4K Builds a Base

Hardware, Content and Services Fall into Place

4K_lThere’s an ultra challenge going on. Qualcomm is encouraging current owners of Snapdragon 800 series-based Ultra-HD imaging phones to enter its Snapdragon 4K Video Contest for a chance to win some cash prizes including, of course, $4,000. There are currently about a dozen Qualcomm-based smartphone models on the market capable of 4K video capture, including LG’s G3, Motorola’s Droid Turbo and Samsung’s Galaxy S5. Flagship devices like these can’t display 4K — that’s likely to come next year — but they can capture and future-proof content for UHD-capable screens.

This week, Amazon and Vimeo announced upgrades of their streaming services to 4K video for selected content. Netflix began offering 4K-quality content earlier this year, and YouTube recently began supporting the format. The material is arriving in drips for now, but UHD screens are likely to be a hot holiday gift for 2014 that drives demand for more. However, CCS Insight believes that mobile devices rather than televisions will introduce most consumers to 4K.

In 2013, CCS Insight predicted mobility would lead in UHD (see Press Release: Mobile Devices Will Drive 4K High-Res Video). It was reasoned that the replacement cycles for mobile devices is significantly shorter than that of televisions, and mobile operator subsidies would further support bringing 4K-capable devices within reach of the average consumer. Components like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon family of processors with built-in 4K video support are quickly reaching mass scale, taking UHD-capable hardware mainstream. The ability to capture 4K video became a mobile flagship standard during 2014, and 4K resolution screens shouldn’t be far behind. Some argue that this is pixel-density overkill, but smartphones and tablets will nonetheless lead the way.

Apart from content and devices, the infrastructure hurdles are significant (see Blog: Building an Ecosystem for 4K). Ensuring robust support for end-to-end 4K content means broadcasters, ISPs and potential mobile operators have a lot of upgrading to do. Common usage scenarios of a family of four each fighting to stream their own HD content could suddenly make way for a quadrupling of the requirements. Things could get ugly. Netflix says that only about 15 Mbps are required for its UHD content. It’s a minimum requirement that most broadband households already surpass, but households and neighbourhoods could find themselves battling for bandwidth.

This indicates a great deal of opportunity for equipment makers on both sides of the equation in the coming years. Set-top box makers are preparing to roll out support for 4K, even though it feels as if 1080 was just getting its feet wet. Hardware will have to handle a great many more bits. Web-based video services have taken the lead in UHD, but traditional broadcasters are gearing up in preparation for an expanding installed number of 4K television sets. At this year’s IFA tradeshow, for example, Cisco announced a collaboration with Vodafone for the development and deployment of 4K capable set-top boxes in 2015, and satellite operator DirecTV is preparing to support 4K.

The coming 2015 is looking like a leap year for Ultra HD content creation and consumption. “Ultra” and “4K” will be big buzz words in mobility and the home. Security cameras, phones, tablets and even drones will be capturing real-world video, to be stuffed up and then back down connectivity pipes. We can expect some bad network moments and some consumer confusion about the numbers behind 4K (sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more), but the UHD trend is clear.