Ultra High-Definition Content Lifting Off

by , Nov 14, 2012, 5:04 PM
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The Sony Store in New York can be a chaotic place with all those PlayStations giving it the feel of a loud arcade. But walk to a back corner and there is an island of peace. Sony’s new Ultra High-Definition (UHD) or 4K TV set has its own showroom, where customers can absorb the pristine resolution of the 84-inch display.

The in-store experience is free. To take it home, it’s $24,999.99.

On Thursday, Southern California retailer Video & Audio Center (VAC) will begin selling the Sony force. There have been at least five pre-orders, according to the chain's corporate director Tom Campbell.

In late October, LG’s 4K set went on sale at VAC and Campbell said at least 27 have been sold at $16,999.99. (That’s $3,000 below LG’s suggested retail price.)

UHD sets offer customers programming in 4K, which is four times the resolution of HD. “It blows them away, it really does,” Campbell said.

For now, though, the UHD resolution comes mostly via up-conversion technology. It can get even better when the programming is filmed in native, or true, 4K.

The fledgling 3net Studios is looking to be a pacesetter in native 4K production, announcing Wednesday it is in motion with “Space,” with three hour-long episodes. The series promises to provide some sense of how the speed of light feels and the view inside a comet’s tail looks.

The studio is related to the 3D network by the same name. Both are co-owned by Discovery, Sony and IMAX. Sony has an interest in 4K adoption in both the consumer and professional realms since it makes 4K cameras and theater projectors.

“Having that relationship has allowed us to have some pretty good insights into where the market is going,” 3net CEO Tom Cosgrove said.

A couple more set manufacturers may launch 4K sets in the U.S. before Christmas. But all kinds of announcements are expected at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in early 2013.

How many people will travel through “Space” in 4K? Very few for a long time. Prices for the 4K sets will need to come way down and there are questions about how to distribute the fat content into homes. Options include the Internet or via cable, satellite and telco TV operators. There’s also the possibility of external 4K Blu-ray players, but that would be less of a click-and-play experience.

Yet, even as prices are high, the trade group Consumer Electronics Association offers a bullish prediction that 2.5 million UHD sets will sell in 2016, 9% of all domestic sales. That would be up from 20,000 next year.

The cost of the LG model is at least comparable to the first HD sets, which Campbell said sold for a $10,000 total package in 1998 – which would be about $14,000 in today’s dollars.

3net Studios’ principal aim is to build the world’s foremost library of 3D content to air on its sister network and sold around the globe, where 3D has caught on quicker than in many parts of the U.S.

But when -- if -- a significant hunger for 4K content emerges, it wants to be ready to feed it. That's not cheap.

In the early stages, the cost of filming for 3D TV was extremely pricey. That’s come down with handheld cameras and other technology. For now, 4K production looks to be at a similar point and costs can be up to three times as much as HD.

“It’s a very expensive proposition and that’s primarily because the tools available today are just emerging,” Cosgrove said.

Cosgrove thinks a widespread adoption of 4K sets may take even a bit longer than what happened with HD. Consumers were attracted to the new HD flat screens, while many sets may have been purchased during the digital transition.

Adoption of 3D TV may have been slower than predicted in the U.S. The need to put on glasses to watch could have been a factor. A dearth of content has also been blamed.

How might a chicken-and-egg dynamic play out with 4K? Is content need to drive set purchases or or vice versa? HD brought similar questions early on.

"There is a dance in the beginning where the content grows a little bit, platform sales growth happens and they sort of ratchet each other up and then suddenly you hit a tipping point," Cosgrove said. "That took quite a few years to happen with HD and I think we're still in that phase with 3D."

On the marketing front, 4K would seem to offer some wonderfully simplistic options. “Four times better than HD!” should resonate. But, "Only $25,000" is tough copy.

At the Sony Store in Manhattan, the price takes some work to find.

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