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Ultra HD was a star with great promise at last year’s CES. The big question for this coming CES 2014 is, “When will Ultra HD make good on that promise?”

We know that Ultra HD could the next big thing for TV. At the same time, there is concern that too much hype could lead to disappointment.

Will consumers be able to see a difference? Will they care? Will there be a “wow factor”? What about content and distribution? Will it be too expensive for studios and service providers? What needs to happen before an end-to-end ecosystem can display the improved capabilities of 4K displays?

The first phase of 4K TVs

Ready or not, consumer 4K TV displays are here and their price is dropping fast. A year ago one could buy a small car for less than the cost of a 4K TV. The smart consumer bought the car. Today, that same consumer could drive to the local big box store and pick up a fancy new Ultra HD at a fraction of last year’s price. Soon enough, it might make sense to swap out the old HD flat panel for a 4K display even if one plans to watch HD content only.

But is there a quality difference between HD and 4K TVs that is really meaningful to consumers? If we talk only about 4-times the resolution, the difference is not as noticeable as the move from standard-definition to high-definition. But resolution is not the whole story.

Sony XBR-X850A w. FMP-X1 and VU4K

The arrival of 4K TVs in stores and in some peoples’ homes should be thought of as the first phase of more substantial evolution of television. 4K resolution is a subset of Ultra High Definition (UHD) television, which includes higher frame rates, enhanced & more precise color, and better use of the luminance range of modern flat-panel TV displays. Each of those UHD enhancements can create a rich visual reality for consumers that goes beyond even cinematic experiences. Thus, the 4K/UHD should not be thought of as a “one-and-done” phenomenon. Instead, UHD should be thought of as a roadmap for making television better and better for years to come.

Granted, saying that a consumer electronics product like 4K Ultra HD will get better and better over time is not that controversial. But Ultra High Definition is an ecosystem. Which means we may not need to wait for native 4K content to be widely available before Ultra HD begins to win over consumers.

A better high definition: one track at a time

Good 4K Ultra HD displays come equipped with very sophisticated image processing and upscaling algorithms that can make good HD content look almost as good as true 4K content. In a way, a 4K Ultra HD TV is just a better HD with the potential to support new UHD enhancements as they emerge from the international standards committees.

Looking into the crystal ball, we might see studios and service providers begin the evolution towards better television by way of distinct tracks as early as 2014. And it should be noted that the new international standard for video compression – High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) – will likely be an inseparable partner in the evolution of both HD and UHD services.

The first track might be a cinematic track that would support “optimized-for-4K” HD encoding and provide a pathway to true 4K content at 24 and 30 frames per second. In this context, “optimized for 4K” HD encoding would imply near pristine HD content that looks good when upsampled on a 4K display, but leverages HEVC to fit in the same bandwidth as HD content compressed with today’s MPEG4/H.264.

A second track might be more attractive to sports programmers. It might emphasize frame rate over resolution to deliver 1080p HD at 60 frames per second, and later at 120 frames per second, while providing a pathway to true 4K at 60 frames per second.

Finally, a third track could be attractive to all service providers as it uses the enhanced efficiency of HEVC to deliver traditional HD services while freeing up bandwidth for UHD and data services.

There is certain to be a lot more hype around 4K and Ultra HD TV in the coming weeks as CES 2014 grabs headlines. But over-hyping is not the same as over-valuing. The true story should not be about 4K in isolation. Rather it should be about 4K as the advanced guard of UHD that can add value today while opening the door for content and service providers to offer better and better consumer experiences over time without breaking the bandwidth bank.

Sean McCarthy is a Fellow of the Technical Staff at ARRIS.

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