Letter from America: Why I changed my mind on 8K

OK, everyone is occasionally allowed to change their mind about something that they had previously held a strong opinion about …Usually it’s about something along the lines of whether your favourite team will win the championship, which candidate you should support, or even your feelings about a favourite food or colour. Come on, admit it: Is there no one amongst you who has remained constant about everything you have ever expressed a feeling about?

To be sure, despite my occasional strong opinions, I’m human, too, and do change my mind about things. So, embodied in the month’s Letter is what I must admit is a change of mind. The thing I have changed my mind about? 8K video.

Yes, it is an amazing technological achievement, and is something that I have always admitted was going to appear, though not to any great degree beyond a public rollout in Japan for the 2020 summer Olympic Games. I’m still not completely convinced that it will be as major a success in replacing 4K/UHD in the same way that 4K, itself, has captured the lion’s share of set sales over 40-in screen sizes from HD (and before that the way digital took over from analogue PAL, NTSC and SECAM), however.

Why did I hold that opinion? Looking back to the change from analogue to digital, those were government mandated, much as was the change from 415 or 819 lines (depending on where you live) to 625 lines. Not switching was NOT an option. However, after that, 4K and HDR have become available, but are options. Indeed, even as we switch from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0 here in the US early next year, 4K, while permitted, is not mandatory. Indeed, even the switch from 1.0 to 3.0 is left up to the broadcasters for OTA.

“The thing I have changed my mind about? 8K video.”

Thus, with 8K almost certainly not likely to be required anywhere, in any country, it often seemed like a “science experiment”. I’ve seen it demonstrated at the NAB and other trade shows for more than a few years. Looks great, but my thoughts were driven by the fact that to perceive the visual improvement from the increased resolution the viewer should so close to the screen that they probably won’t be able to take in the full image width. Indeed, I’ve heard cinematographers complain about just that fact.

Alternatively, if you keep the screen-to-seating distance as is, you’ll need a significantly larger, and thus more expensive, screen than is there at the moment. For a variety of reasons, not typically a good option…

Finally, all evidence up until recently has pointed to high pricing for sets that won’t be in major markets for some time.

After attending the NAB Show in April and attending some other trade shows and engineering conferences lately, things are changing. So has my opinion on all of this, and when you hear why you might change your mind about 8K, too.

Most importantly, 8K flat panel displays, like those proverbial objects in your car’s rear-view mirror, are “closer than they appear.” As reported here months ago, they are on sale in China and other parts of Asia. They are planned for arrival in Europe this year, and quite likely in the US too.

On the large screen front, one of the more interesting introductions at NAB was an 8K projector that uses 4K imagers with a unique technology that delivers a native 8K image without “image shift” or “wobulation”. It was demo’d with the same 8K footage shot in Rio during Carnival also shown on the Sony CLED, and it looked just as good.

As to size, most of the 8K sets seen at NAB and CES were over 70-in, but that is not unusual these days. However, we have also seen one of the first small size 8K screens, a 27-in gaming-oriented monitor from Sharp (that, as of now, still doesn’t have a release date or price). One might expect to also see this becoming popular for medical imaging and other critical applications.

However, it is more than just displays, it is application-centric products. Remember that 8K, in the proper situation can deliver “4K per eye” for both VR/AR and glasses-free 3D. I saw both at NAB, and the results were impressive for the former and better than I’ve seen before for the latter. In an “app-driven world, either of these could push 8K further than might have been imagined.

“…8K, in the proper situation can deliver “4K per eye” for both VR/AR and glasses-free 3D with impressive results…”

In terms of image capture, there are hints that more 8K products are coming that will increase 8K content creation. Red already has an 8K camera, Sony introduced one at NAB, and Sharp already showed an 8K camcorder at both ISE and NAB. DLSRs with 8K capability are also here, and were on display at NAB.

A final part of the 8K ecosystem very much on display at NAB was how high frame rate (HFR) will perhaps be the feature that 8K will push forward the most, just as 4K gave HDR the jump start it needed. Camera systems and recorders were on display showing 8K/120fps and 8K/240fps. The clarity of the HFR content was dramatically above 4K or 60fps in the demos. Probably to be seen first on the broadcast production side for slo-mo replay, HFR may be a key driver for 8K. The benefits it delivers is one of the reasons why I am more now more bullish on 8K than I thought I would be.

Japan’s NHK has previously demonstrated over-the-air 8K in the past, but even with the most sophisticated compression technology it still takes more bits than most delivery systems can handle. At the start, 8K will be a satellite- (or perhaps experimentally) cable- delivered medium. We’ll need to look to see where that goes.

Something that I did not see demonstrated at any of the trade shows so far this year was HDMI 2.1 with the needed bandwidth for 8K. The requirement for this was no more evident than looking at the rear panel of one of the 8K displays: it required 4 separate standard HDMI connections. However, by the time we see “real” 8K sets, one can expect that a single-cable 8K connection will be available.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is the content. At CES, ISE and NAB, native 4K content was shown in 8K displays. Thanks to very powerful and sophisticated processing, the same scene shown on 4K and 8K screens was judged by name to benefit from 8K regardless of what format was used to shoot it. As we all wait for widespread availability of native 8K content and the means to deliver it, expect to see scaling to 8K to be the go-to demo when the sets begin to arrive.

Final thoughts…

So how does all of this come together to change my mind about the viability of 8K?

It’s not one thing, but the combination of dishes from the “8K buffet”. No single thing does turns the page, but the coming range of products, systems and applications is what changed my mind. As a “one-trick pony” promising nothing more than increased resolution, my thoughts on 8K would not have changed.

close up of 16K display powered by Intel scalable processor at trade show

You won’t see an 8K product in my home theatre any time soon, and I doubt in yours, or those of your clients, for a while. But, once again, I’m no longer negative about 8K, and suggest that you should also revaluate your thoughts on it, particularly when you may need to discuss it with clients or products. For my money, it’s no longer “Nah, it would happen and if it does you won’t need to or be able to afford it.” To what I may suggest ae another answer: “It’s is going to happen, but it will be a bit expensive at first, native 8K content will take a while to appear and don’t count on a disc or OTA delivery system for it in the initial phase.”

Yes, 8K is coming whether we like it or not; the only question is when, with which go-to-market products, content, connectivity and delivery systems. It will be fun to watch. Besides, one of the more interesting things shown at NAB was a demo of “16K” – outside of some very specific situations, that is something I don’t think I’ll change my mind about!

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group or follow him on Twitter @captnvid.