This past week, New York City was the place to be for the tech press and electronics-industry insiders. The same folks who run the goliath Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas—the Consumer Electronics Association—have put on a mid-year event in Manhattan for the last seven years. A much more intimate and informal gathering, CE Week evolved from an event aimed at Wall Street to an event aimed at members of the electronics industry in general.
There were plenty of innovative products on the show floor, as well as opportunities to look at the latest and greatest offerings from major electronics manufacturers in controlled, simulated home-theater environments.
In addition to the show floor and all the exhibits, CE Week featured a conference on Ultra HD. Numerous topics came up during the day-long conference, with one overarching theme: Ultra HD is not just about resolution. It's also about bit depth, color space, frame rate, dynamic range and broadcast standards. It is about cooperation between electronics manufacturers, government agencies, and standards organizations. Upgrading the nation's information and entertainment infrastructure is no simple task.
The conference kicked off with an intro by Geoff Tully, the conference chair, who got the ball rolling and then introduced the first speaker: Shawn DuBravac, the CFA, Chief Economist, and Senior Director of Research for the CEA. DuBravac touched on the state of the market, with CES 2013 as the starting point. While there is an identifiable trend toward larger, higher-resolution screens, currently a mere 11% of flat-panel televisions are 50 inches or larger. While there is an expectation that the market share of large flat panels will increase to approximately 34% by 2016, forecasts also indicate that Ultra HD will only command 6% of the market by then. Even among large screens, Ultra HD will remain a niche product for the next few years. However, because of the much higher retail prices and profit margins of premium televisions, the relatively small size of the market is not as important as understanding how to serve that market.Geoff Tully kicks off the Ultra HD conference.
I witnessed a fascinating discussion on the broad applications for the extra quantity and quality of the pixels provided by UHD TV. Multiview screens came up more than once, as did passive, Full-HD 3D playback. The presentation touched on issues like the need for an ecosystem of UHD players and streaming content, to give people something to watch on their new UHD televisions. One of the frequently touted applications for large-format UHD screens was displaying personal photographs, taken with high-resolution digital cameras. I agree, and I anticipate the next generation of DSLRs will feature a native UHD video mode.
Next up at the conference was Paul Gagnon, Director of Global TV Research at DisplaySearch, a market-research firm. What followed was a rather precise breakdown of the market for TVs, both in the USA and globally. The gist of the presentation was that the USA lags behind China in terms of UHD TV adoption. One notable aspect of this presentation was the use of the term "4K" instead of UHD. According to Gagnon, the supply-side of the TV industry has settled on the term, so 4K is what he used to refer to UHD throughout the presentation. Ultimately, the most interesting insight is that the absolute peak of worldwide 1080p LCD TV sales is probably occurring right now, during Q2 and Q3 of 2013—from this point onward, any gains in sales of UHD/4K sets is taking sales away from HD LCD.
Next up was Jack Wetherill from consulting firm FutureSource, who discussed the ecosystem that has to be in place in order for UHD to succeed. That presentation discussed how content is key to UHD's success, and how fans of the new format need to temper expectations for rapid, ubiquitous adoption. The fact is that HD/1080p will dominate the overall display market for some time to come.
After those three individual presentations, it was time for a panel discussion, moderated by Scott Wilkinson, AVS Director of Content. "Displays: The Face of Ultra HD in the Home" featured Jim Sandusky, VP Strategic Product Marketing from Sharp; Scott Ramirez, VP of Product Marketing and Development at Toshiba; Dan Schinasi, Senior Marketing Manager/TV Product Planning at Samsung; and Tim Alessi, Director of New Product Development at LG Electronics.Scott Wilkinson moderates a in-depth discussion about UHD displays in the home.
"Seeing is believing." Wilkinson opened the panel with a discussion of the benefits of Ultra HD beyond the pixel count. The short answer: It's all about picture quality, which more than just raw pixel count. The quality of each pixel is also a factor in determining total image quality, namely the video bit depth and frame rate. When a reference to UHD as being like "looking through a window" came up, Wilkinson mentioned that companies made the same claim for 1080p HD video, and he asked if UHD was like cleaning the window with a squeegee. Overall, the manufacturers seemed confident that consumers would react positively to the increase in picture quality that UHD provides, that it would drive future sales of ever-larger screens.
Next, Wilkinson broached the topic of standards, like bit depth, color gamut, and connectivity issues. Of course, these issues have yet to be finalized, so the manufacturers discussed the importance of high-quality upscaling. There was a strong focus on how important it is for the latest UHD TVs to deliver 1080p content at the highest possible quality level—beyond the capabilities of existing sets.
When the discussion came to connectivity and future standards, Samsung was in the enviable position of touting its One Connect solution—an upgradeable external box that contains all the inputs and video processing for its UHD televisions. There is considerable concern regarding first-generation UHD TV compatibility with standards that are not yet finalized, such as HDMI 2.0, or implemented, such as Rec. 2020 color—and which are needed to fully realize the potential of UHD by allowing the use of greater bit-depths and higher frame rates than current HDMI 1.4a and Rec. 709 HD color standards support.
A lot of the discussion centered on incremental improvement in video quality versus the "wow" factor. How big a leap in the viewing experience is 4K/UHD versus 1080p? Wilkinson again pressed the panel on what tangible benefits consumers could expect from a move to 2160p, and the discussion circled back to quality upscaling of 1080p content in these early days of UHD adoption.
Although the panel saw upscaling as crucial in the early days of UHD, the need for native UHD content to keep consumers engaged and enthused is clear. And yet, another advantage of UHD is the capability to view full-resolution 1080p HD 3D with passive glasses—although 3D is no longer the headline feature it was hoped to be, the advantages of UHD for 3D viewing were acknowledged by the manufacturers. However, the manufacturers repeatedly cited 2D picture quality—especially upscaled 1080p 2D content—as the primary driver of UHD TV sales. It will be interesting to see if this attitude persists when Avatar 2 hits theaters.
After the conclusion of a Q&A session with the "Displays: The Face of Ultra HD in the Home" panel, conference chair Geoff Tully moderated a discussion titled "Understanding Ultra HD: Not just Bigger; It's Better," featuring Joe Kane, CEO of Joe Kane Productions; Pete Lude, Digital Imaging Consultant; and Larry Thorpe, Senior Fellow – Imaging Technologies and Communications at Canon.
Joe Kane is a man who spends considerable time and effort pushing the industry forward, and his comments highlighted a major theme of the day—that UHD is about much more than raw pixel count. He seized the moment to espouse the need for higher bitrates, bit depths, and frame rates, a larger color gamut, high dynamic-range capabilities, and standards to make sure it all works. His message: If there is an opportunity to establish new standards and move forward, then everything should be on the table—especially a move to abandon legacy fractional frame rates and adopt high bit depths. Kane even discussed the potential for 16-bit high dynamic range (HDR) video in Ultra HD. That is something I would personally love to see.Joe Kane pleads his case for a new UHD TV system.
Next up at the conference was a discussion of Technicolor's involvement in UHD, namely a new certification process for content upscalers. It was clear by this point that the major-brand TV makers are interested in differentiating their premium products from lower-priced competitors. Technicolor provides a means to do that by certifying the performance characteristics of a manufacturer's upscaling solution, thus guaranteeing it meets a minimum performance standard—capable of delivering the exceptional image quality that UHD TV makers are touting.
After the Technicolor presentation, Scott Wilkinson took the stage once again to discuss SMPTE standards with Bill Miller—Principal, Miltag Media Technology and a SMPTE Fellow. The discussion centered on what it takes to deliver UHD into the home, and the current ecosystem for UHD content delivery. The main message: UHD TV is "becoming real," and the focus is on the future. Miller reiterated the need for higher frame rates, a wider color gamut, and a system that possesses adequate bandwidth for delivering that content—including the use of "mezzanine compression" to enable UHD TV in the existing production infrastructure. The discussion was highly technical, but informative.
The last panel discussion of the day was moderated by Geoffrey Tully. The title: "Okay – I got my Ultra HD TV; What Else am I Going to Have to Buy?" The panelists included Rey Roque, Vice President, Marketing, Westinghouse Digital; Jason Clement, Dir. and GM of Engineering, Sony Electronics; and Kirk Barker, Senior Vice President of Development and Strategy, Technicolor. Ultimately, there is no right answer that question. A topic that did come up was rapid obsolescence. The real question in the back of many people's minds is, "Now that I bought an Ultra HD TV, will I have to buy another one in the near future because my first-generation model will be rendered obsolete by new standards?"
Robert Zohn of Value Electronics asked the panel a question along those lines, seeking assurance for his customers that there is an upgrade path for first-generation UHD TVs. Jason Clement offered an anecdotal tale about the Sony UHD TV he recently purchased. Clement said he discussed the subject with Sony engineers, and he felt confident that his new television would not be obsolete five years from now. Unfortunately, he offered no details about what that upgrade path would be. To my knowledge, at present, only Samsung offers a viable solution that promises compatibility with future standards.
The ultra HD conference ended with a presentation by Jamie Rhind, Associate Publisher of Sales and Marketing for Robb Report. Probably the most informative piece of data was that millionaires represent half of the entire market for luxury goods, with the "rising middle class" and "aspirational masses" making up the other half. However, the middle class and the aspirational masses add up to 400 million people, while the millionaire market consists of a mere 10 million people. For the millionaire market, the costs involved with adopting UHD TV are not the primary barrier to adoption—the primary barrier is a lack of content.
Which brings us back to the chicken-and-egg problem, the case for upscaling and certification, and new standards—all issues I've seen discussed on AVS Forum by concerned members. If there is anything I got out of the CE Week conference, it's that all these issues are on the radar of all the major television manufacturers and the standards organizations that work with them to implement a system that works for consumers. Organizing and coordinating the rollout of a new system for delivering video content is a tremendously complex task, and it was rather enlightening to gain such an inside perspective into all of the issues involved.Follow AVS Forum on Twitter