Momentum continues to build behind 4K Ultra HD TV, but the path hasn't been as smooth as many had hoped.
The 2016 Olympic Games, for example, could have been a coming out party for UHD TV, but instead 4K distribution was limited, and US service providers were scrambling come summertime to deliver the goods. (See AT&T & Dish Mix 4K Into Olympics Coverage.)
So what's holding 4K TV back? Some of the problem is the same chicken-and-egg dilemma that high-definition video faced when it debuted. Many mainstream consumers don't want to buy 4K TVs until there's more UHD content to watch. And content producers don't want to invest large sums of money in UHD video until there's a wider base of viewers ready to tune in. But that problem is solvable.
Marketing by the consumer electronics industry can help drive demand among viewers who don't want to get left behind, and both content producers and distributors can use UHD video as a targeted differentiator to edge out competitors in the race for premium subscribers.
Unfortunately, 4K TV brings with it other unique challenges.
First there's the issue of whether to bundle and market HDR technology with UHD delivery, and then there's the question of how to implement HDR if and when the technology for brighter, more vivid playback is added to the UHD spec (either formally or informally).
At the moment there are two primary standards for HDR: Dolby Laboratories Inc. (NYSE: DLB)'s Dolby Vision and HDR10. As in any format war, there are advantages to both options. Dolby Vision offers a higher quality picture with higher light levels, but it's a proprietary standard that also needs implementation in hardware as well as software. HDR10, on the other hand, is an open standard that can be updated via software download and has the support of more CE companies, according to ABI Research.
US operators are still sorting out their preferences. At the Olympics screening event that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) held this month in Philadelphia, Marc Francisco, engineer and fellow in Comcast Innovation Labs, noted that the company is using HDR10 in its demos today, but hasn't ruled out Dolby Vision for the future. (See Comcast Shows Off Rio in HDR... in Philly.)
Meanwhile, the original challenge of UHD video -- managing bandwidth for quadruple-resolution video playback -- still remains. And unbelievably, the video codec that's supposed to make 4K video delivery possible is still struggling through major licensing issues. HEVC, also known as H.265, is being controlled largely by two patent pools at the moment: MPEG LA LLC and HEVC Advance. But fighting over licensing rates and who should pay for what has made many industry players reticent to adopt the compression technology on a broad basis for fear of the costs they may face down the road. (See HEVC Advance Backpedals on Licensing Fees and Technicolor Pulls Out of HEVC Advance.)
As AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) recently pointed out when promoting its own 4K video broadcasts, one hour of 4K UHD video requires 400-500 gigabytes, and a single 4K baseball game can easily use up 2 terabytes of storage. Without an advanced video codec, the amount of bandwidth required to deliver that content becomes rapidly unmanageable.
Finally, continued delays over 4K are also opening the door for 8K video to potentially leapfrog its predecessor. Last week, both Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) and Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) announced that they have partnered with broadcaster NHK to bring 8K to market. The two CE companies are working to get 8K TVs ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. And while that may be an overly ambitious timeline, it may also be enough to cause further 4K hesitation. If mainstream 4K adoption continues to slip into 2018 or 2019, then at what point do consumers decide to skip 4K altogether and just wait for an 8K TV alternative?
Analysts are still optimistic about 4K TV. (See Nothing's Going to Stop 4K.)
And according to IHS, the 4K TV market grew 99% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2016, reaching 19% of total units shipped. But IHS also noted that overall TV shipments declined globally by 2% in the same time period.
If more consumers decide to sit on the sidelines instead of purchasing the latest TV sets, that could add to industry woes over 4K.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading