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What the 4K!

Every so often my twitter stream will burst into life about 4K and the 4K Jets and the HD Sharks will get ready to rumble.  It may be a new 4k product announcement or a post on Red User which will act as the catalyst.  It seems far more polarising than say, 3D, as an issue.

I think there are a lot of aspects to this battle for hearts and minds - worth a little reflection I think.  If we look at acquisition then there just a couple of systems capable of 4k (or more acquisition).  Of these RED is the poster boy for 4K as Sony's F65 is only just starting to appear.  

F65 Prototype at NAB

Now most people would agree that more resolution is better (possibly not older actresses).  I saw a demo on the Sony stand at NAB2011 and it was deeply impressive despite the screen being huge and the audience being unrealistically close.  It is also true that it gives you more flexibility in post for reframing and cropping.  It certainly true that throwing resolution away usually works better than adding resolution.  Major motion pictures shot on film (though not all) tend to be mastered at 4K and many cinemas are equipping with 4K digital projectors.  RED claims this makes them the future-proof option.  30 years in IT leads me to believe that future-proof is a myth - perhaps future-resistant is more accurate.

The challenge at the moment on the acquisition and production side is the maths.  4K has four times more area roughly then 1080p.  That means 4x the data - all other things being equal.  That data is going to be present in your entire pipeline if you are going to master in 4K.  This has obvious implications in storing, movement and computation required in post.  This will increase costs and increase time.  Over time, improving technology will reduce this but it has significant implications now.

Currently, 4K equipped cinemas are the only place the public is likely 4K footage natively.  Will this change in the near future?  There are signs that the consumer electronic industry is going to put its faith in 4k as the next big thing after 3D.  CES this year had a smattering of 4K models.  CE Manufacturers always need a next big thing, its essential to their business model to persuade you that the consumer durable they sold you 2 years ago is no longer sufficient.  Interest in 3D is waning, they need a new flag to wave.

Toshiba 55" 4K TV

I happen to have a 3D set bought recently and a 3D projector waiting for an install.  Am I a 3D evangelist? Not really, I was really making the move to 1080p and 3D was just a bonus.  Its not that I don't like 3D, I enjoy the experience when its done well, but there is hardly anything to watch.  I have 2 sources of material: Sky and Blu-ray.  Sky has one channel which is about 70% repeated material (my impression, I am not sad enough to measure it) and a few blu-rays.  Even cinema releases which were 3D don't seem guaranteed to get a blu-ray disk.  If they do its normally dearer list price and less likely to be discounted.  

What have I got plugged into my setup.  I have a Blu-ray player (1080p), PS/3 (720p/1080p), SkyHD (720p/1080i) and AppleTV (720p). My amp is theoretically capable of handling and upscaling to 4k but compatibility is always in doubt till some standards emerge.  The signal path is via HDMI1.4 which can do 4k24p.  I do expect to see a jump in quality in my new 1080p projector over the old 720p one slightly offset by a bigger screen size.  However, I see no real difference in percieved resolution at my 3.5m viewing distance between my new 47" 1080p LED LG TV and my old 1024 x 720 Pioneer 42" plasma.  The step up in resolution to 4k is more marked than that between 1080 and 720 but I am not convinced it will be obvious at TV panel size.  How big do you have to go before you notice 4k.  In the world of AV consumerism there is the much feared WAF.  This is not a technical term but stands for wife acceptance factor.  Flat screen TV has faired well in WAF because the resulting sets maybe larger but they have taken up less space.  Get over 50" though and the sets are starting to draw to much attention to themselves and the WAF plummets relegating them to dedicated media rooms and bachelor pads.  This is probably less of an issue in the US where homes are typically more spacious, but any new format has got to succeed globally. 

I am the kind of early adopter guy who would buy 4K so what would it mean to me and how would I get it?  I think we can rule out broadcast.  In the UK, only the death of analgue has freed up enough space for a few HD over-air channels.  Sky too tends to worry about how many channels not the quality or we would not still be on 1080i.  Download services could distribute a file but how long are you prepared to wait.  In metropolitan areas it may be OK but I am limited to 5mbps out here in the sticks.  A single 4K movie not compressed to mush would probably exceed the typical UK monthly download limit for most punters.  So we are looking at some kind of disk or device to deliver the movie.  Blu-ray could do it but most current players arent going to be able to cope.  Even the ubiquitous and future-tolerant PS/3 is probably going to fail as its missing HDMI1.4.  If blu-ray can be stretched to fit (and in this I include at the pressing facilities) it just might gain a foothold with a slow burn dual play approach similar to 3D.  The disruption level is similar in that case.

I can't see a brand new physical format succeeding now.  DVD had the full weight of the industry behind it and its take off was slow in the UK taking a few years to hit critical mass and oust VHS.  Most of us early adopters have a drawer full of Region 1 disk we played on hacked DVD players.  We bought them so we had a decent choice back in the day and now we cant trade them in against blu-rays.  Blu-ray had a more troubled birth as it was fighting not just against DVD but HDDVD too.  It won the format war in the end but even after all this time it still has a smaller section in HMV than DVD.  Look round the rest of the store and you see racks of CDs.  CD is 30 years old and no higher definition format has come close to unseating it as a retail format.  The threat to CDs comes from a variety of formats that are worse - an interesting lesson for video.  Even HMVs future is far from assured - condemning video sources to online or a small selection at supermarkets. 

So winding right back to where we started with acquisition, how important is 4K?  If you are filming big budget features then it seems to make sense to feed the growing number of 4k projectors.  Not that I have seen any issues with Alexa films at my 4k equipped multiplex.  For lesser budget features then its a finely balanced decision.  What is going to provide the most production value up on the screen?  Any skimping you do on other crafts to feed that 4k pipeline are only going to be more visible in your end product.  For TV, Indie Films and Commericals I think its a long time before most of the 4k benefits start paying back with time being so critical.

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