The Evolution, Impact & Future of 4K

Daniel Tang, CTO of Huawei's Fixed Network Product Line, takes a look at the evolution and future outlook of the global 4K industry.

September 22, 2014

5 Min Read
The Evolution, Impact & Future of 4K

Although they are still fairly new technologies introduced into the market only a few years ago, 4K and 4K TV have recently been in the limelight. The nascent format dominated the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, and was also featured at this summer's IFA technology fest.

According to the market research institution IHS, sales volumes of 4K TV soared between March and May this year. By the end of the 2014, annual sales volumes are expected to hit 14.5 million units globally, a sharp increase on the two million shipments in 2013. NPD Group, another research firm, has predicted that China will become the largest 4K TV market by the end of 2014, accounting for 78% of the world market.

The growing popularity of residential 4K TV is driving the rapid development in the global TV industry. Meanwhile, as more brands enter the market, intense competition is pushing down the prices of 4K TVs. Greater affordability is expected to significantly increase adoption of 4K TVs and the prosperity of the entire 4K industry value chain.

4K content creation will flourish with technology advancement
There are now many 4K digital cinema cameras commercially available in the market, such as the Sony F5/F55, Canon EOS C500 and Red Scarlet, which allow users to create and enjoy 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) videos. Many smartphones and action cameras can record in 4K as well.

Although the tools and production technologies for 4K videos are readily in place, their gigantic file sizes pose serious challenges in video storage and sharing, with 4K resolution about four times that of standard 1080P HD videos. The good news is that High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) H.265 technology will soon be introduced to alleviate some storage pressure. H.265 is able to effectively downsize 4K videos, thus facilitating the transmission, storage and sharing of 4K productions.

As the technology approaches maturity, we are seeing an increasing range of 4K content worldwide, and the volume and variety will continue to grow rapidly over the next few years as production costs fall and more users adopt the new format. We can expect to see the benefits of UHD videos extended to more viewers around the world very soon.

More 4K channels will go live
China, South Korea, Japan and North America are leading the development of the global 4K market. Thanks to its prosperous movie industry, the US has an edge in the 4K sector. Amazon has announced recently that all Amazon-produced and Amazon-funded movies in 2014 will be in 4K UHD.

The South Korean and Japanese governments have also adopted proactive policies to promote the development of the 4K market. They have been facilitating a series of trials of 4K channel operations. South Korea has issued two UHD channel licenses to cable operators and satellite operators in 2014. Four South Korean cable operators -- CJ Hellovision, C&M, T-Broad and HCN -- have jointly launched the UMAX 4K channel, which initially had 40 programs in 4K format. This number is expected to increase to up to 100 by the end of 2014. The channel provides a range of 4K content, including movies, documentaries and animations. The Japanese government plans to launch the 4K channel trials in 2014 and fully commercialize 4K in in time for the 2016 Olympic Games.

In China, the state TV broadcaster, China Central Television, plans to launch experimental 4K channels in 2015. LeTV, an influential online video portal, will upgrade its 4K content production, and supply up to 400 hours of content through 10 UHD 4K programs in 2014. China's provincial satellite channels have also been planning to produce their own 4K content.

The development of 4K TV channels and programs will consequently expedite the provision of 4K content, with the experience of 4K driving consumer demand for even larger, cheaper and "savvier" 4K TVs in a virtuous development cycle.

Ultra broadband will ensure quality user experience with 4K content
One bottleneck for 4K videos is the speed of broadband Internet connections. According to a research report released by the Internet content delivery company Akamai, the average download speed through broadband internet around the world in Q1 2014 was roughly 3.9 Mbit/s. However, the size of a 4K movie can range from dozens of gigabytes to more than 100GB, which means that it might take hours or even days for a 4K movie to be downloaded.

Although H.265 will help with 4K content streaming, when users order 4K movies via the internet, the broadband technology will still have to support connections of between 20 Mbit/s and 50 Mbit/s for the video to play, and ideally around 100Mbps for a high quality experience.

Therefore, the bandwidth determines the user experience with online 4K content. As the 4K TV industry demands more bandwidth, and this in turn stimulates demand for more 4K content on more 4K terminals, the broadband sector and the 4K industry are clearly interdependent.

The existing woefully insufficient residential bandwidth around the world has been one of the biggest holdups in realizing a true UHD video experience, thus undermining the commercialization and further development of the 4K industry overall. As broadband speeds increase, and UHD video becomes more widely appreciated, we expect this to change in the near future.

Supporting 4K's evolution
The maturing 4K technology application and increasing 4K content provision have paved the way for the 4K industry to advance into consumers' living rooms on 4K TVs. Future broadband developments will further facilitate the reliable and high-speed download and sharing of 4K content. As key obstacles to development are overcome, the industry ecosystem will flourish, with the global 4K market experiencing rapid growth over the next few years. That will revolutionize the experience of creating, enjoying and sharing videos.

— Daniel Tang, CTO, Fixed Network Product Line, Huawei Technologies

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