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4K Not Ready for Prime Time? The conversation continues…


Two weeks ago we posted the article 4K Big at NAB But Not Ready for Prime Time? This week we add some survey findings and comments from readers and invite your thoughts and comments.

In an industry survey conducted in late 2013 of broadcast, pro video & digital media facilities – 2013 Digital Media Production Trends Report – SCRI found that 4K ranks below 1080i, 3G/1080p and 720p as a video format used for acquisition – 3D and 8k rank even lower.

1080i is the most commonly used video format to shoot on – about seven out of ten facilities report using. 720p ranks a relatively distant 2nd with 48.1% using; followed closely by 3G/1080p (47%) and SD-SDI (32.2%). 4K makes an entrance in 5th place with just under one in three facilities (29%) using. 3D trails with 12.6%, followed by IP (8.7%) and 8K (3.3%).

Also when asked to rate technology issues for importance, 4K workflows and digital output ranks in the bottom five out of a total of twenty tech issues – headed by data storage and file-based workflows.

We received several interesting comments form our last post which we include below and we invite further comment’s and thoughts on this evolving subject of 4K in the broadcast, pro video and digital media and cinema sectors.


MarK Schubin, Engineer and Explainer: Well, it’s a young technology, to be sure, but, as the recent transmission from London’s National Theatre showed, it CAN be done. I think lenses are probably the biggest issue for typical multi-camera field shooting.

The real question is whether “4k” SHOULD be done. My favorite picture from NAB this year was taken in the NHK area, where there was a giant 8K display — probably bigger than most people can put in a living room regardless of price. Very close to the front of the display was a white rectangle on the ground. On the rectangle was black footprints. That’s where observers were supposed to stand to watch the pictures.

The European Broadcasting Union did viewer tests of “4k” images on a more-reasonable 56-inch screen. When people watched it from a normal home TV viewing distance, the improvement over HD was about a third of a grade; viewed from 40 inches away it was about half a grade. Using different source material, with high motion, the EBU found a full grade improvement for a doubling of frame rate. So that’s an improvement of at most half a grade for an eightfold increase in uncompressed data rate over 1080i or 720p vs. a full grade improvement for a doubling.

That information is fully public and available from the EBU web site. At the recent NAB/SMPTE Technology Summit on Cinema, the EBU presented some preliminary info on high dynamic range. It was too soon for conclusions, but the data presented suggest that the perceived improvement could be even greater for an even smaller increase in uncompressed data rate.

So why are we pushing for the technology with the lowest bang for the buck?

George Hoover : Mark, excellent question, particularly when 4K is a complete lens to display “forklift” upgrade. Why not make the big investment once for the biggest improvement visible to our audiences be it in cinemas or at home.

David Musick, Independent Writer, Broadcast, Broadband and I.T. Consultant: I see a lot of comparisons of “4K” with HD and 3D in the marketing sense, yet there are vast differences in the environments these grew up, or are growing up in. 3D has a long history of ebbing and flowing in cinema, and despite many technical advances, still is mostly tethered to glasses and variances in tolerance in the human vision system. Some people simply can’t see 3D, others can only tolerate short periods of watching, while others have no problem sitting through feature length films. Given this “fragmentation,” 3D simply can’t be adopted en mass, either in cinemas or at home.

HD had many factors driving it forward, not the least being the government mandates to move to digital broadcast TV, which contained HD video and multi-channel sound in the specifications. This primarily acted as “insurance” that consumers would eventually be changing out legacy SD TV’s for HD sets, even if after an interim of using a DTV converter box. This pretty much assured that the expense of upgrading production and transmission infrastructures would in the end result in vastly improved consumer viewing experiences. (Just watch a VHS tape on a legacy PAL or NTSC TV for an illustration of the improvement!) Given the assurance of its mass acceptance, it was relatively safe to bet on technological evolutions supporting HD, such as the DVD evolving into Blue Ray, the conversion of cable and satellite services to digital and HD delivery, and the advances in IPTV to name a few.

4K or even 8K is a natural progressive goal for production, or should be. Using the highest quality recording medium that’s practical to capture a performance is often paramount, given the value of those performances. On the consumer side, things aren’t as clear cut. Although 4K is being seen in digital cinemas where its eligibility to replace film is obvious, its advantage in the average home might not be so great, as has been pointed out. The jump from HD to 4K on an “average” 60″ display isn’t as great as that from SD to HD, and is most apparent at close viewing distances. Here lies one problem for 4K that is still inherent with HD, multiple program qualities and resolutions. A TV program might be presented in 1080i or 720p, but some of the spots or interstitials may be SD and in various aspect ratios. Some may even be in LESS than SD! The variance may be tolerable on an average size screen, but blown up to 110″ or more, yuk! Control over the content, such as playing only Blue Ray discs certainly helps in getting the most out of the “sweet spot” viewing distance, but the increase to 4K will only make the variances all that more apparent.

Whether or not 4K will represent a “vast improvement” in the average viewer’s experience, it seems obvious consumer TV manufacturers have something in mind, as HDTV prices are “flattening out.” 3D has pretty much ran its course this time around, and is mostly now in place in homes that desire it. 4K is likely to be found on more and more higher end sets in the near future, but the main “driving force” behind 4K isn’t likely to have the concerted effort that HD had. Probably the most obvious 4K experience to sell 4K will be sports, with sports bars buying into displays and subscribing to 4K sports programming. Home theater will remain a natural for 4K upgrades, as some now surpass the performance of commercial theaters. An upgraded 4K Blue Ray disc format will also help.

Of course all of this is dependent on consumers ultimately deciding the improvement offered by 4K is worth the investment. Most people aren’t concerned with the difference between a Blue Ray movie and one delivered over a 4.2.0 broadcast. Most don’t care that some TV channels are 720p instead of 1080i either.

With consumers it is always a case of knowing when good enough is good enough. Take for example digital radio. While all the hype flaunts digital quality and all the other benefits, most seem quite satisfied listening to music on good ol’ FM stereo.

MarK Schubin:  For what it’s worth, even in cinemas, for 2013′s top-10 movies, those shot on ARRI Alexa (less-than-3k sensor, not even counting color-filter loss) earned more than those shot on cameras with higher-resolution sensors.

 Thomas Edwards, VP Engineering & Development at FOX: 24P “cinematographic” content can go 4K easily (over-the-top with HEVC). It even works with shipping 4K sets. My friends from the movie side of the lot have announced a deal with Samsung on 4K movies, for instance.

On the other hand, live sports production of 4K 50/60P will clearly be more challenging due to issues like shallow depth-of-field in shipping cameras. No doubt the camera vendors will work it out over time.

“The EBU found a full grade improvement for a doubling of frame rate” It would be great to see the CE world get excited about this. Although hopefully we will be doing 120.0 fps rather than 119.88fps…

“Most don’t care that some TV channels are 720p instead of 1080i either.” I know what you mean, poor people having to watch those interlace artifacts on their progressive LCD screens :)

Miles Thomas, Sales Manager at Advantage Video Systems: If you’re replacing your aging or dead large (50″ or larger) flatscreen, why not go with one of the new inexpensive 4K sets available? An engineer with one of the big DTH companies told me at our booth that they have a mandate to “go 4K” in 4 – 6 months. And many of us have seen streaming demos at 10 Mbs! From the consumer side (not the engineer/film/purist side, I believe it will take flight soon.

MarK Schubin: If you attended the Alexa display demo at the ARRI stand at IBC, you saw a reason why not. They showed Alexa output on a “4k” monitor and an HDR HD monitor. Everyone I know who saw the demo thought the HD monitor looked sharper.

Comments Invited: What are your thoughts and comments on 4K in this industry? Leave comments below.