Interview: 4K Ultra HD and the future of Blu-ray

posted on Monday, 30th December 2013 by Steve May

4K  Blu-ray 

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Few doubt that 2014 will be the year that 4K Ultra HD breaks into the big-screen mainstream. With second generation HDMI 2.0 screens incoming and plummeting prices, the 55-inch plus TV market is set for an irrevocable upgrade. However questions persist about the availablility of native 4K software. Pay broadcasters are quietly considering options and Netflix has a streaming proposition, however it's packaged media that potentially offers the most exciting platform for UHD. To learn more about Blu-ray's 4K upgrade, Inside CI talked to Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) Promotions Committee VP Marty Gordon (pictured above).

Gordon tells us that the BDA has had a Format Extension Task Force working on recommendations for over a year. It's time is well spent, he says. "We need to get it right. That means getting feedback from many different stakeholders, studios, the hardware companies, the technology suppliers. These people are all part of the BDA and all part of the discussion."

Talking to Gordon, it's clear that 4K Blu-ray won't just be about enhanced resolution. "We view the next step in Blu-ray as more than just 4K," he explains. "After all, if you're going to enhance the format, then really enhance the format, from dynamic range to bitrates and sound-quality. Blu-ray is the perfect format for 4K Ultra HD." Of course, all this extra data will consume space. While the BDA officially refuses to be drawn on the nature of the storage media itself, it's known that replicators have been trialing triple layer BD media able to store 100GB, offering a storage capacity per layer of around 33GB. Of course we want to be able to offer films like Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy in native High Frame Rate, he adds.

4K Blu-ray versus 4K streaming technology
Interestingly, Gordon does not seem to be alarmed by the rapid UHD progress made by rival streaming technologies: "We view streaming as very complimentary to the Blu-ray experience," he says. "But Blu-ray remains the quality play. Netflix? It's a fundamentally different experience. It's all about what you want to consume and when you want to consume it." The format battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray may well now be part of tech history, but Gordon says such competition will always play a part in progress: "I personally think that as long as there are new technologies and innovations, there will be different possibilities…"

That said, he stresses that Blu-ray as a format continues to grow. Despite unparalleled competition from other content sources, the humble disc appears in rude health. "Western Europe is good, and the US is great," enthuses Gordon. "Over the last quarter, Blu-ray software sales were up 20 per cent. Germany is up 41 per cent over the first half of the year, in the UK it's up 37 per cent over the same period. There's a lot of momentum behind the format. Studios are still very keen to promote the studio ownership model, and physical media remains a big part of that. What it boils down to is all roads lead to the consumer - and a vast majority of the business is bright shiny discs getting sold."

The proliferation of viewing technologies is inevitable, says Gordon. What's happened is the home entertainment market has fragmented, he says. "It used to be one size fits all, and that was DVD. But if you think of all the services which are now coming up, the new ways of consuming content has seen people getting ever more inventive. This was all unimaginable when we launched DVD."

Ultimately though, says Gordon, there's "nothing simpler than disc in tray. Nothing is more beneficial to consumers than a disc in tray that works across all manufacturers products."

Perhaps surprisingly, the BD format has also found a role to play in the growing adoption of High-Res Audio, with the development of Blu-ray Audio. Interestingly though, this doesn't fall under the remit of the BDA. "The discs are compatible with Blu-ray," explains Gordon "but Blu-ray audio is not part of the BD specification." However the BDA spokesman is quick to offer support for the concept. It offers music labels another opportunity dig into their catalogues, he notes.  

Educating consumers about 4K Blu-ray
While there's certain to be buzz about 4K generally, the man from the BDA is under no illusions when it comes to marketing the technology. "Yes, ther will be a need for consumer education" he says, "but everything in its time. There's always the early adopter who wants the latest greatest of everything in the best quality. And that will always be there. They're the influencers. History will repeat itself in that regard."

Of course, Blu-ray has its own affiliated cloud technology in the shape of UltraViolet. However despite grand talks of millions of UV accounts in the wild, there still seems remarkably little consumer awareness, or indeed interest, in UV as a platform...

"We view UltraViolet as a digital extension to the overall content consumer experience," says Gordon. "The growth is impressive. We have a lot of registered users in the US, around 15 million - and a lot of this has grown from the Blu-ray experience. Buyers get the disc and register the code to get a portable version. We see Blu-ray and UltraViolet working hand in hand in that regard." UV is very studio driven, he adds. "It's easy to look at UV and say that was too little to late, but the reality is studios are doing an awful lot, taking an entire industry to the cloud…" 

Also read:
Sony Interview: What next for 4K Ultra HD

Panasonic to debut 4K projector at CES 2014

In-depth: JVC 4K e-shift3 projector HD World event

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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