move the needle on 4K adoption? Enter HDR. This has started a lot of buzz on the technical side over the past few months. HDR supports a much broader range of contrast on a TV screen, resulting in brighter whites, darker blacks, and many more color hues than previously possible. This enables displaying a picture with image detail and vivid colors matched to what our eyes are capable of perceiving. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show there were demos of HDR-compatible TVs and content. Reports I read touted a very noticeable improvement in image quality and gave thumbs up on the viewing experience. Besides HDR, there are two other technologies that will also play an important role as 4K begins to become mainstream. One is Wide Color Gamut (WCG), which supports a wider range of color values than traditional color spaces. The other is High Frame Rate (HFR), already in use in film production, to create sharper images when there is fast motion in scenes. HFR is controversial however, as it changes the way we perceive the images we watch. A discussion of this goes beyond the scope of this blog, but you can read more here about this topic. These in combination with HDR could be the key to consumer excitement because they change the differentiator over 1080P from more pixels to better pixels.
HDR is starting to be incorporated onto TVs and HDR content is appearing. Dolby has developed a standards-based solution called Dolby Vision which uses HDR technology. Streaming service VUDU offers some 4K titles with Dolby Vision, and Netflix will soon offer Dolby Vision content. To help HDR gain traction, Dolby worked to have a functional HDR ecosystem in place with content and HDR capable playback devices available. They have engaged with TV manufacturers, including Visio, who announced availability of their VIZIO Reference Series Ultra High Definition TV with Dolby Vision. Dolby also partnered with major film studios, including Disney, Sony and Warner Brothers, who are supporting Dolby Vision for new releases as well as older library releases. Recent movies “The Force Awakens”, “The Martian” and “Inside Out” were released with Dolby Vision.
Besides the efforts to roll out film content, another obvious area to focus on is live major sports events. Video camera manufacturer Grass Valley has a product in the market that produces standard HDR video streams that was demonstrated at IBC 2015.
With an ecosystem in place, how will HDR roll out in the market? For VUDU, Netflix and other OTT services, HDR will be a way to differentiate their premium content, and showcase an outstanding viewing experience. Broadcast TV networks will want to add 4K content to compete and maintain their brand identity. Probably the biggest challenge will come on the network side, as Cable MSOs and satellite companies face the network bandwidth requirements to support UHD. 4K TV has twice the horizontal and vertical pixels for an 8.3 mega pixel image size – quadruple current HD. Various compression technologies are being explored to mitigate this, but the bandwidth for high quality 4K is around 20Mbps or higher. This is much higher than most households currently have, and consider that many homes have more than one TV. Satellite bands can handle this (DirecTV announced trialing a UHD service in 2016), but cable delivery will have to rely on new compression technology, or network expansion.
Part of the equation for delivering UHD content are CDNs. CDNs are built to scale, and as demand grows for UHD content, CDNs will expand their capacity to support global distribution of UHD streams, delivering the broadcast quality experience users demand.