Why 4K Matters, But Isn’t Worth the Hype, Yet
It seems everywhere you look in the industry today, you’re bombarded with something related to 4K resolution. Look over here. Attention: You’ve got to see this. Maybe it’s a channel you must watch, a service you’ve gotta have, or a television that is priced so low that you can’t afford not to try this revolutionary new technology.
Face it, we are all faced with 4K FOMO (fear of missing out). You’ve got to beat your neighbor, friend or drinking buddy in the footrace to 4K (also known as Ultra HD or UHD). Nothing is going to hold you back.
Make no mistake — 4K content is gorgeous. 4K content looks fantastic and will likely have you experiencing deja vu, remembering the first time you saw 1080p HD content. You want to rub your eyes, or at least blink a few times, as the level of detail and colors seem to leap from the screen. I’m a believer and self-admitted early adopter and own a 4K television myself. In my case, the adoption curve has made the HD channels on my DirecTV look poor. This happens when a channel is overcompressed a bit to save bandwidth to provide for other channels, yet you’re watching on a television capable of rendering 4x the pixels as your service provider is pushing. With 4K, it seems I’m not the only one in the proverbial pool. More consumers are buying in – research shows acceleration in 4K television purchases over the past 12 months, and these rates are expected to increase as prices drop. It doesn’t take a market analyst to predict that for 4K the future is bright, literally and figuratively.
A Gripe About Hype
My gripe today, in a Clint Eastwood “get off my lawn” Grand Torino sorta way is with the overhype many in the streaming business employ to position 4K as something that is happening right now (get it NOW or you’ll be left behind). This is pure marketing fodder, hyping the specification in the hopes that they win business by appearing to be ahead of everyone else, on the bleeding edge of technology. This is akin to using fool’s gold to mislead potential customers into thinking that 4K streaming is something they must invest in now.
And there is some truth to the notion, if you are in the market to buy a television or if you are a service provider with the need to deploy encoders to deliver 4K channels for your subscribers. For the uninitiated, this would be the DirecTVs, Verizons, Time Warners of the world who provide your channel lineups. They are adding infrastructure to process these new 4K channels they are delivering (or planning to) to their subscribers. But OTT or mobile streaming of 4K content? Unless you’re Netflix or Amazon, 4K isn’t a reality anytime soon in production or at scale. Here’s the why:
It’s More Expensive To Create And Deliver
4K is more expensive to create and deliver by orders of magnitude. The relative return on investment today just isn’t there. From a practical perspective, 4K streaming presents more business challenges than technical challenges today. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll need to improve on the technicalities and architectures through which 4K is created and delivered (and more on that in a second).
But let’s stop and talk technology briefly. If you look at data from the Top 10 ISPs in North America, the average Netflix stream is delivered at roughly 3.5 Mbps. This is sufficient and works well for HD streaming today. By comparison, the same content delivered as a 4K stream requires 15 Mbps of throughput. Even in today’s hyper-competitive content delivery network market, this means that the average streaming customer would see their streaming and storage budget increase by orders of magnitude.
At a time when many are still in the process of turning their streaming infrastructure from a cost center to a profit center utilizing things like dynamic ad insertion, increases in the overall cost model is generally something not up for consideration. This isn’t to say this is a proverbial brick wall and that streaming is a #never4K proposition, but it will take time for broad market adoption and availability.
It Takes More To Process
So while we’re talking about the cost to deliver 4K video, we can’t leave out the other expense with this content in both time and investment. 4K content costs more to process across the entire workflow. To shoot, edit, store, and encode/transcode video in 4K resolution is expensive – a great deal more than HD, as I’ve outlined earlier. Encoding by itself can take as much as six times longer to encode in 4K. Sure, these metrics will change over time as we get a better handle on how to process 4K, but today’s cost will be largely prohibitive for the majority of companies who would like to “kick the tires” of 4K.
The reality today is that only premium content owners can afford the cost in kicking said tires. In fact, Netflix charges more for it. Today’s business models just don’t support 4K workflows for many beyond the Netflixes, Amazons and a few others. It is the Louis Vuitton of streaming video at the moment.
What About HDR?
What will move the needle? As is usually the case in technology, an acronym may hold the keys to something innovative and market moving. Perhaps that neighbor or drinking buddy may have told you, 1080p video with HDR also looks amazing. What is HDR? High Dynamic Range expands the range of both contrast and color significantly. Adding more depth of color and contrast to HD provides for some beautiful content. In fact, in many side by side displays I’ve seen, 1080p video with HDR looks better than 4K.
As the second half of 2016 rolls on, expect to see more HDR in both televisions and perhaps in streaming offerings, as some seek a cost effective solution to show compelling content without the (for now) steep adoption cost of 4K content. Controversial comments, to be sure – but I maintain that we’ll see 4K content in its due time, sooner on the large TV screen and on other screens eventually.
Again, I’m a 4K believer; one of the reasons I love the video space is the constant pace of innovation, where we’re continually raising the bar and finding ways to make streaming exceed expectations. But I also believe in architecting and delivering solutions that are reliable, cost effective and innovative, without smoke and mirrors or vaporware.
Will 4K have a relevant seat at the streaming table? Yes – very likely. 4K as a strong addition to core video technology has more benefits and legs than the last great technology to come along, sending people scrambling to market themselves, their wares and push their customers to adopt. Remember 3D anyone? 4K holds more promise in its little finger than 3D had in its entire body, but mass market adoption of 4K streaming is still a few years out.
That’s not to say that if you are a programmer or service provider and want to ensure a smooth path toward the future of your streaming platform, you should ask your technology partners whether they can check the 4K box. But it is unrealistic and irresponsible to create or increase upon FOMO in the marketplace today with so much 4K marketing-speak. Like a good Guy Fieri burger on television, today’s 4K streaming marketing is a bit hyped up and over-the-top (pun intended). For now, I’ll take mine with all the fixins, but easy on the hot sauce and hype.
And then out of the blue, a quadruple kitchen sink burger shows up in the form of 8K content. We’ll handle that monstrosity next time.
-Written by the Anvato team, originally published by PBS MediaShift