In depth: Sony plans 4K movie service for PlayStation 4

posted on Wednesday, 6th March 2013 by Steve May

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Sony's PlayStation 4 is increasingly looking like the Trojan horse that will usher 4K Ultra HD TVs into the living room. Speaking at a press event in New York, Sony Electronics President Phil Molyneux confirmed that a 4K film and TV download service utilising the new console was on the cards, although details remain infuriatingly sparse.

4K Ultra HD is widely heralded as the next step in the evolution of TV picture quality, offering four times the resolution of Full HD. To help distinguish between Ultra HD and DCI spec 4K, the CEA has decreed that all screens which offer 3840 X 2160 resolution should be designated Ultra High-Definition. To qualify as an Ultra HD display these screens must also offer at least one digital input capable of carrying and presenting native 4K format video, without relying on up-converting. Shawn DuBravac, director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association concedes that while "4K is not really a product that's applicable to everyone," he's optimistic that "those consumers seeking a very rich visual experience," whether it's for movies, photography or gameplay, "will want to make that move upwards as quickly as possible."

DuBravac notes that the shift to 4K is just part of an industry-wide rush to higher pixels. Smartphone displays have edged up to 440ppi (pixels per inch) from 330ppi just as tablets are heading to 300ppi from 224ppi. Those that have seen UHD resolution images know just how beguiling the system is, but motivating consumers to buy into it depends entirely on available content.

4K Ultra HD TV choices
The choice of 4K Ultra HD displays is currently limited to just two 84-inch LED LCD monsters from Sony and LG. They may offer unparalleled picture quality but come with eye-watering price tags of £25,000 and £22,500 apiece. Later this year both brands will release smaller models (65- and 55-inches) and prices are expected to drop to below £10,000. That said, head of Sony UK's TV business Paul Gyles, is keen to suggest that the new "sets are not built purely for 4K. They all benefit from our unique 4K X-Reality Pro engine which allows 2K content to be upscaled to near 4K resolution. It's like looking through a window."

And there are more dramatic TV choices on the way. Both Sony and Panasonic have shown spectacula r 56-inch 4K OLED prototypes, which insiders hint could debut as early as 2014. Slowly, as the number of 4K Ultra HD TVs increases, prices are certain to tumble.

4K subscription movie service
Sony is clearly hoping to use the PS4 to leverage 4K in the same way it utilized the PS3 to break Blu-ray and the PS2 to promote DVD. The plan could work. The catch is that unlike its past two offerings, content will come via downloads rather than on disc. And this could prove problematic. Molyneux says a 4K movie could be in excess of 100GB, which at best is an overnight download for many users. He concedes that there are 'challenges to work through.' but says Sony has 'some very good ideas that will make that a comfortable consumer experience.' There's been no confirmation of codecs yet; HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) would seem the sensible route to go, as it's considerably more efficient than any other alternative. The PlayStation 4 isn't the first time Sony has talked about a 4K movie service. Last year the company promised a subscription 4K movie service for US buyers of its 84-inch XBR-84X900 Ultra HD screen, showing off a new circular server design at the January International CES.

The prospect of a movie download service may be enticing, but don't expect it to launch in the UK simultaneously with the US. Sony's Gyles has already told Inside CI that there are currently no plans to bring 4K downloads to Europe: 'It's a United States only thing,' he said.

Building catalogue
On the plus side, Sony Pictures, along with other Hollywood studios, has been quickly building a catalogue of 4K content, which it says comprises current movies, such as The Amazing Spider-Man (one of the lead titles in its Mastered in 4K Blu-ray disc range) and Skyfall, and classics through its remastering projects (Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver and Dr. Strangelove being but three high profile recent examples). This burgeoning library also makes adopting 4K a non-brainer for Pay TV services down the road.  Chris Johns, Chief Engineer for BSkyB, told Inside CI: "Offering 4K movies is relatively easy," but added that any future 4K subscription service would ultimately be dictated by decoder chip availability and consumer panel take up. "For us 4K is about deciding what it can offer our customers." He added that he saw Ultra HD sports coverage as the killer app for the satcaster - BSkyB started 4K trials at the Emirates in 2012. But would consumers be prepared to invest in significantly larger screen sizes for Ultra HD?  "Our research indicates that 84-inches is the largest you can go with a TV in a UK home, and 4K is perfect for that," he said.

Not that package media has thrown in the towel just yet. The Blu-ray Association has now formed a Working Group to formally work out how 4K can be accommodated within the existing Blu-ray specification, and is expected to make recommendations by the summer. However all this may come too late for the PS4. That said, while much depends on the Working Group's conclusions, it's possible that the console could be firmware upgraded to the new specification at a later date.

Of course, 4K is not just about movies. Sony has confirmed that the PS4 will output 4K resolution JPEGs as well. But, you don't need to wait for the PS4 to do that. The brand recently upgraded the PS3's PlayMemories Studio software, to enable 3840 X 2160 resolution stills to be delivered over HDMI to a 4K screen.

However things eventually play out, it's looking increasingly likely that 4K is going to happen rather faster than many gave it credit for last year. This should give high-end integrators pause for thought. While there are still puzzle pieces to be revealed and placed, 4K Ultra HD looks certain to have a big impact over the next 12 months. The smart move would be for installers to start paving the way for it on projects sooner rather than later.

Also read:
Panasonic hopeful for 4K OLED TV launch next year
2013: International CES: The Installer's viewpoint

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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Posted by Petri Teittinen on 9th March 2013, 12:55 PM
The Amazing Spider-Man and Skyfall are not 4K movies. TASM's live action was shot in 5K but the movie, including all the VFX, was finished in 2K. Sony needs to re-do in 4K everything previously done in 2K for TASM to qualify as a 4K movie. The situation's even worse for Skyfall. It was shot on an Arri Alexa which can do 2.8K when shooting in ARRIRAW format; otherwise it shoots 1080p. Hence, Skyfall will never be a 4K movie.
Posted by Darren Shear on 10th March 2013, 9:17 PM
Ah I dream about 4k video games on an 84 inch 4k screen, hope to see this in my living room soon!

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