Taking a very big picture perspective on Ultra High-Definition (Ultra HD) TV, the new big picture technology, Senior Vice President of Sony Electronics Home Division Mike Lucas points out that viewers are already benefitting from Ultra HD’s underlying “4K” capabilities “at home right now and they might not even know it.” Lucas is citing the top-notch resolution capabilities of Ultra HD, which, for example, allows TV producers to edit a video sequence by zooming in on a sports play digitally while retaining full high-definition quality.

“Fox Sports uses a Sony [professional] 4K camera at one NFL game each week for purposes of replaying key plays, ” he explains. “The data is such high-resolution that when they enlarge it, such as getting a close-up of a receiver toeing the sideline—the resolution of what’s left is still HD quality.”

Lucas’ example underscores the end-to-end appeal of Ultra HD to the TV business, a situation driven home at the 2013 International CES where dozens of companies are introducing or expanding their Ultra HD products. While Ultra HD is still a work in progress, developments over the past year including official adoption of the “Ultra High-Definition TV” label by CEA and the International Telecommunications Union—are advancing the recognition of this immersive display technology. (See the Ultra HD story in CE Vision, March 2012.)

“What we are seeing is that these new screens will substantially enhance the viewing quality of programs that consumers love as they move to really big screens,” says Bryan Burns, ESPN’s vice president of strategic business planning and development. “The Ultra HD screens’ ability to convert the three main HD formats—1080-interlace (used by CBS, NBC and HBO), 720-progressive (ABC, FOX and ESPN) and 1080-progressive (movies in Blu-ray)—will create a different viewing experience.

“With Ultra HD, the four-fold increase in clarity from high-definition will take viewers’ favorite programs to a new level of enjoyment when they are ‘super-sized,’” Burns adds. “That’s an exciting prospect, as it has become very clear in the last few years that consumers want a bigger and more engaging video experience in their homes.”

Burns, who heads the content subcommittee of CEA’s Ultra HD Working Group, expects that as program providers accelerate the transition to Ultra HD production, home viewing displays will deliver consumer enjoyment like “we have never experienced before.”

Frank DeMartin, vice president of retail and distribution sales at Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions America, chairs the CEA Ultra HD working group’s subcommittee on technology. Citing the ongoing development of the Ultra HD platform, DeMartin says that the process has involved more than 100 participants, seeking initially to identify a “minimum set of definitions to be able to be called Ultra High-Definition.” For now, he says, Ultra HD is not a standard or a specification, but rather a set of guidelines for what manufacturers, retailers and consumers can expect from this new technology.

“It’s a natural part of the trend toward larger screens,” DeMartin adds. He says many consumers thought 3D was not a sufficient incentive to upgrade from HDTV, but that Ultra HD is getting attention.

Resolution matters more on larger screens, DeMartin says. “Ultra HD enhances the ability to display higher resolution,” he says, adding that he expects 3D will be part of every Ultra HD package. “Ultra HD will make 3D look better; you’re doing the same thing with more pixels.”

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CEA, agrees. “Ultra HD’s potential is huge. I haven’t felt this way about a TV breakthrough since HDTV!”

Ultra HD Promises

Like others leading the Ultra HD charge, DeMartin recalls lessons learned during the introduction of HDTV since the 1990s. “Look how long it took for people to adopt this,” he recalls, noting that the growing use of DVDs spurred sales of HDTV receivers. Again, he expects special video content to drive the adoption of Ultra HD.

Gary Yacoubian, who heads the CEA Ultra HD Working Group, agrees that Ultra HD offers an “awesome customer experience that is easily demonstrable.” Yacoubian, a former CEA chairman and now president and managing partner of Specialty Technologies SVS, believes his background in CE retailing provides a perspective to see that “Ultra HD is so thrilling because it promises a ‘rising tide’ of excitement and consumer aspiration.”

“It is a big-screen technology and will rekindle interest and excitement about home theater audio, high-quality content, accessories, installation and integration,” Yacoubian says. “It is a total experience and the entire consumer electronics industry will be able to participate in the magic.”

John Taylor, chair of CEA’s Ultra HD Working Group committee that is crafting messaging development, reinforces that view. “Ultra HD is the ultimate experience in high-definition,” says Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG Electronics USA. He cites CEA’s extensive consumer research to select the Ultra HD term and the core finding that “consumers know and trust ‘high-definition.’ ” Taylor calls Ultra HD a “great umbrella term to cover a range of products that deliver higher-resolution video.”

“Consumers are clamoring for larger screens,” Taylor says, explaining that 60-inch and larger screen sizes are “the fastest growing segment, which is the sweet spot for Ultra HD.”

Transition Process

As if to underscore the transitional status of Ultra HD right now, Sony, which was among the first TV makers to commercialize the technology, plans to continue using “the 4K moniker,” as one company spokesman explains. While lauding CEA’s plans to develop “a common language to describe the next-generation high-definition technology,” Sony believes that it can better “ensure clarity for consumers” by continuing to use the 4K term. It plans to market its future products as “4K ultra high-definition (4K Ultra HD).”

“Right now nothing in the home is as immersive as 4K Ultra HD,” Sony’s Lucas adds. “4K Ultra HD brings the most impressive experience possible to the home.” He cites Sony’s first 4K projector for home theaters, unveiled in 2011, followed by a Blu-ray disc player and 4K Ultra HDTV set last year.

“All of these products,” says Lucas, “build on the years of 4K experience we have developed in the professional side of the business, with production cameras and cinematic projectors.” Emphasizing that Sony is not just an electronics maker, Lucas characterizes its role as “an entertainment company,” pointing to the ways that 4K Ultra HD can factor into the activities of other divisions, including games, music, movie and TV production and the Sony Entertainment Network.

“We’re uniquely positioned in the market,” Lucas says, noting that Sony Pictures Entertainment is creating 4K Ultra HD content and the potential of Video Unlimited, part of the Sony Entertainment Network. He says that Sony Electronics is preparing “some big announcements about the delivery of native 4K content in the home.”

“On the professional side, we’ve been working with studios all along in the production and cinematic display of 4K content,” he adds. “Every day in Hollywood, 4K content is being created and captured.”

“I anticipate satellite delivering 4K sometime in 2013, and I expect that 4K Ultra HD broadcast will begin soon thereafter,” Lucas says.

Mark Richer, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), the broadcast industry’s standards-setting organization, agrees that terrestrial broadcasters have shown a “significantly greater interest in terrestrial 4K Ultra HD service” during the past year. He believes that new technologies will enable Ultra HD delivery through existing broadcast airways.

“As we work on the next-generation system, Ultra HD capabilities are going to be considered and incorporated,” says Richer, who also chairs the global Future of Broadcast TV organization. Noting that spectrum issues could affect broadcast transmission of big-bandwidth Ultra HD, Richer acknowledges that regulators and the industry will have to develop a “very flexible system.”

“Most of us think from a technology standpoint,” that such an approach is “realizable over the next few years,” Richer says. “We can build a system that can handle Ultra HD and also provide mobile services.”

The bandwidth issue is also on the minds of cable TV, telephone company TV and other digital delivery providers. For now, most are remaining quiet about their plans for Ultra HD, although they expect to be prepared to carry the high-capacity signals as viewers equip with new big-screen devices.

Meanwhile, Hollywood and the production community are gearing up for the Ultra HD era. More than 60 feature films and other titles are ready to roll out as Ultra HD productions, and more shows are being created.

Mark Schubin, a prominent TV production technologist and a leading organizer of the Hollywood Post Alliance’s annual February “Tech Retreat,” points out that compression of Ultra HD for transmission may ultimately not be much greater than today’s HDTV broadcasts.

“It’s speculated that you could compress Ultra HD in as little as five percent more bit rate than HD,” he says, acknowledging that such a compression system does not yet exist.

Indeed, several preliminary experiments indicate that the full immersive impact of Ultra HD is most apparent when viewers sit very close to the screen. From the production standpoint, as Sony’s Lucas and ESPN’s Burns point out, there is a growing embrace of Ultra HD. Randall Dark, a writer/director/producer who was on the forefront of the HD creative assault, virtually swoons over the Ultra HD opportunities.

“When I started doing HD in the early 1990s, I knew it was the future for TV, Hollywood and digital cinema,” says Dark, who has produced several documentaries in the Ultra HD format. Dark is enthusiastic  about Ultra HD’s “built-in up-conversion capabilities” that enable films he shot years ago to convert and display images “in a way that’s never been seen before.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood, which has been shooting its major feature films in Ultra HD or higher resolution for more than a year, is stepping up its preparations. For example, Peter Jackson’s new 3D production of The Hobbit, released theatrically in December, was shot using 5K digital technology.

The parade of Ultra HD home equipment began two years ago, starting with LG, Sharp, Sony and other equipment displays at the 2011 International CES and other venues. Toshiba’s Ultra HD equipment uses a multi-core CEVO engine processor to upscale HD sources to its Quad HD panel.

Taylor of LG acknowledges that Ultra HD “is still in its infancy.”

Although the first wave of very large screen Ultra HD sets are in the $20,000 to $25,000 price range—reminiscent of the top-end pricing for the earliest HDTV devices two decades ago—technological advances will steer those prices downward, according to experts. Some analysts expect that after debuting with screens in the 84-inch and larger sector, Ultra HD will find a place in the 55-inch and 60-inch categories within the coming year.

That will bring down the price tag while still delivering the immersive experience the TV makers and content suppliers expect.

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