The roll-out of 4K has a long way to go before it is anywhere near ubiquitous, but 8K is seen as the obvious next step and natural technological progression. It will be the talk of the town at IBC, just as it was in April at NAB , with both enthusiasts and naysayers passing comment. In truth, it is the pragmatists who are worth listening to most closely.
The answer to whether we need 8K depends on where you sit in the value chain. TV brands see 8K as the next big thing to upsell at retail – though beware the mess they made of 3D. Component suppliers like 8K because it demands higher performance components and subsystems. Content creators appreciate the archival value and oversampled information of 8K capture.
Content distributers see 8K as a market differentiator, particularly for OTT delivery (as Japanese-owned Spanish streamer Rakuten plans later this year). Consumers might be persuaded of the ‘4K on steroids’ immersive quality of the visuals.
Piers Moore, Global Insight Director at Kantar’s Worldpanel division (which is focused on consumer panel research), suggests any transition to ITU spec UHD-2 is not imminent. “As proven with 4K, there are three keys: price, content and consumer buy-in,” he says. “The price is too high to make it viable for a large consumer base. There isn’t the 8K content, so AI is needed to upscale lower resolution content, but that still doesn’t give you the full 8K experience. That leads into consumers not believing it is worth the price, and without the price being aligned with consumer perception it is hard to sell.”
These concerns might be condensed further: there is virtually zero native 8K content, production costs are exorbitant, let alone the bandwidth for distribution, which no-one outside of the Japanese government’s NHK-run project is prepared to underwrite. And what is the point anyway, since you cannot see the extra resolution? To which the reply is: “Yet”.
“In reality, these are nearly the same benefits and concerns that were voiced 5-6 years ago as we started down the UHD transition path,” argues the newly formed cheerleader for 8K, the 8K Association. “Clearly, these concerns were overcome.”
If we ignore the fact that the bulk of global transmissions are SD (some 60% of Globecast customers in Europe, for example), then 4K UHD has indeed been cracked. So, what’s next?
From a broadcast point of view, it seems like 8K will be introduced by the back door. Several manufacturers exhibiting at IBC, Sony and Blackmagic Design included, view the corporate video market as leading the 8K charge, principally for digital signage. Blackmagic Design’s marketing at NAB centred on 8K even if its 8K-ready video switchers and standards converters operate in SDI in defiance of the leaner, flexi-workflow possibilities of IP. That’s because transporting 4K UHD over SMPTE ST 2110 in live production remains tricky and not necessarily as rock-solid as coax.
“As a manufacturer, we can certainly see the benefits of 8K,” confirms Craig Heffernan, Technical Sales Director EMEA at Blackmagic. “It is crucial when it comes to future-proofing content and down-sampling with better quality. Shooting at such a high resolution also gives editors and VFX artists more data to work with, and an opportunity to zoom deeply into images and reframe without losing as much information.”
There is also interest in Virtual Reality projects. With an 8K frame, it is easier to pull out regions of interest, whether that is for standard 2D delivery or 3D work. The greater the resolution within that VR sphere that can be stitched together, the smoother the stitching itself. This makes the whole experience much more realistic for the viewer.
“Content providers will not be the only sources of 8K material,” suggests Juliet Walker, CMO at Globecast. “UGC, like family videos, GoPro sports footage and also next-generation gaming console-generated video will bring 8K content to the home.”
Even so, 8K television sets are not expected to fly off the shelves. You can buy an 82-inch Samsung 8K telly at PC World today for £10,000 but only 56 million homes worldwide will own an 8K TV by the end of 2025, according to Strategy Analytics.
8K over mobile is a non-starter. Matt Stagg who heads up BT Sport’s mobile division says, “The optimum format for the small screen is HD HFR (high frame rate) and HDR (high dynamic range). We don’t advocate 4K, other than for casting to larger screens in the house (over Wi-Fi). This is the strategy for BT Sport and it should be for every operator.”
He is saying this partly to cap data costs for both consumers and operators as 5G is rolled out, but also because of the genuinely held view that the industry should concentrate on better pixels rather than more pixels.
But home TV screens are getting bigger – about an inch a year according to some reports. Overall sales of 8K TVs are expected to be concentrated in the 60-inch and above screen size categories. More significantly, the fundamentals of TV display R&D are changing. If costs can be brought down, technologies like microLED promise millimetre-thin modular designs, perhaps filling whole walls. The wallpaper screen real estate could be divided for multiple smart home functions.
And why stop there? After all, 8K at 7680×4320 pixels is equivalent to around 33 megapixels and there are relatively affordable still cameras on the market today that record 100 megapixels or more. “8K does not represent an upper limit but it is at the limit of what is commercially practical today,” says William Cooper, who runs the strategic consultancy informitv. “There may be diminishing returns beyond that.”
The DVB has just completed a study mission designed to bring together information on media formats beyond UHD-1 4K.“These formats have the potential to be commercially viable in the coming years,” says Peter Siebert, DVB Head of Technology.