Selling 4K to consumers

Friday, May 23, 2014

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A vision of 4K perfection

John Ive, director of business development and technology for the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers (IABM), looks at the notion of selling Ultra-High Definition to consumers, even as 3D exits quietly by the side door.

If the displays at CES 2014 were anything to go by, UHD TV, or 4K as it’s often called, is receiving a substantial push from the consumer electronics industry.

Sony has demonstrated its commitment to the new format by selling its computer division in order to establish a completely separate TV division devoted to UHD. In addition, American broadcasters have placed their 4K cameras at both the Superbowl and the winter games in Sochi. While viewers won’t actually get to see any events from Sochi in the format, the intent is there. However, given the lessons learned from the lost momentum of 3D television, the pertinent question should be: Is 4K UHD television something that consumers actually want?

HD everywhere

Yes, the idea of Ultra-High Definition is enticing for consumers – naturally the picture quality is better than HD and with the higher pixel density larger screen TV sets make more sense and provide a more immersive experience. Other improvements, such as higher frame rates, improved dynamic range and a broader colour spectrum could be included in the all-encompassing concept of 4K / UHD. However, the fact that suppliers are selective about which to support makes for a complex message consumer electronics firms need to communicate to potential customers.

As far as manufacturing costs go, UHD televisions should only be marginally more expensive than the 1080p alternatives and so prices for the end user should fall over time. The first models, from the likes of Samsung, Sony and LG, hit the market at a cost of more than €20,000. Those first screens were also exceedingly large – over 84 inches – which isn’t something that would sit comfortably in most peoples’ living rooms. Of course, as more displays are launched aimed at a mass market (€2,500 models are now available), rather than affluent home cinema fans, screen sizes will even out – most likely at around 55-60 inches. This shouldn’t be a problem for consumers, with screens of this size already becoming an increasingly common occurrence.

However, as margins on HD TVs decline manufacturers are under pressure to produce the next best thing and for this reason UHD simply cannot be a commercial failure. The technology advances may be clear to those of us working within the industry but how can we encourage consumers to make the leap from 1080p? In blunt terms, how do we ensure in a market characterised by falling profit margins that 4K doesn’t suffer the same fate as 3D?

Bye bye 3D

3D didn’t catch on for a number of reasons – the format wasn’t the most user-friendly technology due to its clunky glasses, viewing restrictions and propensity towards giving some viewers eye strain and migraine. To compound matters, much of the content was rushed out by inexperienced designers on immature platforms in an effort to exploit the hype and get it to market quickly. Ultimately 3D wasn’t used intelligently enough in the vast majority of instances, if it didn’t add anything to the storytelling process or visual imagery then viewers didn’t really gain much from it.

Is there a killer app for UHD? Something to spur the replacement cycle, currently standing at  almost seven years, to encourage the uptake of UHD TVs? Consumer sales are often influenced by major events – Olympic Games, World Cup football – and seasonal trends like Christmas, with viewers not only replacing television sets, but upgrading them.

Broadcasters are looking to large-scale sporting events to sell the new TVs – with Japanese broadcaster NHK even promising to shoot and broadcast the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 8K.

The tangible benefits of the technology must be spelled out to consumers so their expectations are efficiently managed. In the simplest terms, there are no confusing peripherals, hidden costs, no strict instructions on where to sit in relation to the screen and the picture is pin sharp.

However, the success or failure of UHD as a mainstream format will ultimately come down to the availability of content. The distribution infrastructure may not yet be completely in place for UHD programming, but companies, such as Netflix, are moving ahead, using the internet as their means. Netflix has committed to streaming 4K content as of now – beginning with season two of its hit series House of Cards – and Google has launched a new codec, VP9, to reduce the bandwidth needed when using YouTube to watch 4K content. Satellite and OTT providers are at an advantage here and could easily establish UHD channels, for instance satellite providers have the simple option to rent more transponder space.

Terrestrial distributors are at a slight disadvantage as the limited spectrum makes UHD more difficult to implement. The future, however, given Netflix’s proactive approach, could very well be the internet. With the increase in speeds, changes to codecs and ubiquity of broadband, UHD content could easily find its way into homes via connected TVs and set-top boxes – considering it can be comfortably streamed at speeds as low as 15mbs.

While content creation and infrastructure are obstacles to overcome in getting UHD content into the home, it remains up to the consumer to decide if 4K is indeed something they want. There is the potential it will be consigned to the heap of missed opportunities, alongside its predecessor 3D, perhaps though for different reasons. However, given the interest generated already, it seems safe to assume that UHD television will be here for the duration and it makes sense for players across the broadcast chain to embrace it.


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