Technology

Next Up: Ultra High-Def

11/07/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Want to watch high-definition TV on a screen 10 feet wide? Much higher-def HD may eventually come to living rooms — though not for at least five years.

The nascent Ultra HD formats provide four or 16 times the resolution of current Blu-ray Disc or 1080p HDTV specifications, as well as 22.2-channel “three-dimensional” sound. “Ultra HD is an immersive type of experience,” In-Stat analyst Michelle Abraham said.

Two levels of resolution have been proposed for Ultra HD: 3840 by 2160 pixels (referred to as 4K resolution) and 7680 by 4320 pixels (8K resolution). Japanese broadcaster NHK has been among those developing and demonstrating experimental Ultra HD formats.

While TV manufacturers including Panasonic already offer gigantic sets that could theoretically support Ultra HD, no commercial video is available at such resolutions today.

Abraham expects Ultra HD, also represented as “UHD,” to be five to 10 years away from being commercialized. But she sees a promising market for Ultra HDTVs and content, as high-resolution digital cinema technologies drive consumers to crave the best picture quality possible.

Broadcasters will start offering Ultra HD content to an addressable market of Ultra HDTVs between 2017 and 2022, In-Stat predicted in a recent report. (The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm is owned by Reed Business Information, publisher of Multichannel News.)

Other observers aren't sure when Ultra HD might become a mass market.

Motorola senior marketing director Marty Stein said the first Ultra HD application will be for theatrical events sometime around 2015, for which the very large screens and 22.2-channel sound can really deliver high impact.

“I can't say when the [consumer-electronics] industry would see enough of a home market to begin high-volume manufacture of large UHD panels,” Stein added.

Early adopters for Ultra HD will likely be Japan and South Korea, while in the rest of the world it will start as a niche channel offering for live sport events or movies, said Tandberg Television vice president of product management Carl Furgusson. Ultra HD “will initially be utilized by operators as a competitive differentiator within their local markets,” he said.

The bit rates for Ultra HD video should scale fairly linearly with MPEG-4, according to Stein. That would yield about 24 Mbps for the 4K flavor and 96 Mbps for 8K.

“The bit-rate range will depend on delivering quality to meet audience expectations,” Furgusson noted, adding that 8K Ultra HD “could be a return to the analog days of one TV channel per broadcast transmission frequency” unless there are further advances in modulation technologies.

For now, however, cable operators have just come to terms with carrying 1080i in MPEG-2, and aren't actively considering the move to higher-resolution video, Harmonic director of broadcast solutions Ian Trow said. New transmission capacity will someday be able to carry an Ultra HD signal, he said, “but in the very long-term.”