Get ready for Super-Duper Ultra HD

January 26th, 2016 by · Leave a Comment

This article was authored by Stefan Hammond, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.

Prepare to hear a lot about 4K this year. And expect vendors to laud their shiny offerings – a vortex of verbiage will spin from those hyping hardware and software products.

Consumer technology now makes things possible that not long ago were pure science fiction. I pull a magic box out of my pocket, speak to it in English, and Portuguese words appear on the screen. I send the Portuguese message to a friend in Brazil, while sending voice messages to another friend in Singapore, while checking to see when the next bus to Kowloon will arrive or tracking the physical location of Uber vehicles in my immediate vicinity.

I have another magic box next to my television that streams video, remembers my preferences and gives suggestions for new programs I might like. It's science fiction that – in some cases – resembles wizardry.

But let's take one concept (the next generation of high-definition video) and unpack it, shall we? Because the hype machine is revving up and getting ready to race around dazzling us with flashing lights. What exactly is 4K video and why should we be excited about it?

Quality to the massive
The 4K idea is simple algebra: take the number of pixels in a 1080p hi-def video signal, and quadruple it. A full 1080p HD image is composed of about 2 million pixels (1,920 X 1,080) and a 4K image is about 8 million pixels (3,840 X 2,160) – both rates are at 60  frames/second.

Obviously, a boost in image-quality (true 4K is gloriously, or disturbingly, realistic). But let's look at the flip-side: file-sizes are far larger. We can use the 4x designation as a rough calculator and conclude that four times as much data is needed within the file. That's one thing when we're reading data from an optical disc, but when it comes to streaming video...you don't need a fiber-optic expert to tell you that you're gonna need a fat pipe.

For programming produced in an earlier era (yes, some of us still enjoy films made decades ago), the bump in quality reveals detail-flaws. This is an issue with 1080p Blu-ray discs: techniques to enhance picture quality include digital noise reduction (DNR: which helps remove graininess but also degrades picture sharpness) and upscaling – a complex digital video processing technique aimed at improving quality in video encoded at lower-resolution.

Online magazines employ video critics to vet Blu-ray releases on image-quality, and a well mastered DVD can look better than a poorly mastered Blu-ray. The point: video image-quality is complex and subjective, and anything but algebraic.

But that won't slow down the hype machine.

Vendors vie for the hyperbolic apex
The recent CES show in Las Vegas brought thundering terminology to "UHD" (ultra-HD, aka 4K). Plain old UHD just wasn't enough for a certain hardware vendor, who branded their premium line of 4K ultra HD TVs as "SUPER UHD" (dizzying over-capitalization theirs).

Then there's the streaming company which promises that its "award-winning proprietary hardware and software solution [will] allow users to watch ... in fully adjustable 4K glasses-free 3D," which seems a rather extraordinary claim.

Regardless of hype, prices of 4K-ready sets are declining, meaning that even wretches like me with no plans to run out and buy the super-duper 4K ultra-disc of the latest Big Robots Smashing blockbuster will upgrade at some point. A decent DVD looks better when played on a Blu-ray machine with HDMI cable connected to a high-definition TV (see the Wikipedia entry on video scaling linked above). Upscaling via playback hardware is likely to be noticeable when playing 1080p Blu-rays on 4K equipment, and the industry's essential stance of backwards-compatibility will eventually earn my home entertainment dollars.

Meanwhile, if 4K just isn't enough for you, 8K creeps closer: Panasonic has announced that it has developed a single cable and connector solution that enable the transmission of uncompressed full-spec 8K video signals. The Japanese firm said the standard "denotes an image of approximately 33 million pixels (7,680 X 4,320) and 120 frames/second."

Get the popcorn.

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