Sunday 13 April 2014

Is 4k the new 3D?

Despite gargantuan efforts in the broadcast equipment industry - and some subscription broadcasters who hoped there was a premium to charged -  the 3D home TV fairy's light is all but extinguished. And no amount of wishing by the likes of LG, Sony and Sky has been able to save it. But without pausing to try and understand why, the equipment business is ploughing straight into something that is even more costly and demanding to deliver.

TV set makers have had a pretty good run as we all migrated from VHF 405 to UHF 625 line displays; then adopted colour; then adopted widescreen. And then HD - although most of these adoptions have been painless because Moores law of the decreasing cost of tech advances, has meant the next generation tech costs little or nothing more than the old generation. The end of analogue broadcasting in the UK was a pretty big incentive to trade up at the same time that HD broadcasting was being promoted.

625 line standard definition TV is inescapably fuzzy when compared to 1080 line HD in the average living room on a 30-40" screen. But the analogue transmission format (and analogue video recorder formats like VHS) result in "pixel jitter" that exacerbates the lack of crisp definition. A digital 625 line picture (had one been available) would look considerably sharper than the analogue version.

The bad news for set makers is that modern TV sets last upwards of 10 years, where back in the days of valves (up to the 80s) , it was very rare for a set to go 3 years without a major breakdown. When LCD displays first appeared, no one really knew how long they would last. 3-5 years was a rough guess by the pioneers, but 10 years was easily achieved.

The 2014 NAB event in Las Vegas went all-out to try and promote the 4K or "Ultra HD"... since it's the only hope for the core technology providers to get a big boost in re-equipment sales. Regular HD equipment is now at commodity prices - and a £150 consumer Panasonic camera produces perfectly good results in most applications. Professional TV crews mostly avoid them for reasons of client credibility - not technical shortcomings; you simply can't continue to charge £5k to shoot a corporate promotional video on a £150 camera.

So I have to say I am suffering from 3D deja vu, and wonder if the industry has still not learned that longevity is all about the content, not the pixels. Good enough has got YouTube where it is today. 4k means 15-20Mbit of (dedicated) IP bandwidth, and it's not just the line speed to punters to consider, it's the exchange pileups where the aggregate amount required becomes humongous for probably not a lot of commercial return since only a very few will see the difference between HD and 4k.

Do we really need it? Content is king, and a duck on a skateboard still gets a gazillion YouTube views at 240x360 on a phone camera. Yes, the $250m blockbusters probably obliged to use the medium - but the rest of us?