Posts Tagged ‘UHD Blu-ray’

Blu-Ray: On The Endangered Species List?

One of the problems with market research is that you often wind up with conflicting data from two or more sources. Or, the data presents a “conclusion” that’s all too easy to “spin” to advance an argument or make a point.

Ever since the two adversaries in the blue laser optical disc format squared off with pistols at twenty paces in 2008 (and one lost), the clear trend of media consumption has favored streaming and digital downloads. Entire business models have collapsed as a result, including Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video sales and rental stores. The last two Blockbuster outlets in Alaska are closing, leaving just one solitary brick-and-mortar operation in Oregon.

With Netflix now serving over 100 million subscribers around the world and Amazon rumored to be working on a smart TV for delivering Prime video, the tide hasn’t stopped rising. Purchases of digital downloads and streaming media surpassed physical media in dollar value way back in 2015 and the gap continues to widen as more customers take advantage of fast broadband, smarter DVRs, and improved codecs for reliable delivery of Full HD AND 4K video over networks.

My industry colleague Greg Tarr recently posted a story on the HD GURU Web site quoting NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker as saying that, “…Ultra HD Blu-ray player sales increased by more than 150% over 2017 and the revenue is up 61%. The {Average Selling Price] ASP is $165 this year compared to $272 for the first 5 months of 2017.” Baker further pointed out that that sales of Ultra HD Blu-ray players in the United States increased 82% in May and revenue increased 13% with an ASP of $168. NPD estimates that 4K Ultra HD players represented about 15% of Blu-ray unit sales for the first five months of 2018.

Well, that certainly sounds like great news, doesn’t it? But some perspective is in order.

First off, all of these $168 players (which once cost north of $300 – $500 not long ago) also have built-in WiFi connections and can stream content from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu. And of course, they’re backward-compatible with standard Blu-ray, DVD, and CD audio formats.

Given the ridiculously low prices on Ultra HDTVs these days (such as 55-inch models with HDR 10 support for as low as $450), many consumers may simply be in a major TV and home entertainment upgrade cycle. I bought my first 1080p TV in 2008, a 42-inch Panasonic plasma, for about $1200. And I’m now ready to upgrade from a 2012-vintage, 47-inch 1080p LCD model, to a 55-inch or 60-inch smart 4K set, which with HDR support will cost me about as much as that 42-inch Panasonic from 2008.

Will I pick up an Ultra HD player too? Hey, for $150, why not? And will I watch a lot of UHD Blu-ray discs on it? Probably not, since I will be able to stream Netflix and Prime video at 4K resolution. Will that streamed 4K content look as good as a physical disc playing out at more than 100 Mb/s? Maybe not, but on the other hand, I won’t have to buy or rent any more discs. And based on my experience the other night watching “The Catcher Was A Spy” from Amazon Prime, I will be quite happy with the result.

Yes, you can buy a 4K TV at Shop Rite, available in the bread aisle. (Photo courtesy Norm Hurst)

As the saying goes, facts are stubborn things. The facts are; physical media sales have been in slow and steady decline for over a decade (and continue to decline) and Ultra HD BD disc sales constitute a small portion of overall media consumption. For that matter, so do sales of players: Research firm Futuresource predicts that global UHD Blu-ray player unit shipments should hit just 2.3 million, with more than 50% of those sales taking place in North America.

To put that in perspective, ABI Research forecasts that worldwide Ultra HD flat panel TV shipments will surpass 102 million in 2018, representing 44% of all WW flat panel TV shipments (about 232 million). So even with “record” sales growth, Ultra HD Blu-ray player sales will only constitute about 2.2% of Ultra HDTV sales, with the bulk of those player sales taking place in North America and Europe.

ABI also predicts that just shy of 200 million Ultra HDTVs will be sold in 2023 worldwide, with the majority taking place in China (which doesn’t use our Blu-ray format but instead relies on “China Blue,” the old HD-DVD standard). Coincidentally, Tarr’s article states that, “…market research predicts that blue laser optical disc player shipments will decrease from 72.1 million in 2017 to 68 million in 2023. Unit shipments for the global Blu-ray media market are expected to decrease from 595 million in 2017 to 516 million in 2023.”

That trend would seem to be at odds with TV purchases, according to an April press release from Futuresource. “We believe 4K UHD TV sets will ship over 100 million units this year, equivalent to two-thirds of the entire large screen market,” comments David Tett, Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “Consumers increasingly want larger screens, and this is playing nicely into the 4K UHD proposition. HDR is expected to be present in 60% of 4K UHD sets this year.”

Digesting all of this data reveals that (a) 4K TV sales continue grow to worldwide (which is also being driven by a changeover from Full HD to 4K TV fab production, but that’s another story), (b) 4K TV sales will constitute an ever-larger percentage of overall TV sales by 2023 – if not close to 90%, (c) more and more consumers are streaming and downloading digital video than purchasing optical discs, (d) even with strong sales through the first six months of 2018, Ultra HD Blu-ray players are selling at a rate of just two for every 100 Ultra HDTVs purchased, and (e) overall sales of Blu-ray players of all kinds are in steady decline.

I fully expect to hear all of the arguments for UHD Blu-ray, picture quality being one of them. But if I can stream UHD content with HDR at acceptable quality levels, why do I need to buy discs? I’ll have access to an enormous cloud library and I’ll be more environmentally conscious, too. Besides, I rarely watch a movie more than once (look at the piles of old DVDs people try to get rid of at garage sales or foist on libraries). There’s plenty of good content available from video-on-demand.

Ultra HD video content with HDR @ 16 Mb/s that looks as good as UHD Blu-ray? Yep, Fraunhofer IHS showed it at NAB 2016.

And UHD BD supporters neglect to consider all of the continual advancements being made with codecs. A couple of years ago, Fraunhofer showed absolutely stunning Ultra HD video with dynamic HDR on a 65-inch UHDTV, encoded with HEVC H.265 at an average bit rate of 16 Mb/s – 15% of the peak streaming rate for Ultra HD Blu-ray – and they were encoding tricky stuff like confetti, wind-whipped waves, and moving objects with plenty of changing specular highlights. All heavy lifting.

Granted, it took two computers to do the software encoding and decoding. But those two computers can easily be reduced to a set of chips with firmware and a powerful CPU and installed inside my next TV.

So what would I need an optical disc player for?

Samsung Moves Front & Center With HDR

Last Wednesday, I was one of a group of journalists, engineers, and other technical types sitting in on a presentation about high dynamic range (HDR) TV. The location was Samsung’s sparkling-new product showcase in lower Manhattan at 837 Washington Street, and the presenters ranged from Samsung execs to well-known industry consultants, including Florian Friedrich of AVTOP, Steve Panosian of Samsung, Kevin Miller from ISF, Gerard Catapano from Samsung QA Labs, and Jason Hartlove of Nanosys.

THE NEXT BIG THING

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about high dynamic range television by now. Along with Ultra HD resolution, HDR is the next big thing in TV displays, along with a new, wider color gamut, and eventually high frame rate video.

The transition away from mature Full HD (1920×1080) display technology to Ultra HD is happening much faster than most people expected. The costs of manufacturing LCD panels for televisions have absolutely plummeted in the past couple of years; so much that there is at best a $50 to $100 price delta between same-size 1080p and 2160p TV models.

In fact, we will start to see major TV brands dropping 1080p models altogether in larger screen sizes; possibly as soon as December. Sales experience is showing that customers take the upgrade to 4K more often than not when buying sets measuring 55 inches or larger, which is good news for retailers.

And that’s “qualified” good news, as worldwide sales of televisions have been in decline the past four years. The double-digit annual growth of Ultra HDTV sales are keeping things from getting worse and leading everyone in Japan, Korea, and China to focus on 4K and leave increasing numbers of sales of 1080p sets to the bargain brands.

But quadrupling the picture resolution by itself isn’t enough to turn the tide. Hence, we now have HDR, which can produce images containing peak brightness levels that are 10x higher than what we used to see on our old tube HDTVs. (Remember those?) And the colors represented on these displays are also much more saturated and intense, thanks to advancements in illumination technology.

Back in the early days of high definition television, we were largely in unknown territory. The first HDTV broadcasts used terrestrial television, and everyone needed to learn more about antennas and set-top boxes. Yet, seven years after the first HDTV broadcasts, every major network had produced some quantity of HDTV content.

There were missteps. Remember the surge in interest in 3D about a decade ago? It peaked in 2009 and featured competing 3D encoding and viewing standards, expensive glasses that often broke, complaints of headaches and nausea after extended, and even a campaign by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists to test for eye disorders; one based on the inability of certain people to see stereoscopic images correctly.

TIME TO CHANGE THINGS UP

Gerard Catapano from Samsung and Chris Chinnock of Insight Media talk about UHDTV market trends.

Gerard Catapano from Samsung and Chris Chinnock of Insight Media talk about UHDTV market trends.

HDR is different. You don’t need anything other than the naked eye to see it, and the premise of HDR is that you are watching images with peak whites and contrast ratios that follow closely what you see in real life (about 14 stops of light at any instant, from deep shadows to peak brightness).

What’s more, the colors you see rendered in HDR are much more vivid than what our current televisions can display as they’re working with a restricted color gamut. If you’ve seen bright neon or LED signs at night, marveled at a brilliant sunset, or gotten up close to tropical flowers in bloom, you know how hard it is to reproduce those intense colors on a television or computer monitor.

That’s all changed. We’re now standing at the threshold of an entirely different class of displays that are advanced by several orders of magnitude from the color TVs your parents or grandparents watched 50 years ago. It isn’t just about having more pixels – it’s about adding in all of the visual elements that replicate what you see every day.

Samsung's KS98900 HDR TV, as seen last April at Samsung's 837 Washington Street showroom. It uses quantum dots manufactured by Nanosys.

Samsung’s KS9800 HDR TV, as seen last April at Samsung’s 837 Washington Street showroom. It uses quantum dots manufactured by Nanosys.

Samsung is one of the first companies to get out of the gate with HDR televisions, and they’re using a new technology to light up the screen. Instead of conventional white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and arrays of color filters, the light source is made up of arrays of blue LEDs and matrices of green and red quantum dots (QDs). It’s not difficult to get intensely-saturated and bright blues from LEDs, but green and red provide more of a challenge. Hence; the QD backlight.

And they are bright. Samsung claims that their HDR TVs can achieve 1000 candelas per square meter (cd/m2) in a small area, which is quite the jump from the 300 cd/m2 or so that conventional white LED backlights can generate. Plus, the intense greens and reds generated by QDs have expanded the gamut of displayable colors considerably; closer to that of digital cinema projectors.

Now, the catch: How can we measure the performance of an HDR TV equipped with quantum dots? We can’t use the older test pattern generators and set-up Blu-ray discs as they’re limited to the current ITU Recommendation BT.709 color space and only use 8-bit color encoding. (HDR is based on a 10-bit color system.)

For that matter, we can’t even use the older display interfaces to connect a test pattern generator. For HDMI, the standard must be version 2.0a, and if we want to use DisplayPort, it must be version 1.4. It goes without saying that we must use an Ultra HD Blu-ray player if we want to source HDR test patterns from optical disc – and there is exactly one of those (Samsung) on the market, with another one coming from Panasonic this fall.

Florian Friedrich and Kevin Miller discuss the challenges of evaluating and calibrating HDR TVs.

Florian Friedrich and Kevin Miller discuss the challenges of evaluating and calibrating HDR TVs.

At the Samsung event, Friedrich and Miller explained how a new suite of test patterns has been prepared for Ultra HD Blu-ray to both evaluate and calibrate an HDR display. This test pattern UHD BD will be available from Samsung and can be used with any HDR TV, even the line-up of LG organic light-emitting diode (OLED) UHD sets that have come to market.

Steve Panosian talked about the lack of standards in TV performance and how there has to be a better way for consumers to compare the performance of one brand of HDR TVs against another. Although at this point in time, there are so few models available that it’s basically Samsung vs. LG, with companies like TCL and Hisense looking to get into the game this year.

Jason Hartlove from Nanosys made an appearance to talk about what’s happening with quantum dot science and what the next generation of HDR TVs might look like as the QD arrays in Ultra HDTVs start to resemble something like an OLED emitter array. And Chris Chinnock of Insight Media served as moderator for the day’s events, which culminated in hands-on sessions showing how to use the test pattern UHD Blu-ray to evaluate a set’s performance and calibrate it for optimal results.

The panel weighs in on the current state of HDR in consumer displays.

The panel weighs in on the current state of HDR in consumer displays.

The interesting thing about HDR TVs is that we really don’t need to provide much in the way of user adjustments anymore. HDR TVs use CEA 861.3 metadata, flowing through an HDMI or DisplayPort connection, to determine brightness levels, gamma, and color values.  And with peak brightness values in the range of 800 – 1000 cd/m2, why would we need to have a “Dynamic” picture mode setting? (It’s already dynamic!)

Although I had seen this demonstration on two previous occasions, Insight Media and Samsung did an excellent job of explaining the challenges in both designing a set of test patterns to evaluate HDR TV performance and putting those patterns to actual use. I was reminded of those early days of HDTV: What signal format and connector do I need? What kind of antenna will pick up the broadcasts, and where do I aim it? What’s the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?

THE NEXT STEPS

My advice to everyone remains unchanged, however. If you are in the market for a new Ultra HDTV with HDR, I would hold off on purchasing it until at least January, if not next spring. By then, there should be several models supporting more than one HDR format (the baseline being HDR 10, but there are at least four others developed by Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, and the BBC).

More importantly, your UHD set should support not only HDR content flowing through a display connection, but over an Internet connection. More and more content delivery is switching to video streaming as we move away from physical media. Plus, you’ll certainly spend less money on an HDR set if you can sit on your hands for a while, and there may even be a few more UHD Blu-ray player models to choose from six months from now, along with a lot more movies mastered in HDR.