Opinion: A Pause for 4K Reflection

The year 2013 may very well be remembered some day as the year when the 4K movement began, but will 2014 be the year it becomes reality? Is 4K destined to be the next 3D or the first 4K? The answer to that question will not be known for a few years, but one large factor may contribute its long-term success: the current inability to deliver 4K content via traditional broadcast, satellite, and cable/telco pipes.

At first blush, it would seem that the inability to deliver 4K content to 4K sets would be a bad thing. But it may, in fact, be a very good thing because it allows the industry to work through the remaining production challenges without feeling the need to broadcast those trials and tests to consumers looking to decide whether a 4K set is a worthwhile investment.

A quick glance at the challenges 3D deployment has faced reinforces the point. Because 3D could be delivered over existing pipes to viewers in homes around the globe, many productions that should have been a backroom trial or test were delivered to living rooms. In addition, the amount of bandwidth used to deliver that 3D content led to a less-than-crisp viewing experience. While those in the production truck watched an HD 3D program, viewers at home were treated to an SD 3D program because the bandwidth for a single HD channel was split in half to deliver the left and right eye for 3D. For many viewers, that lack of a high-quality experience was a turnoff. And the need for glasses didn’t help.

The 4K movement, however, may be spared such indignities. There are currently no 4K set-top boxes available, and broadcast, cable, telco, and satellite distributors still have to figure out how much bandwidth to set aside for 4K delivery to homes. At IBC in Amsterdam in September, there were impressive live demonstrations of 4K being backhauled to the IBC via satellite and fiber, but the final piece, the set-top box, was not on display.

Industry experts say it will be at least 12 months, possibly even 18, before 4K set-top boxes hit the streets. That window provides an opportunity for those interested in manufacturing 4K equipment or producing 4K content to refine the products and processes, two important steps to ensure that consumers’ first exposure to 4K in their living rooms will be an appealing one.

This has, of course, happened before. It took HD nearly a decade to find the cost/ performance ratio that allowed it to become the norm, for both consumers and content creators.

In January, however, the 4K hype machine will hit overdrive at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The promises will be many, and the real dream, 4K coupled with higher frame rates, might even be on display.

It will be a fun show for broadcasters because the inability to deliver 4K to homes will mean that they can enjoy the pretty images without the headache over what they mean for 2014 plans.

The same cannot be said for 2015, so enjoy the quiet times while you can. Next year, the hype will be unabated.