You see it everywhere you look, from the International Consumer Electronics Show to your local big-box retailer: television manufacturers, streaming services and so on are enabling their products and services for 4K (also called Ultra HD or UHD). The reason for this is simple. A few years ago there was a big surge in HD television sales as the transition to digital television made older analog sets obsolete. Following that brief 30% surge in 2010, however, annual sales have declined every year since, as most users now had HDTVs and there were no significant technology improvements. Now, with the release of 4K/UHD standard, television sales are again growing rapidly. Research company Strategy Analytics recently projected that within five years about half of all homes in the U.S will own a 4K TV set.
In addition to home televisions, mobile devices are moving to 4K. High-performance gaming PCs and laptops have offered 4K displays for a couple of years. Many smartphones have 4K video cameras, and other smart devices with 4K screens are coming. Sony was first to market with the Xperia Z5, but they certainly won’t be the last.
4K content is catching up, with services like Netflix, M-GO, even YouTube and multiple others offering 4K streaming, and camera chipsets from Samsung and Qualcomm supporting 4K capture on mobile devices. With the recent finalization of the UHD Blu-ray format, it is likely that you will soon have UHD Blu-ray disks and players before the end of 2015 and these will become the norm given the higher resolution available with UHD. High dynamic range (HDR) is another technology gaining momentum in the marketplace alongside 4K, as it further improves the viewing experience by expanding the range of both contrast and color significantly. This does require additional processing power (and streaming bits), however.
The rapid growth of 4K television and other device sales represents a tremendous opportunity for Internet-based content providers. Laptops and mobile devices will be additional drivers for streaming content, as they don’t generally connect to set top boxes or Blu-ray players for content. Consumers that have invested in the sets and devices are generally viewers who want a top of the line experience and will be hungry for content that takes advantage of their television’s capabilities.
Aside from the actual content, the real challenge is the delivery bandwidth requirements. Today, major Internet streaming companies like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu have found that they can deliver an acceptable 1080p stream using H.264 (AVC) compression at around 6 Mbps. All else being equal, a 4K video would require 4x the bandwidth of a 1080p video (24 Mbps).
Fortunately for content providers, everything else isn’t equal. The average number of bits per pixel required for a given quality level decreases with increasing resolution. For UHD, this would reduce the bitrate to around 21 Mbps. Newer codecs like HEVC are about 30-50% more efficient than H.264, getting the bitrate down to around 15 Mbps. This is more than double the current HD streaming requirements, and will pose streaming challenges for the majority of viewers.
MediaMelon QBR™ (Quality Bit Rate) is a revolutionary technology that substantially improves today’s ABR technology, through rapid scene analysis, content characterization, perceptual quality mapping, and advanced buffer management techniques. Based on innovation backed by more than 30 patents, these techniques intelligently provide better perceptual quality with less quality variance, while lowering the amount of data streamed and stored. By pre-analyzing where video quality would suffer, QBR selectively allocates higher bitrates to video scenes where a lower bitrate would have caused artifacts, thereby increasing perceptual video quality — typically by more than 200%. QBR works with all existing ABR technologies, streaming formats and codecs, delivering a 35% reduction in bandwidth. For our 4K video, that additional 35% savings brings the required bandwidth below 10 Mbps, well within the broadband capabilities of most 4K streaming customers.