Is 8K Around the Corner?

8k

Last week, I saw an interesting article at Display Daily entitled “8K is Closer than You Think.” The author, Bob Raikes, maintains that we will soon see big-screen LCD TVs with 8K (7680×4320) resolution.

He points out that it won’t be the content side driving this development, but LCD TV makers, particularly Samsung and Sharp. I would add that the transition to 4K/UHD was the same story. The TV manufacturers decided to build 4K/UHD displays because they needed a way to spur sales, and higher spec numbers tend to do just that. Also, it’s relatively easy to modify manufacturing processes to increase the resolution of LCD panels. That caught the content providers off guard, and they had to scramble to create 4K/UHD content.

Another factor is that Samsung and Sharp are the only major TV manufacturers that have not introduced or announced OLED TVs. At IFA in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, OLED was front and center in the booths of LG, Sony, Panasonic, TCL, B&O, Loewe, Metz, Vestel, and others—all with panels provided by LG Display. This technology seems to have become the standard for premium flat-panel TVs, even though it’s not as bright as LCD can be.

In addition, Bob reports that sales of Samsung QLED TVs were significantly lower in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the first quarter, while the sales of OLED TVs were up. As he says, “The word on the street from those tracking the market in detail is that at the same price points, Samsung’s arguments over color volume and brightness are just not persuading buyers to buy from them. It’s the fantastic black level and contrast of OLED that is winning the sales.”

On the other hand, Bob argues that consumers do care about spatial resolution, and they believe that more is better. Of course, at normal viewing distances, few people can see the difference in detail between HD and UHD, and no one can see any difference between 4K and 8K. “However,” he writes, “watch consumers in the stores. They like to get up close to have a really good look at the quality of the image and, there, FullHD, UltraHD and 8K are all clearly different, if the content has not been mangled in the compression.”

As a result, he expects to see 8K displays from Samsung at CES 2018—and I won’t be surprised if that turns out to be true. Sharp has been showing 8K at CES for many years now, but it’s always been a technology demonstration, not an actual product. Samsung and LG have also presented similar tech demos at CES. If Sharp has TVs there, I’m sure some of them will be 8K. (Will the Sharp brand be shown in the Hisense booth? I doubt it. After Hisense acquired the right to market TVs under the Sharp name in the US, Sharp sued Hisense for besmirching its brand with shoddy products. Does that mean Sharp will have TVs in its own booth this year? Time will tell.)

If Samsung and Sharp offer LCD TVs with 8K resolution, that will be a distinct differentiator with respect to OLED, which would have a much more difficult time scaling up to that resolution. According to Bob, the problem is not necessarily the pixels themselves, but the TFTs (thin-film transistors) that drive them. As he recounts, OLED requires four or five times as many TFTs as LCD, and they need to exhibit better electron mobility. Also, OLED yields are not as high as LCDs, a problem that would likely worsen if they went to 8K.

On the content side, NHK—the Japanese public broadcasting system—has been working on 8K for many years. In fact, it conducted tests in 8K at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and it plans to expand those tests for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 2020 Summer games in Tokyo. The Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) will also be involved, at least in the 2018 Winter games.

The 2016 tests were available only in Japan and visible only on Sharp 8K TVs—by virtue of the fact that only Sharp had 8K TVs available, and they cost well over $100,000. According to this report from Nikkei, Sony and Panasonic are partnering with NHK and others to develop 8K technology in time for the Tokyo games. Sony plans to introduce 8K TVs in 2020, while Panasonic has not yet announced a launch date. However, the company is reportedly aiming to take advantage of TV sales before the 2020 Olympics.

I asked Rich Chernock, CSO of Triveni Digital and a major player in the development of ATSC 3.0, about over-the-air 8K. He says that ATSC 3.0—the next-generation OTA system—does not currently support 8K, but it isn’t precluded. Fitting 8K into a 6 MHz channel would be difficult, and it probably doesn’t make much sense given typical viewing distances and screen sizes. He also told me that the NHK 8K broadcasts are delivered via satellite, not terrestrially. I’m sure it’s a very high-bandwidth satellite transmission! (Rich was a guest on Home Theater Geeks last year; check it out here.)

As for other content, I think that will take much more time. The infrastructure for 4K/UHD is only now becoming widespread, and 8K will quadruple the bandwidth requirements. That includes moving content around within production and post-production facilities as well as delivering it to consumers via streaming, unless the streaming content is much more severely compressed than even 4K/UHD.

Could 8K be delivered on disc? Not on UHD Blu-ray, which doesn’t support it. Does that even matter? Is UHD Blu-ray the last physical format? I hope not! Discs still represent the best possible quality—unless we’re talking about downloading onto a local storage device. But just imagine how long it would take to download a high-quality 8K movie at current online speeds—it could be days!

I think it’s pointless for consumers to yearn for 8K TVs. The only possible benefit is to the manufacturers, which can tout a higher-number spec and thus sell more TVs to a gullible public, even though there will be virtually no 8K content (except the Olympics) for quite some time. On the other hand, those TVs will probably be super-expensive, at least for a while, so only gullible one-percenters will be able to afford them. What kind of business model is that?

I do see two good applications for 8K. One is scanning film for archiving. Even if the content is never released in 8K, it’s always better to have a master file that’s at a higher resolution than the final distribution file.

Then there’s VR. 8K makes sense in that case, because the display is less than one inch from the eyes. Every time I’ve donned a VR headset, the first thing I notice is that I can easily see the pixels. If those screens were 8K, I think it would probably look very smooth with no screen-door effect. But making a VR display—which must be much smaller than a cell phone for each eye—with 8K resolution seems nearly impossible. The pixels would have to be far smaller than they are on any TV or even any smartphone.

What about 8K VR content? It would require twice as much bandwidth as 8K TV! Of course, the VR system could upscale lower resolutions, which is probably what will happen at first, as it will with 8K TVs.

So, is 8K around the corner? 8K TVs could be, but 8K content is not. I scoff at the idea of skipping 4K and waiting for 8K. 4K/UHD looks phenomenal—especially with high dynamic range—and I see no reason to put off buying a 4K/UHD HDR TV in anticipation of 8K.