The world of 4K

Jason Patterson/Huawei Technologies
14 Apr 2016

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Skepticism of 4K’s utility has been rampant since the first TV models started arriving, with consumer tech hub CNET warranting special citation for articles such as 2012’s “Why 4K TVs are stupid,” and 2013’s “Why Ultra HD 4K TVs are still stupid.” But despite the naysayers, 4K uptake is actually proceeding faster than was seen with HD. Nine years separated Blu-ray’s arrival from DVD, with the first Ultra-HD download service arriving a mere seven years after that. Why the rush? Oh, lots of reasons. A content glut.

The decline of physical media. Eroding margins for TV vendors. Smoother content production (use of 4K image capture equipment actually makes production of standard HD content much easier). Greater awareness of the need for future proofing. With this many reasons, reasons cease to matter; 4K and later 8 K (human retinal resolution at normal TV viewing distances) are the future of screens.

What is 4K?

4K (Ultra-HD) televisions are 3840 x 2160 resolutions (about 8.2 million pixels). That’s four times the Full HD (1080p) standard that your living room TV or smart phone probably uses today, and about 27 times the number of pixels you had on your CRT screen growing up. That’s a lot of pixels, but in the words of Olivier Bovis of Sony Professional Services, “4K is not a resolution quest. It’s about how, in a world dominated by content, which you can get anywhere nowadays, how do you make the content more valuable for the people who create the content and for the audience? So, you can get high-definition on a mobile phone these days. So, how do you get the experience and the ‘wow’ factor when somebody goes back home and switches on their 55- or 65-inch TV.”

How does it wow?

More detail

More pixels means more details, naturally, especially with busy, motion filled images. A display’s resolution actually decreases when displaying fast moving objects, with losses of 30 to 60% not unheard of. This is one of the reasons why demo models tend to display still or slow moving images of landscapes, flowers, and the like, as opposed to feature films or sports. If half the resolution is lost from an HD image, the resolution could drop down to DVDrange or lower. But if half the resolution is lost from a 4K image, you are still at double what a 1080p screen could put out today – a big improvement. The improved color palette (number of colors shadings that can be displayed) expected with 4K will also boost visual detail and image realism. If an apple is entirely a single shade of red, it will look like a plastic toy. But if you add color shadings, the apple will start looking less like plastic and more like fruit. And the more color variety you add (the broader the palette), the more realistic the apple becomes.

Greater impact

4K is also expected to feature an expanded color space (richer colors) and high-dynamic-range (HDR) technology (brighter whites, deeper blacks). Why are these good? Well, displays that perform poorly in either of these areas tend to look dull, washed-out, or faded. It’s rather like comparing a smart phone photo with that of a dedicated SLR.

Better sound

4K is also expected to bring improved audio standards for television. This won’t necessarily improve sound quality much, per se, especially if you are using your television’s modest built-in speakers, but it may help deliver a more balanced sound experience, as opposed to the situation a lot of people have with their flat screen televisions today where voices are too quiet but music & explosions are too loud.

Higher frame rates

4K standards are also expected to raise the frame rates from 30-to-60fps (frames per second) to 100-to- 120fps. But before embracing them universally, one should keep in mind that higher frame-rates aren’t always well-received in all applications.

1). Higher frame-rates probably won’t have much impact on feature films and scripted content, but this could be felt with sports, gaming, 3D content (assuming that ever takes off), and other forms of participatory entertainment. It will also be felt on your network, as double the frame rate means a higher bitrate.

Speaking of the network

For telecom operators, the good news and the bad news when it comes to 4K is the same news – 4K will definitely encourage data consumption. Estimated bitrates vary (partially because few standards have been set yet), but streaming of the kind that Sony offers (largely uncompressed, crude by tomorrow’s standards) consumes about 100Mbps, while Netflix offers 15.6Mbps 4K streaming of certain shows. But both of these examples use today’s frame rates for content; tomorrow’s will require more.

4K, through the superior resolution of its source material, should help make the blockiness and pixilation that creeps up with HD streaming a thing of the past, but the challenge for operators is in areas such as packet loss rate, as 4K requires a hundred-fold improvement for streaming (10-5 for those of you keeping score), a tall order in a world where regular HD streaming is not yet universally hiccup-free.

Are they ready? Sameer Ashfaq Malik, Huawei’s Deputy CTO for Fixed Networking, says that, in general, they are not. When pressed as to why, he cited issues related to that aforementioned packet-loss rate, E2E throughput (40-to-100Mbps at peak) resilience, round-trip-delay (40ms max), and other tech variables, seeming particularly concerned about their ability to monitor 4K KQIs on a per-service-per-user (PSPU) level and troubleshoot it on the fly. However, he did seem confident that 4K access can be achieved via whatever fixed medium might be available onsite. His advice to telcos – simplify the architecture so that throughput can be more easily guaranteed, add some high-through put routers, and be able to troubleshoot in real-time, because users have no patience (it takes just a two second delay for users to start leaving).

Ready or not, telcos must push ahead with 4K. OTTs, who rarely shoulder the blame in the minds of consumers in the event of streaming hiccups, have every reason to push the envelope, despite estimates that 4K content could cost up to six times as much to stream as typical HD content (720p). Telcos have plenty of other reasons to as well.

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