4K, or Ultra High Definition (UHD), has made a few stellar appearances since its debut at CES 2012, and while there are no signs of it disappearing, adoption has been glacially slow. As 4K is one of the more important topics that will be discussed at Streaming Media East this year, here’s an explanation of 4K, its appeal, and how it’s being received in the market.

What is 4K and what makes it so “ultra”?

Essentially, 4K has replaced 1080p as the highest resolution signal available for in-home movies and television. In a category of its own, 4K screens have a minimum resolution of 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels high. In comparison, these dimensions are double the size of 1080p screens in both height and length.  The result is crisp picture quality with special attention to details that you just wouldn’t see in regular high definition.

Who’s adopting 4K?

Content providers and distributors are slowly leaning toward the idea to adopt 4K to improve viewing experience.

Most recently, Netflix announced the availability of 4K with their original series, “House of Cards.” The show now has a 4K version that can only be viewed on 2014 4K televisions, which is the only model year with a built-in H.265/HEVC decoder to stream 4K.

Prior to that, by just a few days, partners Sony and FIFA announced they would collaborate to provide several 4K initiatives for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. They will be producing the Official 2014 FIFA World Cup Film in 4K Ultra HD, as well as three full matches in 4K in an effort to spark more 4K viewing and expand on 4K content.

Dell also released three new desktop monitors in late 2013, specifically offering 4K resolutions. These monitors are available in 24-inch, 28-inch, and 32-inch sizes. Converted from 4K TV pixels, 3840 x 2160px on a 24-inch monitor equals about 183 PPI (pixels per inch). The average monitor that size has a resolution of about 90 PPI, or just under half the resolution of a 4K desktop monitor.

Drawbacks of 4K

There are some pitfalls and drawbacks that have come with the 4K resolution that affect both consumers and vendors.

Consumers

The most immediate pitfall that consumers are facing is simply the lack of 4K content and desire to purchase 4K-compatiable devices. Ironically, there’s a ton of bark about 4K resolution, but very little bite with content to support it. Limited 4K content availability gives less opportunity for a consumer to experience and appreciate the difference between 4K resolution and regular high definition. This results in absolutely no incentive to purchase 4K-compatiable devices, like 4K TVs or monitors. This poses the question: why would I go buy a 4K TV when there’s so little 4K video content?  Check and mate.

Vendors

Though the above is a fair question for consumers to ask, there’s a reason many video streaming companies haven’t dived in head first into the pool of 4K.

First, there are ancillary costs that come with producing 4K content such as 4K cameras (like the ones Fox Sports used for the Super Bowl last year) and the storage and editing capabilities that are specific to 4K recordings.

But the number one reason for the lack of 4K content is — yes, you guessed it — bandwidth. One of the largest stumbling blocks to 4K adoption is the extensive amount of bandwidth needed to support its streaming. Requiring almost double the bandwidth of 3D streaming, (about 6-7Mbps), 4K needs around 15Mbps to stream successfully on the screen.

Bandwidth usage for streaming 4K is a hurdle these providers have to jump, especially since the average American connection is about 7.4 Mbps, which barely scratches the surface of bandwidth required for 4K. Consumers could easily reach their bandwidth cap and possibly see a disruption in quality of viewing or service.

Though a solid solution has not been announced, content providers are working to address bandwidth usage. At CES 2013, Netflix, Amazon, and Comcast shared their plans to deliver 4K content between 12Mbps-20Mbps, as noted by Dan Rayburn, EVP of Streaming Media.  It is widely believed that achieving this goal will require transitioning from H.264 to the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) codec, which promises 30-50% better compression than H.264 at the cost of higher complexity. The 4K challenge is a primary driver behind HEVC development.

4K certainly shows promise in the world of video streaming technology if companies can find a solution to address bandwidth usage. Without it, companies will struggle to justify production of 4K content, making it harder for consumers to justify spending money on devices to access this content.

If vendors plan to be a moving force for the 4K resolution revolution, reducing bandwidth usage has to be priority number one.

Download our white paper on how higher encoder efficency can solve the challenges of 4K. 

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