LAS VEGAS — Are you in?
The city known for big bets was as appropriate a home as ever for the consumer-electronics industry’s annual gadgetfest, as the world’s TV makers went all in on 4K/Ultra HD, the pixelpacked format that is expected to lead the next generation of video services.
Perhaps wary of being burned by the promise and failure of 3DTV in recent years, programmers and distributors at the International CES were more measured in their enthusiasm. They splashed out smaller, less-aggressive bets on 4K, a format that presents four times the resolution of 1080p HD.
But based on the action overall here last week, it was as clear as a sparkling Ultra HD image that the loose ends of technology, distribution and content in the 4K equation are starting to get tied down.
4K PARTNERSHIPS FORM
Some of the biggest 4K news last week involved partnerships between TV’s biggest constituents. Chief among them, Netflix, dominator of the downstream, announced it would launch a 4K streaming app on new sets from Sony, LG Electronics, Vizio and Samsung Electronics that can decode those signals without separate, specialized streaming devices.
Netflix hasn’t specified how much content it will offer in its initial 4K library, but has so far confirmed that season two of hit original series House of Cards and other new Netflix originals, as well as off-AMC series Breaking Bad, will be offered in the flashy format.
“There will be a lot of content,” Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, promised during his appearance at the LG press conference here. 4K offers “a chance for the Internet to shine,” he said.
Company spokesman Joris Evers said Netflix will likely launch the app in the spring, typically the time that TV makers unleash their new arsenals.
For Samsung, Netflix represented just the tip of the 4K content spear. The CE giant also announced that it would bake in Ultra HD streaming products from Comcast, DirecTV, M-GO and Amazon Instant Video, which is also working with Warner Bros., Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Discovery Communications and others to provide a “premium 4K Ultra HD experience.” Amazon also plans to shoot all 2014 full original series, including comedies and dramas, in 4K.
Comcast, which demonstrated 4K running over DOCSIS and its traditional QAM video distribution network at last year’s Cable Show, is developing an Xfinity TV 4K app that will be integrated with Samsung’s new line of sets and stream that content over the public Internet. Comcast said it’s working with programmers, including NBCUniversal, to flesh out its initial 4K streaming library.
Speaking on a 4K panel here, Comcast executive vice president and chief technology officer Tony Werner said the MSO is “working with several others” on apps that will help the MSO distribute its budding line of 4K content.
“We are keen on 4K,” Werner said, revealing later that Comcast is developing plans to present some of NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in the new format. He didn’t detail what would be on offer, but noted that the project will “stimulate the imagination” about the delivery of sporting events in 4K at high frame rates.
“It’ll be something splashy,” Werner told Multichannel News in a separate interview.
4K MARKET GROWING, BUT STILL TINY
TV makers placing big bets on 4K face a good news/bad news scenario heading into 2014. The size of today’s 4K market is microscopic, but will expand.
The Consumer Electronics Association last week said it expects TV sales to rebound 2% in 2014, to about $247 million, with the market stabilizing at around 260 million to 275 million sets per year. New 4K sets will see a sizable boost in sales this year, reaching about 8.7 million units, though most of those sales will occur outside the U.S.
The CEA expects about 500,000 4K sets will be sold in the U.S. this year, up from a mere 60,000 in 2013, with sales reaching 2.9 million in 2017.
“We are very early in the rollout in Ultra HD,” Shawn DuBravac, the CEA’s chief economist and senior director of research, said in his presentation of the organization’s new research. “It is still a very nascent market.”
All of the major and mid-range TV makers trotted out their latest models at the show. On the high end, the trend among top-shelf 4K products is toward “curved” sets, designed to provide a more immersive experience than their flat-screen predecessors while maintaining the full visual effect of the Ultra HD image even when viewed at an angle.
And TV makers are preparing to sell some of their latest wares at prices that can attract mainstream cosumers and help prime the pump. The big head-turner here was Vizio, which said its entry-level, 50-inch P-Series Ultra HD set would carry a suggested manufacturers retail price of $999.99 — just enough to break the magical $1,000 barrier, and a price that’s about $1,000 less than most lower-end Ultra HD models.
Vizio’s top-end, 70-inch model in the P-Series will fetch $2,599.99. Its Reference Series 4K TVs, also launched here last week, target the high-end of the video consumer market.
4K WILL BE BIG ON BANDWIDTH
Because 4K will initially be delivered on-demand via the Internet, it raises questions on whether today’s broadband networks will be able to handle the load.
Werner said he is not overly concerned about 4K’s bandwidth requirements, holding that Comcast’s network is up to the task. “We like bandwidth-intensive applications,” he said. “Bandwidth is our friend, and it’s the business that we’re in.”
Mark Francisco, fellow of premises technology for Comcast Cable, said he expects that Comcast’s 4K streams will require speeds of 15 Mbps to 20 Mbps. “We’re still dialing that in,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is be stingy on the bits.”
Netflix’s 4K demo at the Wynn hotel showed House of Cards streaming at 15.6 Mbps. Hastings suggested that a 20 Mbps connection would provide enough headroom for Netflix’s 4K streams.
Such bit rates are achievable thanks in part to High Efficiency Video Coding/H.265, an emerging codec that is about 50% more efficient than H.264/MPEG-4. Many nextgeneration TVs will be equipped with HEVC and the internal processing to decode 4K on their own, as will the coming generation of set-tops and gateways. YouTube, meanwhile, demonstrated 4K running on VP9, an alternative, royalty-free codec backed by corporate cousin Google that claims to offer bit savings similar to HEVC.
Werner said Comcast expects to offer boxes for the MSO’s X1 platform outfi tted with HEVC decoding that can handle native 4K video signals later this year.
TiVo also has 4K on its road map. Jeff Klugman, TiVo’s executive vice president of product and revenue, told Multichannel News the company expects to support native 4K later this year on its new retail-focused Roamio line of DVRs, as well as on MSO-distributed TiVo hardware, and on TiVo software that is ported to third-party hardware from Pace and other set-top vendors.
Because 4K is in the early stages of deployment, Klugman said he sees 4K support as a “future-proofing” measure.
“We’re still trying to judge the timing on it,” he said. “But unlike 3D, we believe 4K is going to happen.”
Although there will be a dearth of native 4K content early on, the newest sets will be capable of upconverting regular HD signals. Experts here said that presents a mixture of benefits and drawbacks for 4K’s prospects.
Werner said Comcast has conducted tests showing that upconverted 1080p video on 4K TVs looks “far superior” than the pictures on standard HD sets.
“Upconverted content absolutely looks better,” agreed Tom Cosgrove, president and CEO of 3net, a programming joint venture of Sony, Imax, and Discovery Communications that expects to produce as much as 80 hours of Ultra HD content this year.
While that could give consumers a reason to buy new TVs before much native 4K content is available, the concern is that the visual improvements afforded by upconverted HD signals on Ultra HD displays could give programmers and studios “reason to rest on their laurels” and perhaps slow down the production of native 4K movies and TV shows, Werner said.
“The real killer selling point for 4K is seeing native 4K,” Cosgrove added.
For that reason, it’s important for programmers to produce shows and movies in 4K so those titles can be delivered in that format down the road, Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies, said.
As a point of emphasis, he said Sony shot the hit series Breaking Bad on 35-millimeter film and originally scanned it for standard HD. It has since been rescanned and post-produced in 4K for distribution by Netflix and others.
“The difference between HD and the 4K version was substantial,” Cookson said, adding later that “future-proofing” content for subsequent distribution windows such as syndication offers studios a strong incentive to produce most of their content in 4K today.
Despite those concerns, Werner believes upconverted HD on 4K will provide a “more seamless migration” than what was witnessed during the move to standard-def to HD. SD video on an HD set looks horrible, he said.
User interface specialists are also lavishing some early attention on 4K. Cisco Systems demonstrated an Ultra HDoptimized version of its “Snowflake” interface, which has become a key offering for Videoscape, its multiscreen video platform for service providers.
Nagra also showed off the latest version of Gravity Ultra, its 4K UI in development. The entry takes advantage of the higher resolutions and greater real estate aff orded by 4K screens, and has already developed recommendation engines and several operational modes that let users find and organize content based on personal preferences, and popularity based on social-networking buzz and current viewership.
But it’s not yet ready for primetime. At the show, Nagra ran the demo in HTML5 on a Mac. Company officials predicted that it will use largely the same code to show it running on set-top boxes or set-top reference designs by this September, when the IBC show kicks off in Amsterdam. The company believes Gravity Ultra will be ready for commercial deployments by this time next year.
Broadcasting & Cable contributing editor George Winslow contributed to this report.
The consumer electronics industry is going all in on pixel-rich 4K, as distributors and programmers pursue it with a little less gusto.