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2K and 4K Televisions: Will Consumers Show an Interest?

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A quarter century ago, when I was in film school, cinema purists turned up their noses at the idea of shooting on anything without a celluloid base, going so far as to sneer at the idea of using “hobbyist” and “educational/industrial” formats such as 8mm and 16mm, respectively.
The concept of shooting on large-format celluloid had a level of sanity to it: Always shoot in a format at least three to four times the potential quality of what it will be displayed in (70mm for 35mm projection, 35mm for 16mm projection, and so on). But I sensed there may be long-term appeal in one lower-cost production medium—video tape, at that time available in VHS and U-matic 3/4" formats—so I took summer classes in video production to learn how to “crash edit” cuts-only video projects.
It wasn’t until I started an M.B.A. program in entrepreneurship, though, that I realized the purists might one day be converted to champions of some video format or another. Around that same time, 1992, the advent of affordable nonlinear editing made it easier to virtually splice videotape on a frame-by-frame basis. Within a few years, the advent of digital tape formats allowed for multiple generations of editing to be processed for visual effects.
Something interesting began to happen in the film community: Those who used 8mm film rolled off to 8mm video (and Digital8 or MiniDV, eventually) and then the 16mm shooters went to Beta SX or DigiBeta. But it wasn’t until the very recent past that we’ve seen the film purists move en masse to the world of digital (tapeless) workflows, brought on as much by the growing need for VFX compositing as for the quality of a RED 5K workflow.
The purists would argue that the rationale is the same: Consumers use “true HD” 1080p displays (1920x1080), so cinema production occurs in 4K and digital projection occurs in 2K.
But what happens when consumers have 2K or 4K displays in their living rooms? What will be the preferred archival or mezzanine format?
The answer, interestingly, lies more in the quality of experience, an area sorely lacking in most streaming media content delivery.
In the early years, streaming content was displayed in lower resolutions (240x180, 320x240, 640x480) and has only recently reached HD levels, albeit just on the cusp with 720p (1280x720) and the not-yet-mainstream “true HD” at 1080p (1920x1080).
At last year’s IBC event in Amsterdam and this year’s CES show in Las Vegas, there were demonstrations of 2K streaming and—within very narrow parameters, not yet ready for consumer viewing outside of the lab—a few 4K streaming demonstrations.
At the same time, the consumer electronics industry is desperate to kick-start the next generation of consumer displays, after 3D 1080p televisions failed to generate significant sales. A number of 2K and 4K monitors were on display at the 2013 CES in Las Vegas. Hope runs high within the consumer electronics industry that 2K and 4K can generate both more buzz and more sales than 3D televisions did after the 2011 and 2012 CES shows.
The bigger question, though, is whether consumers are ready to make the leap, or if they are still content with their 720p and 1080p televisions. Having been forced to buy HD TVs as part of the transition from analog to digital over-the-air television transmission, what will compel the average consumer to buy 2K or 4K televisions?
The answer might just lie in a mashup partnership between CE device manufacturers, streaming service providers, telcos, and the motion picture studios. While I’m not advocating for UltraViolet, which has several basic flaws I’ve noted in other articles, a standardization of content encoding and delivery via streaming media to CE devices could provide a compelling content offering that would push home theater enthusiasts toward 2K displays.
I’ll explore the details of what this mashup might look like in my next column.
This article appears in the April/May 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "2K, 4K, 8K: Where Does it End?"

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