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The Business of 4K Displays
By Michael Goldman  

As NAB 2014 approaches, the broadcast industry's march into the world of 4K Ultra High Definition (UHDTV) understandably lies at the heart of many trend conversations about where the next generation of display monitors are heading. As SMPTE Newswatch reported in the October 2013 issue, both the technology and standards' work for UHDTV is moving along at a relatively fast clip, and hardware manufacturers are already well into their rollout of the first generation of UHD televisions. At the same time, however, questions permeate those conversations about how rapidly broadcasters can convert their infrastructures for UHD, create meaningful 4K content to distribute widely, and whether UHDTV will, at the end of the day, catch on with consumers any faster or more permanently than 3D or Smart TV technology did.  

From Pete Putman's perspective, "there is a meaningful substance to the industry's changeover to 4K." Putman is referring to how UHDTV will roll out to consumers and, eventually, become entrenched as the next rung in the broadcasting ladder in a way that is qualitatively different and separate from how 3D and Smart TV's impacted the industry. Putman is a well-known broadcast industry analyst, display technology expert, and frequent participant in SMPTE educational events. The reason, he suggests, that UHDTV represents a permanent change to the broadcasting landscape is the convergence of many different trends not directly related to one another, but all happening at the same time-technology changes evolving in concert with economic shifts in the parallel universe of consumer electronics.

That parallel universe is a place that Putman suggests many in the technology and standards community often fail to understand, even though it is providing much of the momentum for the transition to UHDTV.

"I often speak about the 4K universe from the other side of the screen--the consumer side," Putman states. "In the SMPTE world, we often drill down on the technical details, but don't always pay as much attention to what is happening in the consumer world. So I like to talk about what is happening with consumer televisions--interfaces, backlighting technologies, color technologies, and other things. But there is a lot more going on, like LCD fabrication yields, signal transport from point A to point B, video compression, HDMI and DisplayPort, SDI, all those things. It is really becoming about how you make the infrastructure work."

"There are a half-dozen things happening at the same time, not necessarily in the same room, but they are happening coincidentally with the move to 4K, and that is why the 4K ecosystem is moving ahead."

On the manufacturing side, Putman says, quite simply, display manufacturers are pushing ahead with the production and distribution of UHD LCD panels for televisions because of economic changes in that industry--it makes more sense for them to produce 4K panels than low-margin 2K panels. Therefore, irrespective of the state of the broadcasting industry's infrastructure or 4K content creation plans, 4K consumer monitors are, in fact, inevitable. Along the way, that means the HD and 2K viewing experience is going to logically improve until a true 4K home-viewing experience becomes feasible. 

"TV sales and shipments worldwide have been declining slowly but steadily since 2011, and concurrent with that, you have excess fabrication capacity to make LCD glass in TV's," Putman explains. "Plasma technology is fading away and OLED TVs are still difficult and expensive to manufacture. So two things have happened--the wholesale prices of 2K panels have dropped so much that there is not a lot of profit in them, and in fact, in some cases, manufacturers are losing money making 2K glass. Second, the Chinese have gotten into this in a big way. Until late last year, they had the only market in the world where there was any growth in TV sales--double-digit growth at times. That meant they could be aggressive about pricing 4K TV's, and since it is hardly profitable to make 2K panels anymore, they are increasingly emphasizing 4K panel manufacturing. Today, the majority of LCD televisions, except really small ones, are all 1080p resolution, so there is little to no profit in that business unless you are a Chinese or Taiwanese manufacturer. But they are saying, let's concentrate more on 4K panels because the incremental additional cost of making a 4K panel is not much more than a 2K panel, and they can justify charging more for a 4K panel. So they are concentrating on 4K, and this thinking is permeating into the Korean companies, while the Japanese companies that remain are starting to realize this also, even though several of them will get out of the television business eventually. The upshot is that by the end of the decade, if you buy a large TV, it will use a 4K panel whether you want 4K or not--that is the only glass they are going to manufacture, simply because there is no money anymore in 2K glass for them. To a large degree, it is a manufacturing decision that is driving the move to 4K."

Next, Putman adds, the industry has some "very exciting new technology innovations going on that have breathed new life into LCD technology." These innovations, he suggests, will fold together nicely with the new 4K panels to further revolutionize the next generation of display technologies. In particular, he is excited about the potential of quantum dot backlighting technology and Sharp's IGZO thin-film transistor technology for faster pixel switching in LCD displays, among other things.

IGZO technology replaces silicon TFTs with a compound comprised of indium, gallium, and zinc oxide that Putman says permits faster pixel switching and brighter images in LCD displays, using smaller transistors that consume less power. The pixel density of 4K displays means more light has to be pumped through to maintain brightness levels, and so Putman feels the IGZO approach provides an important power-saving counterweight to that requirement.  

Quantum dots are a nanocrystal-based semiconductor technology that, when bombarded with high-energy photons, emit narrow bandwidths of colored light. Putman says major manufacturers of LCD displays are building them into backlight systems in order "to give you a much higher dynamic range so that you can have really bright colors that remain saturated and don't wash out, sort of like an inorganic version of OLED's. The color is stable, and they don't drift. It's a major innovation." You can learn more about quantum dot technology from the three major manufacturers of such systems--Nanoco, Nanosys, and QD-Vision.

Other industry developments include higher frame rates for display, lower power consumption, and compression breakthroughs made possible with the new HEVCand Google VP9 codecs. Add in pending developments where standards are still being hammered out or technical issues are still being finalized, such as interface issues involving DisplayPort, SDI, and HDMI, and Putman suggests an almost perfect storm of advances are coming together that will sustain, support, improve, and push forward the economic reality of 4K flat-panel development.  

"It's like a highway under construction, and it is inevitable," Putman says. "A couple sections are still missing or being updated such as HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.3, and streaming. But as far as making large 4K panels at reasonable prices goes--that is done. Moving to new backlight technologies--that is done. Achieving greater dynamic range--that is done. Being able to switch pixels faster and reduce power consumption--that is done. Then, you throw in additional things like higher frame rates. SMPTE is finishing the standards for HFR all the way to 120Hz. People are even talking about how autostereo imaging works better on a 4K TV because you get more resolution for each stereo view. So you can make the argument that the move to UHDTV isn't a gimmick; it's not just about more pixels on the screen--it is a totally different TV system than we have had before. It is no longer about simply focusing on the displays. You have to look at all the different things that are eventually coming together to make the next generation of television."

Another byproduct in all this, Putman adds, is that 4K acquisition and post have greatly enhanced current 2K image processing and viewing experiences. Therefore, ironically, 2K broadcasting continues to improve even as hardware manufacturers thrust ahead to build a world where 4K displays are the standard.

The better the hardware and the ecosystem surrounding it, Putman postulates, the better the content viewing experience, regardless of what resolution that content was created in, processed in, or distributed in. In other words, the "4K revolution" is, to Putman's mind, about an improved image experience all around, irrespective of whether or not the content itself is actually 4K content.

"Everybody [talks about being able to broadcast or stream 4K content], but [new compression schemes] are just as valuable for moving any other content by reducing file sizes to a point where, with H.265, based on demos I've seen, we will be streaming 2K video at bit rates that would barely allow us to stream standard def just ten years ago," he says. "That is an amazing jump. H.265 allows you to really pack down a signal. All of a sudden, the bit rate you need to do high-quality 2K today has been cut maybe by 50%. So now, if you have people at home trying to stream HD and having problems with it because of bandwidth limitations, suddenly, they won't be having these problems anymore because of H.265. So having a quantum leap in video compression technology is a vital part of this whole shift also."

Still, with all these factors at play, driving the evolution of display technology in the near future, the question does come up: what about the distant future? Will the industry see a need to push past 4K and into 8K, or will that be considered little more than a science experiment for the foreseeable future?

Putman's mantra about such things is "Never say never. I'm not going to presume we have hit the ceiling."

"After all, at one time, LCD glass was stuck at standard-definition video resolution. Then, it became quarter HD. Then it became 720p, then 1080p, and now, it is 4K. So we have to assume that will continue, and eventually we will find a way to make 8K feasible. The minute you say nothing will change, nothing more can be invented, you are immediately proven wrong. It's all a matter of economies of scale. If consumers want something, and the prices are affordable, they will buy it, and so, the industry will find a way to give it to them. The overriding lesson is that all this stuff is becoming commoditized."

The radical evolution of consumer display monitors has even led some in the post-production industry to "start finding their own solutions," using high-end consumer monitors for professional reference monitoring applications, Putman points out. Again, this is largely a matter of quality versus economics, with image quality of some consumer monitors trending close enough to professional capabilities in enough categories to justify their use. Putman suggests this is part of the overall industry trend toward software and bandwidth being key driving issues in certain circumstances, rather than hardware.

"That is a saying I have been using recently--hardware is cheap and anybody can make it," he says. "Televisions are proving that, camcorders are proving that, point-and-shoot cameras. The Chinese are showing this with 4K TV's. Bandwidth is what will matter. The focus will be on software and services--these are the areas where the money will be. You will see that clearly at NAB. So, when we talk about displays, we aren't really talking about hardware alone anymore--we are talking about the entire infrastructure, an entire system."

News Briefs

Optical Disc Archiving
An interesting recent trend piece on the TV Technology site by Michael Grotticelli suggests that broadcast entities with large video archives may be moving in the direction of evolving their long-term storage media choices away from Linear Tape-Open (LTO) data tape, and toward dual- and triple-layered optical disc technology instead. The article says that although optical disc remains more expensive than LTO for the time being, it has improved to the point of having a shelf life of up to 50 years, reducing the time and expense of an unending archive migration cycle. The concept is not just a theoretical prediction-the article says the Golf Channel recently went online with an Optical Disc Archive (ODA) from Sony at its Orlando facility, utilizing dozens of data cartridges, with each capable of holding 12 1.5 TB data discs. This makes the Golf Channel the first major TV network in the world to adopt an ODA solution on a massive scale for archiving requirements. The article further states that the system is designed so that each cartridge can be read as one file instead of 12 separate discs.

Wraparound Screen
Former RED camera company guru Ted Schilowitz is back in the technology headlines, as a consultant for projector manufacturer Barco promoting an immersive, wraparound cinema-viewing screen he is calling Escape-a technology Schilowitz says Barco was slated to demonstrate at CinemaCon at the end of March. Using the title "cinemaVangelist" on behalf of Barco, Schilowitz recently told Variety's David Cohen that the wraparound screen concept involves adding additional screens on both sides of the theater, extending all the way to the back wall, with a pair of front-of-house projectors sending synchronized imagery to them, surrounding viewers on three sides with the cinematic experience. Schilowitz emphasizes that the goal is to put such screens into standard multiplex theaters, rather than theme parks or museums, as has been done in the past. And that is not all the evangelizing Schilowitz is doing these days. According to the Hollywood Reporter, he is also serving as president of Silverdraft, which offers mobile supercomputing technology for visual effects, animation, and post-production applications, and continues consulting for 20th Century Fox.

Live Streaming Big in Business
Although the big live video streaming headlines are usually about its entertainment value and how it is changing home viewing experiences, streaming technology may be having its biggest impact as a business communication tool, according to new research from Ustream and Wainhouse Research. That research comes in the form of the Wainhouse Research Enterprise Web Communications Survey-an online survey of 1,007 corporate executives conducted in the fourth quarter of 2013, which you can download here. The report states that 70% of the respondents said they use live video streaming regularly for business meetings and communications, while 20% said they use live streaming video in the workplace on a daily basis. The use of live streaming video, in fact, ranked higher than the use of social media, viewing recorded videos on YouTube, participating in audio-only conferences, and so forth, according to the report. Interestingly, the report says that IT, human resources, engineering professionals, and top executives use streaming video most of all, while sales and marketing professionals use it least of all. Here is an analysis of the survey from the Online Video Marketing Guide Web site.