Wednesday, April 10, 2013

4K for video production and post-production: Buy or wait?

You can summarize this year's theme at NAB very easily: 4K. There are vendors selling 4K cameras, monitors, storage devices, production switchers, routers, video capture cards, video editors and post-production software all over the show floor. Salespeople will tell you that 4K is "the next big thing," and you'd better start buying equipment and software to support it. The problem is that the last "next big thing," 3D, wasn't, so does it really make sense for television stations, video production companies and post-production houses to buy 4K equipment?

There are clearly applications for which 4K makes sense, of which motion picture production and post production are the most obvious. In movies, more resolution is almost always better, especially where special effects are used--you can lose resolution in the process and still have enough for for acceptable quality when projected onto a big screen. However, when it comes to television, 4K may be too much of a good thing. 4K video requires four times as much storage and much faster connections than 2K, both of which increase costs. 4K monitors are still scarce and are much more expensive than 2K monitors.

The question for video producers is, will 4K television sets and media players take off with consumers, and if so, when? Based on 3D's track record, producers may want to wait a while to spend their money. 3D was originally launched by motion picture distributors and adopted by consumer electronics companies in order to increase their revenues. However, they didn't consider whether consumers were really interested in 3D, how much they were willing to pay for it or how much grief they were willing to go through in order to get it.

Like Blu-Ray before it, there was no single standard for 3D, which led to consumer confusion and frustration. Some 3DTVs required heavy, expensive, battery-powered "active" 3D glasses, while others required lighter, less-expensive "passive" glasses that many users felt didn't deliver good enough picture quality. Glasses for one manufacturer's 3DTVs usually didn't work with other manufacturer's sets, and most 3DTVs only came with one or two pairs of glasses, so families with children had to shell out more money to buy additional pairs. Movie distributors struck exclusive deals with consumer electronics companies for some of their films; for example, 20th Century Fox gave Panasonic an exclusive for "Avatar." Consumers who purchased Panasonic 3DTVs a free copy of the movie, but buyers of other brands couldn't get it at all.

A few television producers jumped into 3D early; for example, Discovery, Sony and IMAX launched a 3D cable channel called 3net, and ESPN launched a 3D channel. While ESPN got fairly wide carriage, 3net has spotty availability. That's about it when it comes to regular 3D service, and even for that limited selection, consumers are usually required to pay extra for 3D by their video service providers.

So, is 4K likely to be different? It won't cause the headaches and nausea that some viewers get with 3D, so in that sense, there's likely to be less resistance to 4K. On the other hand, consumers will need new 4K televisions. They'll have to buy a new video player, because Blu-Ray is limited to 2K. They'll have to replace their home theater systems and A/V receivers, because a single HDMI connection can only handle one-fourth of the bandwidth required for 4K. Cable, satellite and IPTV video providers will have to provide new set-top boxes and dedicate multiple channels for a single 4K signal, as well as upgrade their signal distribution systems, potentially at an enormous capital cost. Finally, ATSC 2.0, the upcoming new standard for digital television broadcasting in the U.S., won't support 4K. For 4K to be supported by broadcasters, it will have to wait for ATSC 3.0, which is still in an early state of development and won't be implemented for over-the-air use for years.

There will eventually be a big consumer market for 4K; it's the obvious next step in resolution. However, it may be five to ten years before we get there. If you can get the 4K-capable equipment you need at the same price as 2K, you should buy it, but unless you're working on movies, it's better to let consumer adoption tell you when it's right to buy into 4K, rather than vendors.
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