Answers to various 4K / Ultra HD questions we’ve been asked recently…

What is the content availability for Ultra HD/4K currently?
Very limited right now. In the US, Sony are shipping pre-loaded media servers with their 4K panels (in what seems to be a stop-gap measure) until an industry-ratified medium comes along. This will most likely be answered by Blu-ray, with the BDA working on defining a new expanded and elevated specification right now, expected for release later this year.

Why do home technology professionals need to be aware of Ultra HD/4K? Are consumers buying into this new technology?
The need to be aware because it’s happening now. It’s possible some are thinking of it as 3D – a passing fad or a peripheral feature. In reality it is similar to the leap we made from SD to 1080p; it’s being supported by SMPTE, studios and vendors alike to such a high level that most in the community are not yet aware. Consumers will inevitably buy into the technology, but it will take time. Serious penetration won’t happen until prices come right down and content is broadly available. Ten years ago you could only get 1080p by upscaling before Blu-ray (and HD-DVD) came along in 2006, but look at it now – 1080p is ‘normal’. The 4K path will be the same, albeit in a much shorter timeframe.

What are some common misconceptions about Ultra HD/4K?
Misconception one – there’s no content. OK, it’s true right now – but it’s close. There is actually already an impressive back catalogue of movies in 4K – but the new BD spec needs to be released (and new players to implement it) before we’ll be able to truly tap in.
Misconception two – it will deliver no benefit: The resolution would exceed our own visual acuity. Look back through recent history – there was a time that an 34” TV (not rear pro) was regarded as HUGE. Now 42” is small, 50-60′ is normal, and even sizes up to 84” are gaining popularity. However we’re not sitting further away than we used to. IMAX cinemas allow a much bigger picture with relatively close seating by increasing picture resolution. 4K panels and content will do the same.

Can you suggest one way Ultra HD/4K will help the bottom line?
There are a few opportunities for 4K to help drive business:
Old install refurbishments: all-new hardware and possibly even new cabling.
New 4K sales and installation requirements.
It defers cloud based delivery methods and in-home wireless technologies (for AV), reducing the DIY plug-n-play capability of consumers. That is, the high bandwidth specialty installation of 4K sustains the need for a professional integrator, with a chance for more hardware sales.
It will even help software (BD disc) sellers as 4K reduces the threat of downloads due to sheer file size and delivery bit rates.

On the technical side, where will the common mistakes be made?
Cables mislabelled: 4K is deliverable via HDMI at one fixed clock speed of 297MHz (up to 30 frames). This equates to an aggregate data rate nearing 9Gbps, which before the year is out will double again with an upcoming new HDMI spec. Although the existing ‘High Speed’ HDMI cable spec technically has this 9Gbps rate covered, many HDMI cables are possibly not accurately labelled.

Devices simply not capable: The big ‘gotcha!’ is with devices and the HDMI silicon they contain. Currently most devices employ HDMI chipsets (transmitters & receivers) that are limited to 225MHz, or 6.75Gbps, emanating from 2006 specifications. This is clearly insufficient for 4K, even with firmware upgrades. The pipe simply isn’t big enough. Many HDMI extenders, switchers, splitters, matrix switchers etc, on the market also contain this restricted silicon, and so are not adaptable to 4K applications. Even if the silicon is upgraded, length potential will be much reduced, perhaps by more the half. CATx cable has become a favourite choice for installers for HDMI extension but 4K fundamentally challenges the limits of this cable type. Technologies like HDBaseT already address this through proprietary firmware driven timing technologies, but it’s no longer native HDMI. Matrix switchers with HDBaseT will generally still perform the cross-point switching in the HDMI space, so they may still be restricted even though the HDBaseT stage is capable of more.

Do you have a final comment?
4K is not only coming, it’s here. We’ll exist in a world of upscaling and some proprietary file delivery for perhaps a year or two, then things will turn very quickly to more mass-market. The challenge for the custom installer is that they are expected to pre-wire jobs for future 4K support NOW, even though they can’t yet even test what they’re putting in for validation. They will need to rely on their product suppliers and a leap of faith that the products will deliver as expected, when expected. The phrase ‘futureproof’ is scarier and more difficult to define than ever.
The new HDMI spec will push data rates up to at least 18Gbps, driving the need for all-active connectivity and pretty much wiping out CATx cable as a viable extension cable option (other than possibly HDBaseT).

It’s exciting times ahead with the best sales opportunities opening-up to those that learn the basics NOW and stay ahead of the curve.