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4K: On The Way!

October 22, 2014

“Enhance Everything, Miss Nothing. Bring images closer to reality with over 8 million pixels – four times the detail of Full HD”

This is a tagline from a recent advertisement for a 4K television, the “Next Big Thing” in broadcasting and imaging. Although technically accurate, the message is misleading. The term ‘4K’ is becoming more and more familiar to consumers, but it is vague and can mean many different things(*). As referenced in the advertisement, 4K is four times the detail of Full HD. Or more accurately, 4K is ROUGHLY four times the detail. You see, these recording and imaging terms are defined by adopted standards, usually a combination of resolution (pixel counts), scanning types, and frame rates. For 4K, the film industry has been adopting one resolution and digital television is currently adopting another , branding it ‘Ultra HD’ television. Despite these still-developing standards, films are being captured and major events like 2014’s FIFA World Cup™ are already being broadcast in 4K, and 4K televisions are available for purchase in any big box store.

(*)What is commonly known as High-Definition can itself mean different things. Full HD, as referenced in the advertisement, typically refers to a display with a 1080p video mode: 1,920 pixels wide by 1,080 high, a progressive scan mode (as opposed to interlaced), a frame rate of 24, 50, or 60 frames per second, and a 16:9 ‘widescreen’ aspect ratio.

However, don’t rush out and buy your new TV just yet - it is unlikely it will ensure you ‘Miss Nothing’. Although acquisition (i.e. cameras) and display (i.e. televisions) capabilities have already been developed and released to the market, the means to transmit those images have not yet been finalized. You see, SMPTE , the professional association that develops these standards, has not yet released the standard for the cables that move the 4K signal. So, any images currently touted as 4K are being displayed through a cable designed for HD and adjusted to provide 4K imaging for professional purposes.

Even though 4K is not practically ready for home-use, many unique industries are waiting for the standard to be published. The improved imagery will benefit more than the digital cinema and sports-related uses already referenced in this document. Healthcare, for example, will use it for telemedicine, training, and microsurgery. The digital signage market, such as billboards, will find the technology very appealing. Even the leisure market will find uses. In fact, the Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan has already incorporated the technology into its “New Amazing Adventures of Spiderman: The Ride” ride. There will be an incredible amount of demand that will require larger, more advanced displays, new cameras, and vast infrastructure upgrades to manage all of this content.

While many industries will continue to push forward with the 4K technology (and perhaps 8K), consumers might want to continue to wait. The cables may be available soon, but there is currently little content available in 4K quality outside of film theatres. Additionally, transmitting it to the home is another complication. In fact, most cable subscribers are not even receiving Full HD yet (720p, not 1080p). Higher resolutions require greater bandwidth and the infrastructure most cable providers currently deliver on couldn’t handle a mass upgrade to 4K.

1 Film Industry 4K Resolution =- 4,096 x 2,160 pixels
2 Digital Television 4K (Ultra-HD) Resolution = 3,840 x 2,160
3 Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers

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