There’s so much to take in at the International CES every year that you need a few weeks for it all to sink it. I posted my recap of the show earlier this month. Now, I want to expound on a couple of trends I saw in Las Vegas you need to watch. (Let’s move over to the referee’s TV to look at a reply.)
First and foremost is Ultra HDTV. No matter what you think of this next step in television viewing, it is coming, and nothing will stop it. The vast number of Ultra HD models shown at CES by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese manufacturers is all the proof you need. So is the aggressive discounting we’re now seeing on Ultra HDTVs, leading up to the Super Bowl.
Doubting Thomases like to drag out 3D TV as an example of a paradigm that never shifted anything. Not the same thing! 3D was beset by high buy-in costs, competing viewing systems, and a lack of compelling content. (Plus the fact that over 20% of the population can’t even see 3D correctly.) Eventually, Joe Six-Pack judged 3DTV to be an expensive, overpriced, and overhyped gimmick. And he was right.
Ultra HD is different. There are no competing standards for viewing 4K content. You can watch 4K on an LG or Vizio 65-inch TV just as easily as on a Sony or Samsung 65-inch TV. And so many manufacturers are in the 4K game that prices are falling like a stone. You can now buy 48-inch and 50-inch Ultra HD sets for less than $1,000, and 55-inch sets aren’t much more expensive.
Hand-in-hand with 4K came some new wrinkles. High dynamic range (HDR) was a topic much bandied about at CES, and now we are seeing multiple TV brands supporting it, usually by incorporating quantum dot (QD) backlight technology or modifying the pixel structure of LCD panels to add more white pixels.
QDs also bring with them expanded color gamut rendering, pushing way beyond the CRT-based ITU BT.709 color space in use today. (OLED TVs, like LG’s new lineup, can also display billions of colors.) Now, we can approximate what’s shown in movie theaters by covering the minimum DCI P3 color space – and more.
High frame rate (HFR) technology is also an integral part of UHDTV. It can refer to rates as low as 48 Hz and as high as 120 Hz. The higher rates would come into play with televised sports and concerts, not to mention virtual reality and gaming. At the lower end of things, 48 Hz could be used to master movies, a la “The Hobbit.”
Finally, the cost of making LCD panels has dropped so low for a myriad of reasons that the incremental difference between fabricating and cutting 2K (1080p) and 4K versions of a 65-inch panel is insignificant. Given the low profit margins – or zero profit margins – in making large 2K glass, it makes more sense to abandon 2K and focus on 4K entirely. And this is exactly what large Chinese panel manufacturers like TCL decided to do over a year ago.
When you see Ultra HD content displayed with full color sampling at high frame rates, you know this is a totally different experience than HDTV. The latter is limited by the BT.709 color space and a handful of frame rates, plus 4:2:0 color encoding. And many HDTVs use 8-bit LCD panels.
Not only that; a display equipped with just 1280 horizontal and 720 vertical pixels is still considered “HD.” Not so with Ultra HD. If it doesn’t have at least 3840 horizontal and 2160 vertical pixels, it ain’t Ultra HD. And that’s why we really should think of Ultra HD as “next-generation television,” and not just “4K.”
Make no mistake about it; Ultra HD will be in wide use very quickly as people begin to understand the benefits it brings to the table. The rapid decreases in retail prices brought along by slower TV sales and competition from the Chinese will only hasten this process.
Now, the other trend: At CES, the UHD Alliance was announced. This is a consortium of TV manufacturers (Panasonic, Sony, Samsung), content producers (Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney, Netflix, and DirecTV), and technology companies (Dolby and Technicolor).
Each has substantial skin in the 4K game: The first three obviously want to sell more televisions, while the studios are looking for more outlets for digital content. And Dolby wants more companies to adopt its high dynamic range Dolby Vision technology, while Technicolor is a player in mastering and distribution.
All well and good, except that not all of the pieces of the 4K “puzzle” are in place yet. SMPTE is still debating, discussing, and moving to adopt a wide range of standards for UHD-1 (up to 3840×2160) and UHD-2 (4096×2160 and above) televisions that touch on data rates, interfaces, frame rates, and color spaces. Similar work is also happening at the ITU.
Without standards in place, anyone can write their own rules for authoring and distributing 4K movies and TV shows, and incompatibility becomes a problem. We don’t even have a 4K Blu-ray player yet – the standards for that format were just adopted and announced at CES, but we won’t see the players and discs until much later this year.
Right now, the most logical path for 4K content distribution is through digital downloads and streaming, although you’d need sustained 15 Mb/s data rates on your Internet connection to make that happen. But Netflix is streaming several shows in 4K. Comcast is getting ready to launch a 4K channel. Other providers such as M-Go and UltraFlix are also providing movies and TV shows via streaming service to Sony, Samsung, and Vizio Ultra HDTVs, plus Nanotech’s Nuvola media player.
Ultra HD also brings along a new version of copy protection, HDCP 2.0. It’s ever more rigorous than 1.4, because it wants to see a secure key exchange in about 20 milliseconds – or it shuts down. (The pro AV dealers and installers are going to LOVE that!) By extension, HDCP 2.0 is incompatible with older versions of HDCP. So that may create a problem for consumers who buy a new 4K TV.
I’ve often said that CES wouldn’t be complete with a raft of announcements about associations, alliances, and consortiums. They’re all well and good, but many are motivated simply to kick up sales of a particular technology or product. The UHD Alliance would be wise to move slowly as standards bodies complete their work so that Ultra HD will be a success. No reason to rush here!
Okay, you can restart the game clock…
Posted by Pete Putman, January 27, 2015 3:44 PM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.