4K Video and Televising the Revolution

HD? 720p? That’s out of style. Now the industry has moved on to more innovative things. The current big focus is around 4K video. Much like HD video a decade ago, there is a dearth of content and few networks who are willing to pay the expenses for an all 4K video channel. To some, much like 3D was a few years ago, this seems to just be a fad. However, 4K is not a fad. It’s coming and in some cases is already here. Most TV sets today support it, they just need the content. This time, the cable companies may not be the ones providing it.

Brief History of High Definition

High-definition television was first made available in 1998. The FCC and cable providers worked together to develop a new standard based around a digital signal instead of an analog one. Larger amounts of bandwidth meant that networks no longer had to interlace video but could carry the entirety of a frame at once, allowing for higher frame rates in addition to larger resolutions. It was in 1998 that the first HD broadcast was made, the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. In January 2000, Super Bowl XXXIV was the first to be broadcast in HD,

There were several industry fights over standards. Plasma or LCD? HD-DVD or Blu-Ray? Eventually, certain technologies faded away and we were left with definitive winners. It’s hard to imagine looking back that this took place over a pretty long period. For many of us, it probably didn’t. My family didn’t get an HD television until around 2009. Its presence has continued to grow over time, certainly as CRTs stopped being manufactured and analog signals were to stop broadcasting in 2009.

HDTV Adoptionsource

81% of TVs today are high definition, and channels are generally going to be in high definition. As more consumers have adopted HDTVs, so have networks. Disney for example didn’t record all of their content in high definition until 2009, and neither did other channels, causing lots of content to be low-quality and pillarboxed. It wasn’t until recently that most channels recorded and aired video in high definition.

ESPN would add their logos in pillarboxed video
ESPN would add their logos in pillarboxed video

4K Video and Same Situation

How do HDTVs compare to 4K TVs? In terms of price, 4K is already ahead of the game. Several can already be purchased for less than $1000 and some have additional graphic (HDR) and software (Android TV) enhancements. It’s already popular too, with about 4.5 million units shipped last year. The trend is obvious, but when consumers unpack their TV set, they can’t really benefit from everything their new device can play.

4K is not very common in TV channels. One reason is that the technology is still really early. Networks don’t really want to spend a lot of money upgrading their setup for such a small audience, and most of them currently don’t have any content recorded in 4K to play either. They’re going to wait until the technology is matured and there’s a better understanding of which standards should be used. In the meantime, this is a great opportunity for Internet services to take the lead.

Internet and 4K

The Internet already does 4K. By democratizing the content providers, it has allowed for a fairly large catalog to form in just a few years. 4K cameras are still relatively expensive, perhaps $500 or greater, but these cameras are also being built-in to other devices we own such as smartphones and drones. While not in the hands of every consumer, it’s easy for a hobbyist to get started.

Video services like YouTube and Vimeo already support uploads and playback of videos that are ultra-high definition. A quick search of “4K” reveals almost 500,000 individual UHD videos from YouTube. At this point, it’s not YouTube that has to catch up.

There are other online video services that allow users to watch UHD content: CuriosityStream, Vudu, and Netflix and Amazon both have a growing collection of 4K shows and movies.

How will you watch this stuff? On many computers, the screen resolution isn’t large enough to notice the higher quality video. Some users may be considering a 4K monitor that connects to their computer. These are getting cheaper, around $200 now. If you have a 4K TV, you may consider getting a smart set-top box like the NVIDIA Shield TV or the upcoming Xiaomi Mi Box. These connect your TV to the Internet, allowing you to access and playback content from all of these apps.

This may require a fast Internet connection to avoid buffering the much larger files, but there is some progress there too. A new video codec called H265, the sequel of H264, was designed with higher resolution video in mind and the goal is to compress it to the smallest file size possible without losing video quality. Some comparisons show movies are half the size as earlier compression formats, saving 70-80% of your bandwidth.

4K in the Coming Years

4K is coming. The price of TVs is falling. The price of monitors are falling. There are already millions of devices in the US. The big question is the content. Without a large amount of content, there will be no reason for more people to get these devices. Why pay for something you’re not going to use?

In previous decades, the TV industry in America has been responsible for adopting and popularizing these new display technologies in the home, whether it was moving to color or high definition. Now, however, we’re at the point where it’s cheaper for an Internet service to supply 4K video than a TV network to create a new 4K channel feed.

While the networks have been reluctant, hobbyists have produced their own 4K videos. Other Internet services are allowing users to stream movies in 4K. To many, the US has already adopted and using 4K.

This new revolution will be televised, but not in the way you may have thought. Instead of flipping between channels on your cable provider set-top box hooked up to your TV, it will be streaming a live feed from a smart set-top box connected to the Internet. This will have detrimental effects as cable companies fail to stay on the cutting edge of video tech and lose out on many who expect higher quality video.

The adoption of 4K will pick up in the coming years, and more video companies will have to start looking at this new display technology or risk being out-competed by a new breed of company, founded on the Internet.

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker) Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop. Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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