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During the 5-hour Ultra HD Conference conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association late last month, experts from the TV content, manufacturing, consulting, and marketing research sides of the industry made presentations. Technical issues were raised and questions answered.
Here are the (ultra) highlights along with slides snapped during the conference and as well as other sources.
Lack of Standards
This is the number one issue with first generation UHDTVs. The current HDMI standard (1.4) only permits a maximum transfer rate of 3840 x 2160 resolution at 30 frames-per-second and 8-bit color. A number of presenters referred to UHDs potential, and future expectations, of 10, 12, or even higher color depths, and 60 or possibly 120 frames-per-second and a far wider color gamut. While these specs would increase the quality of television images, there are many technical issues to solve.
The highest bit-depth of HD LCD panels is 10-bit. We are trying to ascertain if any of the UHDTVs available now (or soon) are 10-bit, since we’ve seen no mention in the specifications. This implies they’re all 8-bit panels with 256 levels of brightness.
In comparison, 10-bit LCD panels have 1,024 levels for smoother gradations from light to dark, and more potential colors. 10-bit panels were available up to the 2008 model year in high-end LCD Samsungs and Sonys but were discontinued, probably because all HDTV sources are 8-bits and it was hard to see an improvement. There have not been any higher bit LCD UHDTVs made to date, and we don’t know if they’re even possible to manufacture at this time.
According to a paper submitted to the Society of Information Display, the threshold of seeing contouring artifacts for digital cinema 4K (the only data we could locate) is 11 bits (2048 levels – see graph above). More from SID on this here.
Regardless, the standards organizations want higher bit depth to be incorporated within the entire UHDTV plan. But higher bit depth requires more bandwidth.
There is a recommended color gamut for UHD called Rec. 2020, an arm of the United Nations. There are other standard organizations, such as the Advanced Television Standards Committee (ATSC), and Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), and you they may recommend their own color gamut(s). All these UHDTV standards have to be worked out before we can expect terrestrial television (a long way off), or cable or satellite broadcasts. Image comparing color space of Rec. 709 to Rec. 2020 is by Sakurambo & GrandDrake.
One step in the right direction for UHD is the newly developed compression scheme called High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC aka H.265). It’s creators claim it will save 50% of storage capacity compared to H.264 (the current and most efficient standard). LG announced last week it’s new, soon to be released, 55- and 65-inch UHDTVs will incorporate HEVC decoding. We have not seen, however, whether they can handle the processor-intensive demands of decoding UHDTV for external encoded sources such as download to a flash or hard drive. Other electronics companies will also need an upgrade path to add this capability. It’s expected that all UHD content will quickly migrate over the HEVC.
If the technical standards can be worked out, it would still be many months before they all could be incorporated into the production chain. This is because it’s not just TVs that must be changed, but new UHD cameras (currently they are 4K using digital cinema initiative), to mixers, editors, a standardized method of transmission and reception and then the actual display device.
Which Companies Commit To Upgrading Their First Gen UHDTVs?
While first generation UHTVs are available now, more models will be added in the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2013. All have HDMI 1.4a input chips, Rec. 709 color, and 8-bit color depth. There’s a new HDMI standard coming currently called HDMI 2.0 (when released the designation may change). This will permit higher UHD frame rates (i.e 60 Hz for live sports or higher) but will require new HDMI input chip within the television.
This poses a problem. What about the first generation UHD TVs? Are they doomed to be obsolete so quickly? Sony and Samsung representatives have stated publicly that there will be an upgrade path for purchasers of their 1st generation UHDTVs. Samsung has gone further, pointing out its Ultra HDTVs have a space assigned to accommodate its Evolution Kit, and the UHDTV HDMI input interface is swappable to an updated version.
Toshiba’s VP of marketing Scott Ramirez stated at the conference “our goal is to have an upgrade path in 2014.” While Jim Sanduski, Sharp’s VP of Strategic Product Marketing, said “there is no solution today I am aware of. We’ll work on solutions for an upgrade path.”
LG’s Tim Alessi was less committed, offering “we’re looking at upgrade paths.”
Our HDTV viewing distance chart is based on the resolution of the human eye (with 20/20 vision). The eye, as the above illustration shows, can read 1 arc minute of detail. This translates to needing a 69-inch screen to see all the resolution available in 1080p display at a distance of 9 feet (known as the Lechner distance). Using this formula, to see all the available resolution, a 2160p UHDTV needs to be 138-inches, or you’d need to be 4.5 ft from a 69-inch screen.
Larry Thorpe, Senior Fellow Imaging Technologies & Communications for Canon, said new research indicates Human Spatial Contrast Sensitivity requires 16 cycles for “Excellent” viewing quality. This method translates to a whopping 192-inch diagonal screen necessary to see all the resolution and benefits of a UHDTV (at the 9 foot Lechner viewing distance . Sony states the following on its XBR-65X900A Amazon listing
regarding UHDTV viewing distances:
“How close to the TV must I sit to appreciate 4K?
The short answer is that between 5 and 6 ft. is the ideal viewing distance for a 55” or 65” Sony 4K Ultra HD TV.
However, on a 55”, you can now sit as close as 3.6 ft and enjoy a visibly smoother and more detailed picture (e.g you won’t see the individual pixels). On a 65“ TV, you can sit as close as 4.2 ft. to appreciate 4K.
Since the pixels on a 4K Ultra HD TV are four times smaller than on an HDTV, it becomes harder to see them. In fact, you can sit closer to a 65” Sony 4K Ultra HDTV than you can to a 35” HDTV. When you sit closer to the screen, you feel like you are immersed in the action. You get the same visual impact as you would sitting in the best seat at a movie theater.”
Any way you slice it, human visual acuity (and Sony!) indicate you should be no more than 6 ft from a 65-inch screen. According to our calculations, you should be no more than 4.25 ft (within 6/10th of an inch from Sony’s recommended distance to “appreciate 4K”) which is one-half of the distance of our HD viewing distance chart.
We have our doubts that most people will want to move their seating closer to the screen, and certainly few will want to sit as close as necessary to see all the impact of UHD. This potentially makes the migration to UHD slower, and the need for bigger and bigger sizes at affordable prices more necessary for quicker adoption.
The lack of standards and the constraints of the current version of HDMI 1.4a (again, 3840 x 2160@ 30fps max.) are two reasons why the amount of content today is extremely limited. To date, the consumer choices are some YouTube videos requiring a PC with a video card that will output UHD over HDMI, some sample footage on select websites (also requiring a PC), and the Sony FMP-X1 Ultra HD Media Player (article) which currently is limited to owners of Sony’s own 55-inch and 65-inch X900A models (nothing speeds adoption of a new format like making it proprietary). The Sony 4K player contains ten Sony catalog movies in UHD resolution, and more will be available when Sony’s 4K download service goes online in the fall, however Sony states even then it will only function with Sony branded UHDTVs. From this point on, maybe we should start calling their UHD mediaplayer “Betamax” or new fangled “Memory Stick” , to see if Sony gets the hint?
Toshiba’s Ramirez alluded to other content being worked on for next year, but would not provide any details. The Blu-ray disc association is working on a UHDTV standard for new Blu-ray discs, however we don’t expect to see the standard or content appearing for at least a year or more.
According to market research firm DisplaySearch, UHDTVs will sell 124,000 out of about 40 million TVs in North America (NA) this year. We find this very optimistic, and probably assumes rapid price erosion (more on this later). Nevertheless, it is a drop in the bucket representing just 0.0031 share, or slightly more than 3/10 of 1 percent of the NA market.
Next year DisplaySearch predicts UHDTV sales will rocket to 1.8% of the NA market. In 2016 they predict sales will cover just 6.3% NA TV market share with 2,523,000 (slide above)
As you can see by the slide above, UHD LCD panel pricing has already begun to erode. If the TV makers expect to sell over 100,000 UHD TVs this year, we anticipate significant price drops as more brands and models enter the market place. Currently available are the Sony 55, 65 and 84-inch models along with the 84-inch LG and 39-inch and 50-inch
Seiki (review). Due shortly are 55- and 65-inch Samsungs and LGs, a 70-inch Sharp, 58-, 65, and 84-inch Toshibas. Industry sources say Sony will add at least two more models in 4th quarter. The only brand that won’t be coming to market with UHD is Vizio (according to sources). They’ve gone silent about UHDTV since January.
If you must have a UHDTV this year, we recommend going with a brand that promises an upgrade path for the next generation HDMI. Right now, Sony and Samsung are on board and we hope to see other makers offer a pathway. Prices should begin to drop, probably significantly, for the holiday selling season, and continue downward into 2014.
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