Experts See Fuzzy Future for Ultra-HD TV

SMPTE panelists say 4K pictures dazzle but voice doubts about format's prospects


Ultra-High-Definition 4K television is poised to be the next standard, the TV that will dominate the living room of the mid-21st century.

But to hear the technologists assembled for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineeers’ day-long symposium on UHD TV tell it, Ultra-TV will tread a hard and thorny path on its way to wide adoption.

Bryan Burns, a longtime tech exec at ESPN and one of the leaders of the defunct ESPN 3D, told a panel on “Who Will Make Money From the 4K Ecosystem”: “I know what it took to get ESPN to high definition and somewhat to 3D. My take is 4K will be the next 1080p. How many services are transmitted to your home in 1080p? None. That’s how it will be with 1080p. 4K will be a lot of television sets sold… but that doesn’t mean there’ll be a wholesale changeover in program services.”

Piper Jaffray VP and senior research analyst Tom Adams went even farther: “Who will make money from it? Nobody.”

Make no mistake, the technologists at the SMPTE symposium at the Loews Hollywood Hotel had plenty of enthusiasm for the dazzling TV pictures delivered by UHD.

Ultra-HD is often called “4K TV” but as the SMPTE panels explored, it’s really far more. It is to include improved color standards; wider dynamic range (brighter highlights and darker shadows); and higher frame rates. The clarity and vibrancy of a UHD picture is startling even compared with a full HD 1080p image.

Many technologists are also excited about finally having a technical standard with enough image information to survive the next upgrades that will follow UHD. (Unless the next upgrade is holographic TV — which it might be.)

But Chris Johns, chief engineer for BSkyB, worried in a panel on 4K delivery to the home: “Are we being led by the consumer industry to deliver too little, too fast? Everybody’s talking about how it’s not just pixels, it’s not just frame rate, but it’s dynamic range and all the bits and pieces that make it so much better. But when is that actually going to be deliverable to the home?

“If we deliver something that is Ultra-HD lite, if you want to call it that, will the consumers see enough of a difference to make them want to buy it?”

Many of the interim steps to HD have paradoxical consequences. For example, major brand Ultra-HD televisions have built in upscaling to convert regular HD content to UHD. Upscaling is technically challenging, but even if looks great, it’s problematic: if consumers will accept upscaled content, why should producers incur the costs of UHD production?

Johns later observed that if producers use 4K cameras, the result looks better even in regular HD, but “and if you do that you’re actually eroding the difference between HD and Ultra-HD.” UHD cameras also have less depth of field than today’s TV cameras when used with the same lenses; new cameras and lenses will be needed to sustain today’s popular approach to shooting live TV.

Burns also made another point about the costs entailed to bring UHD to live TV production: Upgrading production trucks. He said there are about 180 production trucks in all of the U.S., and the cost to outfit each was $10 million-$12 million. When ESPN HD began, he remembered, there were only “two and a half” HD trucks available; two for ESPN and one shared with ABC.

“Unless you have programming every day, (UHD) is a question mark,” he said. But live events require a lot of trucks, all over the country. “So how do you replace, over time, those 180 trucks,” said Burns. “That’s a lot of money and it’s hard to get done and it’s hard to pay for.”

The SMPTE conference continues through Thursday.