In October 1988, the theme of Broadcast Engineering’s then sister publication Video Systems was “Resolution Revolution.” The highlight of the exciting news was, wait for it, Super VHS. The magazine also carried an article about HDTV, but at the time, HD was considered a technical curiosity similar to the soon-to-be-emerging Internet. The only HDTV network at the time was operated by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It allowed doctors to conduct video consultations at 1050-line resolution. Other parties actively interested in HDTV were the New York Port Authority and a Canadian grocery store chain wanting to display closed-circuit in-store HD ads. Broadcaster interest was conspicuously absent.
In 1972, NHK created “NHK Color,” an 1150-line 60Hz system with an aspect ratio of 5:3. According to an Annenberg Washington Program presentation in Chicago, SMPTE first discovered HDTV as it was being used in a Japanese auto parts factory. While some might question the validity of that claim, there is no question that SMPTE recognized the future and established its authority in HDTV testing and studies in the 1970s. The analog NHK Color evolved into Hi-Vision, aka MUSE, and was first broadcast in Japan via satellite in late 1994. In 1996, WRAL-HD in Raleigh, NC, was the first on-air station in the U.S. to broadcast an HDTV signal. Then came DTV, and the rest is history.
Today, HDTV is everywhere. Looking as forward as possible at the time it was implemented, ATSC’s Table 3 definitions of HDTV streams go no further than 1080p. Clearly outdated, the group is working on ATSC standard 3.0 to keep up with the now-perpetual resolution revolution. The problem today is that broadcasting and its audience is like an aircraft carrier — huge, powerful and slow to change course. The Internet offers the agility of a modern speed boat and is, therefore, the greatest challenge to broadcasters. Already, YouTube allows a maximum resolution upload of 4096 x 3072, which is a 4:3 aspect ratio 4K format containing 12.6 megapixels. Unfortunately, at this time, most 4K Internet video is so highly compressed, it’s difficult for average viewers to clearly observe the advanced 4K quality.
As of now, there are no 4K DVD or 4K Blu-ray specifications. One reason is that even when compressed by HEVC, a feature-length 4K movie would contain twice the data a dual-layer Blu-ray disc can presently hold. When Sony recently announced prices and availability of its new line of 4K TV displays at the 2013 NAB Show, it also announced the FMP-X1 Media Player. Although it looks like a disc player, technical details are being held close to the vest. The player comes preloaded with 10 feature films and shorts, stored non-optically. The company also announced an upcoming video distribution service to bring the 4K entertainment experience to viewers at home, assumedly by download.
At January’s Las Vegas CES, the company announced a library of “Mastered in 4K” Blu-ray discs meeting Blu-ray specs, but not actually 4K. Not surprisingly, the company says when the content is “upscaled” by its line of 4K Ultra HD TVs, the “discs serve as an ideal way for consumers to experience near-4K picture quality,” somewhat reminiscent of the interim and short-lived 1440 x 1080 HDCAM/HDV format.