Sony Interview: What next for 4K Ultra HD?

posted on Friday, 13th December 2013 by Steve May

Blu-ray  4K  Streaming 

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Despite a distinct lack of native content, the 4K Ultra HD TV bandwagon is picking up speed. First generation sets are finding an appreciative audience, and in the process are raising the bar when it comes to image quality. For the first time since the heyday of plasma and the Pioneer Kuro, custom installers and high-end retailers have a compelling performance-led proposition to offer. 2014 looks likely to see an even bigger Ultra HD evolution in the home video market, as broadcasters and studios begin fast-tracking acquisition and distribution technologies.

To learn more, Inside CI caught up with John Anderson, Head of Home Entertainment and Sound for Sony Europe. Sony remains very much the flag waver for the 4K format in the home entertainment space and professional media, as well as leading the way in 4K digital cinema distribution and custom install projection. We talked about developments in native 4K content delivery, the explosive growth in TV sales and looked ahead at what 4K Ultra HD might mean in 2014…

4K movie download service for Europe
Despite copious upscaling solutions able to pass Full HD content off as UHD, the big conundrum remains native content. Are we any nearer to seeing an expansion of Sony's 4K movie content download service beyond the United States?

According to Anderson "it's all about priorities - we haven't got a 4K download movie service in Europe yet, as we have in the US, but we're evaluating it." He says the brand is taking a step by step approach. "There're lots of considerations, such as issues of bandwidth available in various countries. You're talking about a high level of data consumption when it comes to 4K delivery." Pushed for some sort of commitment, Sony's home entertainment head merely smiles.  "All I can say is it's currently under investigation. If it wasn't, I wouldn't say it…"

It does seem that things are due to become clear fairly soon. Anderson describes the upcoming International CES as "an important launch pad" for Sony, adding:  "It comes right at the beginning of the calendar year. Things will become clearer next spring, I think. You'll see much more coming up in both the 4K space and High Res Audio space from us."

4K to take a larger slice of the big screen TV sales pie
Intriguingly, it appears even Sony has been surprised by the rapid take off of 4K. "Personally, I've been surprised to see so many manufacturers get behind 4K so soon," admits Anderson. But this increase in shop front competition has brought immediate benefits. "The format isn't such a hard sell to retailers now," he says. "They all accept it's coming." The technology is also rapidly carving a space for itself when it comes to larger screen sizes. "We've been going through our 2014 cycle of planning for 4K TV sales," reveals Anderson, "and while we're expecting to see a total reduction in the overall number of sets being sold, because we have a high penetration of screens already, the 46- to 50-inch market is growing quite dynamically." In that sector he notes, the total volume of sets which are 4K could easily reach 20 per cent in 2014. Possibly more! "4K in the bigger screen sizes is moving even quicker than we thought last year…"

4K: What's in a name?
Of course, while multiple manufacturers have launched 4K screens, the industry doesn't seem to have a consensus on what these high performance sets should be labelled as - 4K, UHD, 2160p? John Anderson concedes that there's a marketing message to consider. "Are we selling 4K? Are we selling Ultra High Definition? This issue is particularly important for retailers, they have to work out how to simplify the message across different brands," he says. "In terms of labelling, Ultra HD sounds like a nice step up from HD and Standard Definition, but our advice is also to use the 4K label."

Sony recently launched a high profile TV and cinema advertising campaign to support Ultra HD, choosing to push the 4K label hard. "Yes, we went above the line in the UK TV market from November using 4K and Ultra HD. Just as in America, we're using both terms. The feedback from the States is that by using the word 4K, it's very, very easy for the guys in the shops to talk about screens offering 4x the detail."

Anderson confides that Sony America was originally very much into using Ultra HD as the main moniker, but the consensus now was that the label, first touted by the CEA, is actually a bit too vague.  "We think there's growing recognition for the term 4K. The term is used in cinemas, and it's on our Mastered in 4K Blu-ray discs. I think we need to use both terms at the same time…"

Unsurprisingly, on the issue of a 4K Blu-ray standard announcement, the official line is still infuriatingly vague. "Well that's a discussion point," teases Anderson. "Will 4K come via physical discs or streaming? There're a lot of discussions going on. I think at CES could prove to be a turning point in that regard..."

Also read:
CEDIA Expo: Sony outs 4K Ultra HD projector flagship

Sony cut-price 4K projector brings digital cinema home

Sony KD-65X9005A 4K Ultra HD TV review

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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