Is 8K behind the Magic 8 Ball?

Michael Heiss explores where 8K stands in the current home entertainment ecosystem and whether the time is right to recommend to clients.

Over the years I’ve seen many improvements to the technology available that improves video viewing and distribution. Since I live in the US, I wasn’t in the UK to see 405 B&W transition to 625 but I do remember watching in from afar when it was in its final stages. I also remember reading about the French 819-line system with SECAM colour as an oddity that popped up in exam questions in college courses before they joined the rest of Europe and switched to 625 lines and PAL colour. On the other hand, here on the other side of the pond I’ve seen TV switch from 525 lines (actually 480i) to 720p and 1080i, the introduction of stereo audio for TV and even the occasional fling with 3D. All of these were seminal changes to the way content is produced and the devices we use to receive and view it.

Of course, video is no longer confined to over-the-air broadcasting for more than a few decades. We’ve run the gamut of a variety of magnetic and optical physical formats and with the move to the 21st Century each with the goal of being able to deliver increased resolution to match the displays’ capabilities. Thanks to the rise of streaming, and the combination of ever-improving broadband speed and increased efficiency of codecs, no matter what the delivery pipe, it is not possible to pump more, and if you will, better water through it.

Today, the water going through those pipes, and out the faucet of your displays brings one to ask about the latest format combination: 8K and all that both makes it possible and surrounds it. The point has long since been made: 8K is possible. Producing 8K content is something that can, and is, being done. There are pipes able to deliver it and sets ready to find a spot in your order book and clients’ systems. Thus, the question may reasonably be asked: “Where is 8K in the current home entertainment ecosystem and should I recommend it and use it in client projects? What do I tell clients and prospects when they ask about 8K?”

That’s a good question, but the answer may be a bit different than what you might imagine.

Inevitably you must first ask: “Where is the content? And why buy an 8K set when I don’t see much native 8K content?”. A good question indeed and, when it comes to native content, my recent trip to the NAB show back in April delivered part of the answer. There is more than enough in the way of cameras, lenses and other production gear to shoot and edit in 8K. You may even be surprised to know that behind the scenes, 8K has been in play for a number of years for sports television production as it is a great assist for replays and analysis.

DVLED displays in 8K are now commonplace. Here, one was shown at NAB with the 8K image being sent to it via a 5G connection!

Does the director or the officials need to blow up a disputed call? When you blow up/zoom in to a replay still the resolution holds up when something is enlarged from 8K, not so much from 4K and even less from HD or Full HD. Think of an 8K camera in the pylons at the edges of the goal line in American football (the one with the ball that isn’t round). Did the ball pass over the line or not? 8K is a big help to see what happened.

Great, you say, but I’m the viewer, not the producer. How does that translate to me? One answer comes from the same video processing that makes those zoom-ins possible. An 8K set displays everything in 8K, just as a 4K set displays any incoming content in 4K regardless of what it was shot in or distributed as. The heavy lift of number crunching that makes the conversion of incoming video to the display’s native resolution increases exponentially when you think of what it takes to show your old 480i or 576i vintage content to 4380p. Having that makes the resulting picture on an 8K set almost always look better than the same content would on a 4K set and certainly better than on an FHD set.

Hold that thought while you conjure up something you will have certainly heard in vendor or CEDIA training: the larger the screen size, the more important the resolution. With 65-in becoming the new 55-in, 75-in becoming the new 65-in, and onward up the screen size scale. The sets may be getting larger, but the screen-seat distance hasn’t changed in years.

In the early days of research into colour television, Bernard Lechner at RCA Labs determined that in North America the distance was somewhere in the range of six feet but typically about nine feet for SD video displays. On the other side of the pond, Richard Jackson’s experiments in the UK for Philips found the distance to be three meters; close enough to be about the same.

Small 8K cameras have found wide application in helping sports and other live events getting not only better pictures, but a resulting better resolution when the image is zoomed in for replays.

Thus, as you make proposals for refits and upgrades, you may want to change the size of the screen and that will, in turn, help make the case for the better resolution of 8K.

Then again, one does not live by resolution or pixel count alone. That is why the better image processing and the superior pictures it will deliver came to the fore. As one of the speakers at the DEG Entech event here in Los Angeles stated: “It’s not about lines or pixels anymore.”

All well and good, but you will inevitably be asked to explain why an 8K set is desirable or needed when there isn’t that much content yet. The first part of the answer to that question addresses “yet”.

As noted above, there was more than enough 8K production equipment at NAB, but equally as important were the advancements in codec technology. The ability to lower the bitrate needed for 8K streaming while retaining “broadcast quality” video was showcased with special attention to VCC/H.266, Content Aware Encoding (CAE) and Perceptually Optimised Encoding (POE) will help foster the growth of 8K. That 8K streaming is possible is proven by the fact that YouTube has been offering it for more than a few years. When will the other services join the club? Hard to tell.

Even when set for the old 24fps frame rate, the quality of 8K gives cinematographers great pictures and creative freedom.

However, all content is not traditional video these days. Don’t forget games. Both Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 have the capability to render in 8K, they don’t have the ability to output at 8K at this time. The processors that are at the heart of both systems could enable that and HDMI 2.1 for you to be able to send it to an 8K set, but for that we’ll have to wait. For those who are PC gamers it should be noted that Nvidia’geforce-rtx-3090 graphics card does connect, play, capture and output games in 8K.

That said, the same rule applies for games as it does for live or animation content: The output of the signal is a key part of determining how it looks to the end viewer. Think of it as the reverse of “garbage in/garbage out”. Here, it is “great video out/great video fed in to a set’s processor”. Let’s call it the video equivalent of headroom in audio. The better a recording is made, the better it will sound regardless of whether or not is downscaled between the source and the output. As noted for the use of 8K in sports production, it does make a difference.

And then there is AR and particularly VR. Just as 4K near-to-eye displays make it possible to have 1080p per eye, 8K displays will give you 4K per eye. Although they are still in a relatively early stage, VR and AR technologies are on the move. Thinking of where they will go may not give you a reason to suggest an 8K display right now, but it definitely lays the foundation for provisioning for things such as HDMI 2.1 and the fastest download speed possible as a way of future proofing the installation.

The availability of 8K cine production cameras, here actually at 12K, shows the value of 8K production even when the programme is only distributed in 4K. Even better, this Blackmagic unit is $6,395! (USD, without lens)

One more thing, which is the elephant in the 8K room: the displays and projectors. There definitely are 8K TVs and projectors, though more of the former than the latter. Depending on where you live, Hisense, LG, Samsung, Sony and TCL currently offer 8K sets. Digital Projection, JVC and Samsung are sources for 8K projectors with the caveat that pixel shift technology is used in some of these brands’ products.

And then there is DVLED: Direct View LED. As explained here in past issues, the resolution of a DVLED display module is fixed. The true system resolution is dependent on the module’s capability combined with how many of them comprise the system. There are 8K DVLED systems. I’ve seen them at trade shows in the past few years as, you probably have. Spoiler alert: They become very large screen sizes due to the number of modules required and that, in turn, makes them VERY expensive.

So where does this leave us?

From a content creation/production standpoint, the hardware and software tools needed for 8K are available for those who want them. Distributing 8K content is certainly possible, as YouTube has been doing commercially and as proven by Intel and Japan’s NHK for live broadcasts from the last Summer Olympics. More to some of the points above, at last year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing there was not only 8K content, but live 8K VR which was available here in the US by cable giant Comcast using Meta’s Quest 2 headset.

Perhaps most overlooked, HDMI 2.1 is finally here and available on a wide range of devices including AVRs, surround processors and, of course, displays. It is even resident in the latest Chromecast with Google TV streaming dongle, although 8K is not mentioned or promoted. A bit surprising since Alphabet’s YouTube is currently the largest, if not perhaps the only, 8K content source.

As mentioned, displays are here and have been available for some time. They are big from a screen size and price perspective, but “big” also applies in many opinions to the improvement in the video quality over 4K sets.

What might you do and recommend about 8K? First, continue to keep up to date on the progress of the things mentioned here. Next, in the absence of 8K content for demo, consider using an 8K DSLR to create some of your own. If buying one is a bit out of your budget, consider renting one from a local video/cinema production rental house. It’s a bit too early to say as this is being written in early May, but rumour has it that this year’s iPhone 15 Ultra will be able to shoot 8K. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 already can and would be a good choice to “roll your own” 8K and post it to your web site or YouTube channel. Even 8K stills of flowers in the garden or a scenic view will help make the point.

At the end of the day, the question you’ll be asked most frequently when the topic of 8K comes up is “Is it worth it, and should I recommend it or buy it?”. My answer to the first part is “Yes, it can be.” The bigger question is the second one.

There, as is the case for many somewhat leading-edge products and technologies, the answer depends on who the buyer is. What is their budget, what are their expectations for video quality and how big a screen is appropriate. Most importantly, how far do they want to go with regard to future proofing?

That may well be the key metric here. Current research puts the average lifecycle of a consumer TV at seven or so years, depending on how bright the picture is set for. This is in the display’s original location, not counting additional years when it is moved down to another room as a downstream replacement. Given that, and taking into account the growth of 8K content and distribution infrastructure, it’s quite possible that while the switch to 8K content may not be as fast as that from HD to 4K, it is going to happen. For that alone, if the reasoning is properly explained, the case may be made. In the background, at the very least use the move to 8K and 4K/60/4:2:2 and higher as messaging to future proof where possible to HDMI 2.1.

Sometimes being the pioneer or early adopter is a hard sell. Sometimes it is easy, depending on the end user. The question about 8K may fall into one side of that equation or the other, but the case can be made, and at the very least the questions knowledgably answered. With this information and what we will continue to provide at HiddenWires, that part of the pitch will be something everyone on staff should be able to make.

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