HPA Tech Retreat 2019: 8K Is Here, Ready Or Not…

As I write this, the second day of the annual HPA Tech Retreat is underway. So far, we’ve learned about deep fakes, film restoration at 12 million frames per second, how to make solid cinema screens work as sound transducers, and how lucrative the market is for media developed for subway systems. Artificial intelligence is a big topic here, used for everything from analyzing frames of film to perform color and gamma correction to flying drones and capturing “point cloud” imaging for virtual backgrounds.

Indeed, artificial intelligence is becoming a valuable tool for searching video footage and finding clips, a much faster process than any conventional search using your eyeballs. TV manufacturers are relying more on basic forms of AI to analyze incoming video streams and perform a variety of transformations to scale and size it to Ultra HD (and eventually 8K) video screens.

In addition to my annual review of the Consumer Electronics Show, I presented a talk on “8K: How’d We Get Here So Quickly?” I casually tossed out this concept last fall when suggesting a session topic, and it was accepted. My research came up with a lot more points than could be fit into 20 minutes, but here are the takeaways:

(1) The migration from 4K to 8K is largely being driven by supply chain decisions in Asia. More specifically, the collapse of profitability in 4K panel and TV manufacturing is leading large Chinese fabs (TCL, Hon Hai, BOW) to build Generation 10.5 and 11 LCD fabs with the intent of cranking out 65-inch and larger 8K TV panels, anticipating over 5 million TV shipments worldwide by 2022.

(2) There are more than a few 8K professional cameras, but all are using 4K lenses. Lenses to fit full-frame 8K sensors are way off in the future and will be challenging and expensive to manufacture, particularly zoom lens designs.

(3) Current display interfaces aren’t nearly fast enough for even basic 8K formats. Samsung’s 85-inch 8K offering is currently equipped with one HDMI 2.0 input (maximum 18 Gb/s), which is fast enough to support 8K (4320p) video @ 30Hz with 8-bit 4:2:0 color. That’s it. HDMI 2.1 won’t make an appearance on most TVs until 2020, and even LG’s 2019 models have to convert a v2.1 input into four v2.0 lanes to drive the displays. DisplayPort 1.4 is fast enough to handle 4320p/30 with 4:2:2 10-bit color, but that’s about it.

(4) Newer codecs will be needed to pack down 8K signals into more manageable sizes. JPEG XS has been shown for compressing 8K/60 10-bit 4:2:0 by a ratio of 5:1 to fit the signal through a 10-gigabit network switch. For high-latency codecs, HEVC H.265 and the new Versatile Video Codec (VVC) will be required to do the heavy lifting.

Most attendees don’t understand this mad rush to 8K, but in my talk I pointed out that 8K R&D has been going on for over 20 years and the first 8K camera sensors were shown at NAB in 2006 – thirteen years ago. Sharp exhibited an 85-inch 8K LCD display at CES in 2012 – 7 years ago. And we appear to be stuck on a 7-year cycle to the next-higher TV resolution, one that started way back in 1998 when the first 720p plasma TVs were coming to market.

Overshadowing everything is 8K content. Where will it come from? Probably not optical disc, but more likely from the cloud over fast networks. NHK launched an 8K Hi-Vision satellite channel last December for viewers in Japan, but that’s it. For that matter, does it even matter that we have 8K content? The scaling engines being shown on 2019 8K TVs make extensive use of artificial intelligence to re-size 4K, Full HD, and even standard definition video to be viewed on an 8K set.

My closing point was that we should just stop obsessing over pixel resolution. Most viewers sit so far away that they would never spot the pixel structure on an Ultra HDTV, let alone 8K. Panel manufacturers may choose to push ever higher with pixels (Innolux showed a 15K display in August of 2018), but we should turn our attention to more important display metrics – color accuracy, consistent tone mapping with HDR content, and improved motion rendering, particularly with high frame rate (HFR) video on the way.

I’ve used the expression “building the plane while flying it” to describe the evolution of 4K and Ultra HD. It’s even more appropriate to describe the world of 8K: Some pieces are in place, others are coming, and some have yet to be developed and are years off.

Yet, here we go, ready or not…