8K and Beyond: How Much is Too Much?
Last year, 8K was all the rage. At the CES, NAB, and IBC trade shows, a lot of the product and much of the chatter related to the impending 8K revolution. It's part and parcel of an industry built on technological advances and eager to leap on the Next Big Thing. This year too, CES featured 8K displays from Samsung, LG, Sharp, and more. 8K has become the TV vendor's latest flagship.
Any discussion of 8K elicits enthusiasts bowled along by the possibilities of super-resolution and naysayers, for whom 4K was a step too far. The truth, of course, lies in between with the pragmatists. The tail is not wagging the dog—8K is unlikely to end up in a cul-de-sac like 3D TV—but the dog has its own ideas about how to use the technology.
The bald facts are that 8K TV is a micro-niche market now and will likely remain so for a decade, perhaps long after. At the same time, the use of 8K as a production and delivery format is likely to grow. And at some yet-to-be-determined point, the two will converge because the inevitable reduction in cost from all sides will make it so.
Samsung introduced its QLED 8K TV at CES 2019, and once again, 8K was the talk of CES 2020.
Globally, 4K UHD sets exceeded half of TV shipments for the first time in Q4 2018, according to figures from IHS Markit. In North America, around one-third of households own a UHD set; more than half will by 2021; and 64% will in 2023.
Western Europe will reach 46% of homes having a UHD set by 2023, a faster growth rate than China due to a more rapid TV replacement rate. China, however, will have 1.4 million homes with an 8K display this year, leading the world in adoption.
Here's the rub. There's nothing to watch in China. Instead, people are buying 8K TVs as a status symbol, in part because of the display's larger size.
There is only one TV channel broadcasting 8K in the world, and it's in Japan, where, by the summer, 62,000 people will be able to view NHK's coverage of the Tokyo Olympics in the 8K Super-Hi-Vision format. Impressive? Not in a country of 50 million inhabitants (0.1% of the population will have native 8K capability).
"Japan lags significantly behind due to its preference for smaller screen sizes," says Maria Rua Aguete, executive director at IHS Markit. "Only 19% of Japan households will own a UHD set in 2020, 32% by 2023. Despite UHD 4K and 8K broadcasts being available, the bulk of the country will rely on HD and SD by 2023."
The numbers for the 8K TV install base are tiny. "There is zero correlation between content and product," says Rua Aguete. In other words, the industry can pump as many 8K screens as it likes into the ether, but broadcasters are not taking the bait.
A larger screen in the 65"-plus range is reckoned to deliver the best 8K viewing experience in the home, and sizes are nudging up worldwide. However, the logistics of delivery and install could limit sales.
The cost of packaging, transporting, and delivering a 75" TV is double that of a 65" panel, estimates IHS Markit, not the least because it requires two people to maneuver it into the home.
While half of U.K. households should have a 4K screen by 2022 (an adoption happening at a comparable rate to historic sales of HD), the analysts remain extremely cautious about 8K TV penetration, forecasting worldwide sales of 3 million by 2023 (of which just 625,000 will be in Western Europe).
"We think 8K looks like an oversampled display, but SD is not high enough, so the sweet spot lies somewhere in between," IHS Markit Technology research and analysis director Paul Gray told a meeting of the U.K.'s DTG group in October.
Content producers may be unanimous in agreeing that High Dynamic Range (HDR) delivers a more significant visual punch than resolution, but this will take some time to catch on with a public groomed to believe that more pixels means better pixels.
"We pay more for a 6" handset than a 60" TV, and you keep the handset for less time," says Frode Hernes, SVP, core products, at Vewd. "TVs are far too cheap yet vastly complex to produce, and we expect them to have the same smoothness and quality of experience as a handset. That is unrealistic."
There is a lifeline for the TV manufacturing industry if it can innovate its way out of the current low-yield size-replacement cycle. One answer might lie in new form factors like rollable, modular, or wallpaper displays that have been prototyped at recent CES shows.
Screen Real Estate
Beyond that, the function of the TV itself is being broadened to include AI, voice control, and smart home control functions.
The display would likely be large in order to accommodate multiple use cases within the screen real estate. For that reason, 8K resolution would be useful less for full-screen viewing and more for the ability to watch, say, a 4K program in one portion of the screen with apps
like video sharing in another portion. Other use cases could be instructional (video of Google Maps for road conditions, for instance).
Computer vision is driving picture quality enhancements and is one solution to getting content input at lower resolutions upscaled into 8K as screens enter the market. "We can use AI to dynamically examine content input in real time and improve it so you don't necessarily have to have rubbish in rubbish out," explained Alan Delaney, international business development and marketing director at TV-chip maker HiSilicon, to the DTG.
With such a limited addressable market in terms of displays and distribution outlets, there is no incentive for premium content producers to master programming in 8K at this time.
With production challenge solved, smarter AI upscaling and enhanced codec technologies will enable 8K streaming to the home—inevitably.
Akamai Principal Architect Peter Chave discusses bandwidth demands attendant to the inevitable (however unnecessary) arrival of 8K streaming in this clip from his keynote at Content Delivery Summit 2019.
Ready or not, here comes 8K. Look for 8K sets to hit the market later this year, with TCL creating the first Roku model.
Though 4K is just becoming mainstream, cutting-edge technology pundits and some vendors are already pushing higher resolutions like 5K and even 8K. But it's far too early to be talking about resolutions beyond 4K for production and infrastructure, much less for consumer use.