High Definition (HD) and Full HD TV have already invaded our living rooms. Now Ultra High Definition (UHD) screens are selling even faster, according to a report by Business Insider (BI) Intelligence. Meanwhile Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are wasting no time in creating content for this new format.

UHD: Content Needs to Catch Up with Screen Technology

While electronic equipment analysts are still debating whether 4K Ultra HD – usually referred to simply as 4K – actually improves picture quality all that much, consumers appear to have voted with their wallets. Sales are booming: between February and March this year, shipments of 4K-capable television sets rose from 384,000 to over a million. Moreover, a report by BI Intelligence, the market research arm of New York-based business and technology news website Business Insider, forecasts that sales will grow at an even faster rate in the coming years and predicts that 4K TVs will be in 50% of all North American households within a mere 10 years. However, although the new 4K standard for TV picture quality has four times the pixel density of standard HD, up to now the price has put it beyond the reach of most potential consumers. Meanwhile though, in the two years they have been around, the average selling price for 4K TVs has dropped by a record 86% worldwide. Previous types of HD screen have taken ten years for prices to fall so far and this has a lot to do with the recent surge in popularity. Nevertheless, while this advanced technology is becoming available in homes all over the globe, for a number of reasons 4K still suffers from a shortage of available content.

Competition in UHD content hotting up

In this new market, video on demand (VOD) providers have been the first to react. Almost all of them are now developing programmes for the new format with a view to getting a head start in the new 4K market. In June, Netflix announced that it was offering the entire Breaking Bad series in Ultra HD. Amazon Instant and YouTube are also launching into this market, although the traditional television channels seem to be lagging far behind. In France, only a few test series have been launched on the TNT (digital terrestrial) network, but none of the major channels has yet gone for distributing programmes in UHD format. The main obstacle for the major channels is that pictures of such high quality are very data heavy. Jean-Michel Huet from Amsterdam-based multinational management and technology consulting firm Bearing Point asks: “Are producers ready to invest in such technology?” He believes that providers will only move to bring all broadcast content up to date when viewers start to compare the new with the old. Those who have seen a film in UHD will probably be rather disappointed when they next watch a broadcast in standard HD. However, adapting all content looks set to pose real problems.

Overcoming broadband constraints

Direct broadcasting requires new technology which is capable of transmitting a flow of very ‘heavy’ images. Stuart Walker, a Professor at the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex in the UK, points out that “this type of live streaming involves a huge amount of raw data, equivalent to about 63,000 phone calls being made all at once.” His team managed to live stream across the globe in 4K the University’s graduation ceremonies earlier this year via the Internet by adapting off-the-shelf video compression equipment. While experts reckon that you need broadband speeds of 15 Mbits per second – or even 25Mbps according to Netflix – to live-stream 4K, the Essex University team claim they were able to compress the ultra-high definition image so it could be live-streamed at just 8 Mbps via ordinary broadband connections, without loss of quality and in real time.  In yet another illustration of the profound changes going on in the world of television, the emergence of UHD is now crucially tilting the balance in favour of VOD players. But the market is definitely worth fighting for: while both TV functionality and the content it can deliver are undergoing far-reaching change, the TV set remains audiences’ favourite viewing channel.

By Guillaume Scifo