4K – do we need it?

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Digital video resolutions

4k – it’s one of the latest buzzwords, just like in their turn were 3D-televisions, smart televisions, and before them not-so-smart televisions with HD, Full-HD, et cetera ad infinitum. This time the promise is (again) having greatest ever picture quality combined with (at first) greatest ever price tags and immaturity problems. Still, 4k will arrive, and it isn’t bad News for others but video gamers who will be forced to make insanely expensive updates to their beloved PCs in order for the latest hit game to look something else than a dia presentation.

4k means display or photo/video technology with horizontal resolution ca. 4000 pixels. Consumer grade products don’t quite reach this, their resolution being 3840×2160 pixels, but this doesn’t normally matter.

What do we do with it?

More pixels equals to more details in video games, movies, workspace, etc. It also means enormous extra need for devices’ performance, because both the memory and computing power required quadruples compared to today’s common “Full-HD” content. It is therefore not that surprising that only the absolutely most powerful graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia are capable of handling modern demanding video games in 4k and good visual quality. Even then the power consumption of just the graphics card exceeds even 500 watts (!) and the price is equally stunning. This situation will change in time, but right now 4k isn’t a practical choice for video gamers.

Another problematic issue is saving and playing of moving picture (video), since although the hardware requirements aren’t as ridiculous as in video gaming, mere encoding (packing) and this huge amount of data (for distribution and storage) takes a lot of computing capacity. Decoding is somewhat easier. Here we also face an interesting challenge concerning camera technology. Digital cameras have been sold and promoted using “megapixel marketing”, meaning as many pixels in the sensor as possible, no matter if the real world performance suffered. For example, 16 MP isn’t rare today even in cheap consumer cameras. What remains unsaid, however, is that the technical quality of lenses used in these cameras can’t nearly match the resolution of the sensor. Especially on the side areas real resolution may be below 2 MP. What we get is a large picture file with little real detail.

The same challenge applies to video cameras. 4k material makes sense only, if both the equipment used for recording video, and the devices used for playback are capable of utilizing the enormous resolution properly. Otherwise one will only receive undetailed content in very large files (or data streams). Video messaging itself hardly ever needs resolution this good; Full-HD is more than capable of showing people’s faces well enough.

But what if..? And where shall this lead?

There is, however, at least one practical use for 4k-technology when it comes to video meetings: presenting and sharing materials. That’s the situation where the superior resolution combined with large displays can provide superior user experience. Documents can be presented in finest details. 4k-capable video cameras will arrive in 1-2 years, and they will be very expensive at first. On the other hand, a video meeting camera doesn’t necessarily have to have 4k-resolution to be useful in 4k-meetings. As long as the other material can be presented using the full resolution, a Full-HD camera often does the job well enough. Vidyo has already announced their 4k support for video meetings, and the others will follow. There is no urgent need to jump on the 4k-train for a while, but for those who need this kind of resolution for training, teamwork, etc. purposes, this new technology will offer new ways to do things in 2015, perhaps already in 2014.

Progress won’t halt; there is already 8k waiting around the corner, and one can only wonder what more. Right now, however, 4k is nearly as great a leap forward as Full-HD was compared to old (but at the time mostly adequate enough) PAL and NTSC standards used in the olden days of television. Soon 4k will be everywhere, including our mobile devices, and few people will even remember times before it. A good reminder of the progress already made can be found in Youtube video service. It is full of NTSC (Never Twice the Same Color, as some named it) or PAL -quality (at best 768×576 px, but often considerably worse) material, like music videos transferred from a VHS or other home video cassette. What looked okay, or even good in 1985, looks absolutely awful on today’s large, hi-resolution displays! Shall today’s Full-HD material face the same destiny in the future? To some point, probably, but not as dramatically. Good Full-HD material of today is likely to look at least decent enough also after next decades, unless something totally revolutionary will come out.  Chances are that something amazing will come out and change – again – the way we see things, but that goes to Science Fiction’s ball park, and thus we stop our speculation here. 😉


About the author: Tommi Hietavuo
A connector of things related to creating ever better mobile and web services of all kinds. A fiction writer, too.