It seems like only yesterday that I breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the HD content wars. Blu-ray had won and I could safely start building my HD media library. With players under $100, it’s safe to say Blu-ray is now mainstream, but current TV’s and projectors can display content that is not supported by Blu-ray. Good examples of display technology include wide-gamut TV’s and 4K displays, projectors and AV receivers. In addition, directors such as James Cameron are starting to film at 48 and 60 frames per second, which Blu-ray can’t support above 720p.
Current Blu-ray discs can support 25GB per layer, so today’s crop of players, which support dual layer have a capacity limit of 50MB. The actual amount of video that can be stored on a dual layer disc depends on the number and type of soundtracks, amount of bonus material, and encoding. For our purposes, we’ll assume a maximum of 3hours.
Limitations of Current Blu-ray
The two main content limitations of Blu-ray are color space and resolution. On the color space front, all content is produced to Rec.709 standard. This is largely based on the NTSC standard from the 1950’s. In contrast, digital content for theaters is authored to DCI P3: a much large color gamut and much better suited to today’s display technologies (Plasma, backlit LCD, OLED, etc.) (For more detailed information on color gamut, see previous article: Divergence of Content and Display Technology.)
The much bigger issue is one of pixel count. The current Blu-ray disk does not have sufficient capacity to hold a feature length movie at 4K. At 4 times the pixel count of 1080P, a 4K movie with bonus material and uncompressed audio will require over 100GB (assuming we stick with 24fps). So one of the following is required:
- Use of multiple disks
- A new, higher capacity disk format
- Better encoding/compression
- An alternative to optical disk
This option is barely worth discussing. I accidentally bought “A Time to Kill” on a 2-disc set. Boy, was I irked when I had to change the disc halfway through the movie. Unless the consumer electronics industry can create a dual drive system that seamlessly splices the end of one disk into the start of the next (like a traditional projectionist would do with film), it would never take off.
Higher Capacity Disks
The Blu-ray Disc format was designed to be extendable, with support for multi-layer discs. This should allow the capacity to be increased in the future simply by adding more layers to the discs. Another alternative is to use physically larger discs. So capacity problems can be somewhat easily overcome, but the bitrate cannot. The name Blu-ray comes from the blue-violet laser with a wavelength of 400nm. Using such a laser at 12x speed results in a maximum bit rate of 432 megabits per second or 54 megabytes per second. Achieving higher bit rates with a single laser and two layers requires one of two things: a shorter wavelength or higher speed. Both are achievable, but not at acceptable cost. Whichever route is chose, a new player design is required.
Several vendors, including TDK, Pioneer and Panasonic claim to be able to produce 320GB, 400GB and 500GB Blu-ray discs. The problem is that today’s hardware cannot play them. We all know what happens when a technology reaches the end of its life, several competing technologies emerge and duke it out for several years (VHS vs. Betamax; HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray; etc.). Hopefully, the somewhat future-proof design of Blu-ray will prevent this.
Sony will be pushing 4K Blu-ray very hard, as they need the licensing and royalties to make up for massive losses in their TV divisions. There’s no doubt that there will be a few titles released as showcases, but that, unfortunately does not equate to a standard or mainstream product (as we saw with Laser Disc, Betamax, HD-DVD, etc.)
If the current Blu-ray disc format is to be used for 4K, the only solution is better encoding. The two main contenders here are H.265 (HVEC) and Red’s Wavelet compression. Some speculate that a 4K movie could just about be shoe-horned into a 50GB DL Blu-ray, but I have my doubts. The encoding required would make the quality questionable. Regardless of the type of disc, new players would still be required due to the horsepower required for decoding.
An Alternative to Optical Disk
If we assume that a mass production 4K optical disc will not materialize, how do we get content? It’s unlikely that manufacturers will provide any kind of pre-loaded solid state disk. In comparison to pressed optical media, solid state disks are much more expensive to manufacture and take considerably longer to load content, which equates to an even higher manufacturing cost. Even if we made the radical assumption that the cost of the memory chips dropped dramatically, the manufacturing process would make the cost significantly higher than pressed optical disks (probably in the order of 20x).
Holographic Versatile Disc is another option. Originally developed in the mid-2000’s, it has the ability to store several terabytes on a 10cm disc. ECMA published a standard for a 100GB read-only disc on 2007, but no commercial products were ever manufactured.
The last option is to deliver 4K content via removable media or “electronic delivery” (not necessarily streaming per se). I can’t see the consumer electronics industry tooling up for a niche market disc format. That said they did it before with Laser disc: hopefully, they learned their lesson. If such a format did appear, it’s unlikely I’d invest without the backing of all major studios and guaranteed release of all major titles in the new format. I don’t care about having to ditch a player after a few years. What I do care about is having content that I can’t play in a few years: I don’t like buying content twice. Case in point: I only own one edition of Star Wars.
Electronic delivery could be an option. Bandwidth to the home is increasing and there are distribution technologies that cache popular content so that it only streams to the home over a local connection instead of from a single data-farm. (Akamai is a good example.) I have one of the original VuDu boxes and love it. Even though it can stream 1080P with a 6mbps connection, I plan ahead a bit, download a full HDX movie and watch without having to worry about network congestion. In contrast, my 1080P AppleTV, regularly stalls well into the movie, even with a 25Mbps download speed. Dish Network are also now beginning to cache popular movies on subscriber’s set-top boxes, so that when they buy them there is no delay waiting for downloads and weather won’t affect the quality.
The other alternative to steaming is some kind of rewritable media. Today 100GB is still pretty expensive (around $1/GB for a flash/SD), so there’s no way these will be given away with a $20-30 movie. Obviously prices will continue to decrease, but what can be done in the meantime? One option is to have the consumer purchase the media and take it to the store or the “Blu-box” machine to load a new movie. (Even USB 3.0 flash drives are slow and copying 100GB is likely to take a while—my brand new Core i7/USB3.0 laptop only gets about 22MBs to a USB 3.0 stick, so we’re talking over an hour to copy 100GB). An alternative model may be that of the propane tank: you simply buy the media once and exchange it when you rent a new movie. This would mean the retailer would have to have a considerable inventory of pre-loaded content on hand. Obviously, there would also need to be some check that the disk you returned was still usable (disk checks are pretty quick) and viruses would be a concern. Finally, Hollywoood isn’t going to let me walk out of Blockbuster with commercial movie theater grade content on a flash drive. So there’d be some ridiculously complicated, yet to be developed, protection mechanism. Project Phenix is heading in the right direction, but for some bizarre reason the resolution is capped at 1080P.
As far as the player goes, once again Red seems to be forging the path here with its upcoming Redray player. They already have a commercial player and their consumer version is slated to sell for about $1,000 later this year.
It’s a lot compared to a Blu-ray player, but the target demographic will be more than willing to spend that. I know I would.
This brings us to the biggest stumbling block of all, in my opinion…content
Content Where For Art Thou?
Clearly content is King. Without content, there is no point in having a player.
The cost of production is probably one of the single biggest barriers to 4K. Unfortunately, what we tend to read in the press is, more often than not, along the lines of James Cameron shooting 8K 60fps in 3D and how this is the future. The reality is that the majority of directors and producers don’t have James Cameron’s war chest and gadgetry. They have to scrape together enough money to produce a movie that uses mainstream technology. In a recent interview with film maker, and now projector maker, Justin Evans, I asked him if he was going to make a 4K projector. Here’s what he said:
We’re looking at 10-15 years before movies are distributed in 4K. It is entirely possible that mainstream movies will never be distributed in 4K. Why? Because it quadruples the price of visual effects work, it makes the job of a make-up artist damn-near impossible and it quadruples file sizes which quadruples storage space and requires even faster computers.
Take a movie like The Dark Knight Rises. That 200 million dollar budget would have to be 300 – 400 million. So, a guaranteed blockbuster has its profit margin diminished by 50%. How many studio executives do you know that what to have their profit margins slashed by half? And that’s on a hit film! What about a middling movie like Captain America? That 160 million dollar budget suddenly becomes 250 -300 million…just to accommodate 4K visual effects. Captain America barely broke even (after P&A) so with the escalated costs associated with 4K content it would have lost 150 million dollars. I don’t care how rich we think the studios are…they cannot afford to hemorrhage money like that.
And what middle aged actor wants every wrinkle, every blackhead, every age spot to perfectly resolve in 4K? Who wants their receding hairline photographed under an electron microscope? When an engineer looks at how easy it is to make a 4K projector system they geek out and think “Wow! We can do this!” However, it is irrelevant that the technology is possible if the supply chain doesn’t want to support it.
It would be the death of independent film. No indie film could afford to make a 4K movie. I shot my last feature film, A Lonely Place For Dying, on a Red One in 4K. We posted in 2K. I wouldn’t want to post in 4K. I’d lose the ability to recrop shots, effortlessly stabilize handheld shots and reduce noise in low-light situations all because the downsampling from 4K to 2K gives me tools that make my movies more professional. If we shoot in 4K and release in 4K we lose all of those advantages. The only way to get them back is to shoot in 6K or 8K…which to quote That Thing You Do “Now you’re talking gibberish.”
Let’s fantasize for a minute and assume that post-production 4K content is available. The planets then have to align for a new content delivery format to be agreed upon, and a supply chain to come together. Even if all that happens, HDMI’s HDCP exists because of content owners’ paranoia (in some cases justified) about content theft. The chance of the studios releasing 4K DCI P3 content (which is better than that delivered to most movie theaters today) seems pretty slim.
It pains me to say that I don’t see 4K content being available to the consumer in the next decade—at the earliest. Unless it’s Ridley Scott’s private screening room, I think we’re stuck with Blu-ray and 1080P (or upsampled 4K) for the foreseeable future.
The technical challenges can be overcome: it’s the business model that needs working out.
Many people compared Blu-ray with Laser Discs. In my opinion, this was a totally pointless comparison. Laser discs were considerably more expensive than VHS; there was obviously no backward compatibility between VHS tape and discs; but most importantly, there was virtually no content. In contrast, DVD to Blu-ray was a somewhat seamless transition: you simply bought a new player to replace the DVD player and plugged it in to your high definition display. It played everything in your existing library and as new content became available in the new format, you simply bought the Blu-ray version instead of the DVD. (We’ll happily gloss over issues with Profile 1.0 players.) If a 4K player offered backward compatibility with Blu-ray and DVD, it would be an easy sell as far as the player goes.
I would suggest that 4K vs. Blu-ray is a much more valid comparison to VHS vs. Laser Disc from the point of view of demand and cost of entry. It’s generally accepted that at normal viewing distances and a screen size of up to around 80”, the resolution of Blu-ray is perfectly acceptable. I bought my first HD TV in 1997 (and I wasn’t that much of an early adopter). 15 years later, still only 69% of US households have at least one HD TV. I bought my first Blu-ray player about four years ago—the day HD-DVD died. Players now cost under $100 and really good ones can be had for $200, but only 26% of US households own one. Even if content does become available, it means a new player and a new Ultra High Definition TV or Projector. That’s not a cheap proposition.
4K is definitely a niche market and will remain so for (at least) the next decade (assuming content is available), it will be limited to videophiles and very high-end home theaters. With 4K projectors and AV receivers already on the market, and 4K displays destined for consumer electronics stores this year, demand will increase, but not enough to warrant mass production.
Mark Anderson is Managing Editor of HomeToys.com and AVSystemsMag.com. He will be covering everything related to residential and commercial, AV, Automation and Digital Signage
He is is a long-time home theater enthusiast and lives on the bleeding edge of Home Automation.