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The Low Rumble of the 4K Resolution Revolution

It hasn’t been all that long since HD-quality video gained widespread acceptance as an industry standard. Yet a new resolution standard is capturing the attention of the broadcast world. It’s known as 4K (or Ultra High Definition – UHD), and it offers viewers four times the picture resolution of standard HD. At CES 2014, one of the hot trends among TV set manufacturers, along with sets that curve and flex, was a 4K display. It’s the new standard for TVs, and while it currently has a price point that keeps it firmly high-end, the story sounds familiar: 4K TV sets will only get cheaper to manufacture, consumer demand will grow, and broadcasters will need to adapt.

So is change inevitable? Actually, no.

For 4K to truly develop into an industry standard, it will require several players in the video value chain to row in the same direction at the same time. This could certainly happen, but by no means is this assured. For instance, 4K TVs need content filmed in 4K. Will this become a new standard? Perhaps, but this would require significant and costly changes for an industry that only recently embraced the HD standard.

Even if content producers are on board, they’re only one link in the chain. Content providers will have to upgrade their infrastructure to support 4K delivery. STB manufacturers, in turn, will need to make available decoding capabilities for 4K content and support HEVC (H.265), a new broadcast standard intended to deliver compressed 4K content. These are not trivial adaptations.

As is often the case, the biggest variable in this equation – and the one that will likely drive the other players toward action or inaction -- is the consumer. On one hand, there are good reasons for consumers to demand TVs with 4K capability. For one, 4K-capable TVs often offer premium features such as LED-backlist LCD displays and HDMI 2.0 that improve picture quality. On the other hand, even on a 4K TV, the difference between 4K and HD resolution, viewed from a typical seating distance, is not always discernible. This has to do with 4K’s roots in the motion picture industry: it was developed as a less expensive yet high-quality digital alternative to film stock. In movie theatres, the 4K resolution is impressive; it supports 3D film nicely and the picture quality benefits are impressive. On a smaller screen, these effects are diminished.

While the market for 4K takes shape, broadcasters remain in a wait-and-see mode. In November 2013 DirecTV president and CEO Mike White noted that his company is gearing up to be the first pay TV provider to offer 4K in the US, though with the key caveat that this would occur only when 4K technology is deemed ready for prime-time.

Even if your screen resolution doesn’t support 4K, go ahead and see if you can tell the difference between HD and 4K.

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