CES: 4K Gets Ready for Its Close-up


4K Ultra HD represents an increase in TV resolution that is four times higher than conventional high definition (HD) television. So far, a lack of content, adequate networks and affordable TV sets have curtailed the market. But, developments at CES 2015 illustrated the ascendancy of 4K Ultra HD technology in the TV ecosystem is not too far off.

Consider: Samsung took the wraps off of the UHD Alliance at CES 2015—an industry group dedicated to establishing new standards to support innovation in video technologies including 4K and higher resolutions, high dynamic range, wider color range and immersive 3D audio.

Alliance members represent a range of industry stakeholders that aim to drive more uptake and availability for 4K. These include DIRECTV, Dolby, LG Electronics, Netflix, Panasonic Corporation, Sharp Corporation, Sony Visual Product, Technicolor, The Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros Entertainment.

"It is great to see such positive progress for 4K UHD as the 4K value chain collaborates to improve and enhance the consumer experience in purchasing and viewing next-gen video entertainment," said Brian Markwalter, CEA senior vice president for Research and Standards. "Close co-ordination among key stakeholders will be a key to 4K Ultra HD's long-term success. CEA looks forward to working closely with this new coalition and with all engaged in creating standards for this exciting new technology by leveraging CEA's vast experience and expertise in standards development."

Viewing Behavior

When it comes to content, multiscreen, streaming fare is likely to be the first 4K content that’s available. Netflix for instance has been a first-mover, and is partnering to extend its reach: Roku at CES said that it’s partnering with Netflix on 4K Ultra HD streaming for future Roku TV models.

And, interestingly, Sony at CES unveiled its latest BRAVIA 4K Ultra HD TVs, with support for Google’s Android TV.

As the younger generation makes its way into the marketplace, it’s clear that this kind of streaming availability for 4K will drive uptake. According to the second NATPE|Content First and CEA research study on consumers' attitudes toward television viewing, just 55 percent of millennials now use TVs as their primary viewing platform. Streaming devices – laptops, tablets and smartphones – are poised to dominate their viewing preferences.

While the television continues to provide the best quality picture and viewing experience, the way content is being discovered and consumed is changing dramatically, especially for millennials.

"Our study confirms that the paradigm for TV content discovery has changed dramatically with increased availability and use of TV content streaming options," said NATPE president and CEO Rod Perth. "With more than seven in ten viewers in broadband households having streamed full-length TV programs in the past six months, there are opportunities for networks and content producers to reach and build audiences."

In fact, the millennial demographic group ( 13-34) is comfortable using many different sources of TV content and consequently are significantly more likely to consume full-length TV shows from a streaming source (84 percent streamed in the past six months) than live TV programming at its original air time (54 percent), or recorded content from a DVR (33 percent).

"While the vast majority of consumers continue to watch television programming on their TV, many consumers, particularly millennials, increasingly are turning to a variety of devices to view their TV content," said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro. "This has profound implications for the way CE manufacturers market their products as they try to reach diverse markets."

4K ‘Readiness’ Grows

This thirst for streaming must of course impact network upgrades—critical to adequately support the streaming of 4K/Ultra HD video content has increased globally according to Akamai Technologies' Third Quarter 2014 State of the Internet Report.

For the second consecutive quarter, the global average connection speed remained above the 4Mbps “broadband” threshold; however it saw a slight decline in the third quarter of 2014, dropping 2.8 percent to 4.5Mbps. Even so, the report found that six of the top 10 countries saw increases in global average connection speeds, and all of the top 10 remained well above the 10Mbps 'high broadband' threshold.

"One need only look to the sheer number of connected device- and smart home-related announcements that came out of the 2015 International CES to see that consumers are continuing to adopt and expect more from connected technology and services," said David Belson, editor of the report. "The strong year-over-year growth trends illustrated in this quarter's report shows that the Internet is evolving and expanding to meet the growing demands of our increasingly connected lifestyles."

The report also found that as a consequence, 52 countries/regions qualify as '4K-ready' for the quarter, and 12 percent of the global connections were at or above the 15Mbps threshold necessary to sustain 4K Ultra HD streaming. While down 2.8 percent quarter-over-quarter, readiness increased 32 percent year-over-year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, South Korea remained the country with the highest level of 4K readiness, with two-thirds of its connections to Akamai at or above 15Mbps.

New Screens

The Akamai report doesn’t take into account other readiness factors for Ultra HD uptake, including availability of 4K-encoded content or 4K-capable televisions and media players. Interestingly, CES also provided a view into the latter, showcasing the next face of HDTVs.

Overall, the U.S. Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) expects a whopping 208 percent year-on-year growth for 4K displays in 2015 to reach four million units. As many as a third of U.S. consumers may purchase a 4K/Ultra HD set within the next three years.

"4K Ultra HD is our future, and the future is now," said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro. "Consumers recognize that 4K Ultra HD is the next step forward in a long line of outstanding high-definition televisions and displays. With new next-gen technologies and features being added by manufacturers that help improve the already outstanding picture quality and viewing experience, 4K Ultra HD is set to become the next great success story in television technology."

To wit: Growing demand for Ultra HD will drive shipments of next-gen quantum dot-based LCD TVs over the next three years, according to analyst firm DisplaySearch.

The TV sets are just starting to appear in the market this year, and DisplaySearch calculates shipments to grow significantly, from 1.3 million in 2015 to 18.7 million in 2018—primarily thanks to Ultra HD uptake in 2016, when content availability is expected to hit the mainstream.

DisplaySearch regards quantum dot as part of the LCD industry's response to the challenge posed by OLED technology.

"While LCD technology undisputedly dominates the TV scene, manufacturers continue to innovate, in order to bring additional value to consumers," said Paul Gray, director of European research at DisplaySearch. "The launch of new 4K/Ultra HD services promises to foment another round of innovation, as content creators bring richer, deeper colors to their art."

Meanwhile, curved screens, which were the top story of CES on the TV front last year, are now seen as offering limited opportunity for growth. DisplaySearch expects the market for the form factor to peak at 8.2 million in 2016.

Manufacturers continue to see dominance in the market; Sony’s new 4K series features a new ultra-thin floating style, making it Sony's thinnest TVs yet with almost edge-to-edge viewing. They range in size from 43" to 75" and have a built-in upscaling algorithm that will analyze and upscale 4K resolution, providing the best image quality regardless of the image source.

"With content being sourced from broadcast, Blu-ray, DVDs or even low-resolution Internet videos, we designed these televisions to upscale to 4K resolution so that consumers can get the highest level viewing experience possible," said Toshifumi Okuda, Sony Electronics deputy president. "Sony's reputation for developing the best picture quality continues with these new products that provide consumers with greater access to what they want to watch, play and hear."

And, global TV manufacturer TCL, which released the TCL Roku TVs last year, is an initial partner to build 4K models for Roku. Roku has also prepared a Roku TV reference design for 4K smart TVs for license to TV OEM partners.

"With the maturation of 4K, including the dramatic price reductions of 4K TVs, the growing amount of 4K content available for streaming and the increased consumer awareness of the benefits of 4K, the time is right for Roku to offer Roku TV 4K solutions to global TV OEMs," said Roku CEO Anthony Wood. "We are very bullish on 4K as we believe that streaming will be instrumental in its adoption. Bringing 4K to the Roku platform will give consumers even more choice and control of their entertainment viewing, and deliver the best streaming experience available."

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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