Everywhere you went at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week you saw ultra high definition TVs (UHD). Also known as “4K,” these sets can display content at four times the resolution of today’s top-of-the-line 1080p high-definition sets.
As I walked around the show looking at the screens, I wondered three things: Will people be able to perceive and appreciate the difference between these and today’s sets? Will there be content available to watch at this higher resolution? Will people be willing to pay a premium for UHD sets?
The price issue is the easiest to solve. Right now 4K sets are considerably more expensive than the 1080p high-definition sets many of us bought in the past few years, but that will get better over time. A better version of the set I bought for $1,800 five years ago now costs about $800. Ten years ago it would have cost $5,000
The issue of perception and value is a tougher one. When I first saw an HD set playing HD content I was blown away by how good it was compared to standard definition TVs. My question at the time wasn’t if I wanted one, but when they’d be affordable. But the difference between HDTV and UHD isn’t nearly as dramatic.
Regarding content, it took until 2008 for the industry to standardize on a high-resolution format for DVD. It also took a while for broadcasters to start offering HDTV content.
But once HD content became ubiquitous and the sets became affordable, the public flocked to HDTV, which was a boon for TV manufacturers. But now the TV industry has a problem. With market saturation, demand has tapered off just as lower prices are squeezing profits. For a while, the industry’s response was to push 3-D TVs, but that didn’t pan out. Consumers weren’t inclined to pay a premium for 3-D sets, and without big consumer demand, content companies weren’t inclined to invest in 3-D programming. Four years ago, 3-D was all the rage at CES; now hardly anyone is talking about it.
Now that it’s clear that 3-D isn’t the industry’s savior, companies are pushing UHD, promising a far more immersive experience without really answering the question as to when enough programs will be available to convince customers that they really want to have one.
As a tech journalist, it’s my job to be skeptical about bleeding edge technology and I have plenty of hesitation when it comes to recommending UHD. I don’t to want count it out but I can’t buy into the hype just because the industry is heavily invested in it. However, if they can solve the content issue, there could very well be a demand for these sets.
But solving the content issue won’t be easy. TV networks will have to make an enormous investment in cameras and control room technology, and cable and satellite providers will have to figure out how to upgrade their networks to carry the signals. For now, the best hope comes from delivering the content online. At the LG news conference at CES, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that his company will start streaming UHD content this year. Comcast and Samsung also announced a partnership to stream UHD programs to Samsung TVs.
These partnerships are a good start, but there is one more issue. UHD takes up a lot more bandwidth than high-definition content, which will put a lot more strain on the Internet infrastructure required to deliver all the data necessary to watch these shows.
Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai, which specializes in delivering high-speed Internet content, is working on the problem. In an interview, Akamai CEO Tom Leighton said that the Internet can support limited 4K today, but it “takes a lot more gigabytes to show a 4K video.” He said that the capacity at the local level — the “last mile,” so to speak — is less of a problem than at the data centers.
Akamai’s solution is to bring the content closer to the consumer. “We want to get that video into the neighborhood once only, even if a thousand people are watching it,” he said. By way of an analogy, imagine if you were buying a potato grown in Idaho. The grower could dispatch a vehicle to deliver a single potato at great cost in time and resources, or could send a truckload of potatoes to your local grocery store, which could get them quickly and cheaply to your house.
And to stretch the analogy, you could buy a bag of potatoes and store them in your kitchen. To that end, Akamai has teamed up with Qualcomm to develop technology to store ultra high definition in your home. When possible, instead of streaming it live on demand, it can anticipate your interest in watching the show and stream it ahead of time — perhaps in the middle of the night — so it’s on your device when you want to watch it.