Sony, Panasonic, NHK Form 8K Consortium

According to a recent article on the Nikkei Asian Review website, Sony and Panasonic have joined Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, in a consortium to develop 8K technology in the next few years. As you might already know, NHK shot some of the 2016 Olympic games in 8K—about 100 hours—and beamed that footage to public-viewing screens in Japan. It was also downconverted to 4K and made available elsewhere via satellite and streaming.

NHK says it will begin regular 8K transmissions in 2018, and Sony is planning to have 8K TVs on the market in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. A chipset developer called Socionext—formed in a merger of the chip divisions of Fujistu and Panasonic—will help create the processors necessary for 8K content. As you might expect, NHK will oversee development of the required broadcast standards, while all members of the consortium will work on data compression and even audio technology; I suspect that NHK’s long-demonstrated 22.2-channel system could be part of the equation.

The Nikkei article asserts that the consortium will include only Japanese companies in an effort to reclaim that country’s dominance in consumer electronics. Last year, Sony and Sharp were the only Japan-based companies among the top 10 TV makers by sales, and Sony and Panasonic hope that 8K TVs will help turn that tide around.

I’m not so sure about that. For one thing, 4K is just getting started, and it has a long way to go before it matures. Plus, 8K (7680×4320) has four times the pixel count of 4K (3840×2160), which means the data compression must be way more efficient than today’s HEVC/H.265. And if you think there’s little native 4K content available now—which is true—it’s positively voluminous compared with 8K and will likely remain so, at least for a while. There are cameras that can capture 8K, but they are very expensive, and most content creators are unlikely to invest in them, especially if they’ve just upgraded their cameras to 4K. Then there’s the production and post-production infrastructure, which is only now starting to accommodate 4K.

But the main reason I think 8K isn’t all that important has to do with human perception. After all, 4K exceeds the human visual system’s ability to resolve that much detail at normal seating distances from normal-sized displays in the home. To put this in perspective, the optimum seating distance from a 70″ display—the distance at which most people with normal vision can see all the detail in the image without seeing individual pixels—is 10 feet for HD/1080p, 5 feet for 4K/UHD, and 2.5 feet for 8K. Would you want to sit 2.5 feet from a 70″ display? I sure wouldn’t.

Of course, higher resolution makes more sense with larger screen sizes. But at 8K, you need a really big screen—that is, a commercial cinema-sized screen—to take full advantage of that much resolution, and few people can afford something like that. While the prices of 4K displays up to 65″ are falling like stones, much larger screens are still very expensive, and 8K screens that big will be even pricier—the one 8K flat panel available today is the Sharp LV-85001 85-incher for $133,000!

So don’t worry that the new 4K display you just bought will soon be obsolete—it won’t, at least not in terms of resolution. High dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut (WCG) are a different story, since they are still a moving target, and each year’s displays have different capabilities in that regard. As I’ve said many times, HDR and WCG are much more important than resolution in the quest to improve picture quality, and we already have those attributes in many 4K displays today, so I see no need to move to 8K.

In my view, the headlong rush toward 8K is ill-advised right now. It will only add to consumer confusion, which is already high with 4K/UHD. And it might even slow sales of 4K TVs as people decide to wait for 8K. Finally, the importance of terrestrial over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting is waning as people turn more and more to online streaming, so it seems a bit silly to invest heavily in the old paradigm. (On the other hand, can you imagine what 8K streaming might look like, even with enough online bandwidth—say, 100 Mbps—to support it?)

Other than ginormous public-viewing screens for big global events like the Olympics, the only real benefit of 8K is capturing images at a higher resolution than the content will eventually exhibit when it’s viewed at home. As with other digital media, downsampling from a high resolution to a lower one usually offers better results than capturing at the final resolution to start with.

Of course, there’s no stopping technological progress, which continues to accelerate at an ever-increasing pace. And Japanese technocrats are among the most driven in the world, so the announcement of a Sony/Panasonic/NHK 8K consortium makes some sense from that perspective. But I think the effort would be better expended in helping to nail down worldwide standards for HDR and WCG in 4K.