We’re about to step into a new age of content delivery. The 4K TV generation is here, but there’s no content to watch on it. Unlike HD and 3D that came before it, there is no physical disc format capable of storing 4K content, and no standards for playing it. No matter how big a cinephile you are and how much money you’re willing to spend to be an early adopter, it won’t be worth it.
DVDs came along in the late 90s and began displacing VHS cassettes in living rooms around the world (though given the sheer number of people with VCRs, it took till 2003 for DVDs to outpace VHS tapes for home movie rentals in the US). High-def flat-screen TVs became popular during this time, and even though DVDs look great on them, their resolution is significantly lower than HD. Blu-ray was needed to fill up all those pixels, and for everyone who thought DVDs were impressive enough, true 1080p playback came as a revelation. Simultaneously, the competing HD-DVD standard debuted, gained a fair bit of traction and then failed miserably. When 3D came around, many people found that their early-generation Blu-ray players and even HDMI cables had to be replaced. All these things combined to make many people hold off on purchases till they were sure the technology had stabilised. Many early adopters came to regret the amount of money they’d spent.
At each step of the way, people weren’t necessarily dissatisfied with their previous-generation hardware and content, but they were able to see that something far better was available. Even if it was too expensive at the time, they had a good idea of what the next step would be when they were ready to take it. This time, there is no such comfort. We don’t know how 4K TVs are going to be fed with native content.
CES 2013 attendees gather around Samsung's 4K TV display
Like any brand-new premium product, the 4K TVs we’ve seen so far exist mainly so that their manufacturers can claim bragging rights. They’re enormous and morbidly expensive. There is near-zero content at launch time and there isn’t likely to be much soon. 4K video files exist for computers and can be played on 4K screens if you use the right hardware and cables, but that isn’t the way things are usually done at home. There simply isn’t a way for someone to buy a 4K TV today and show it off to his or her friends and neighbours—even if money is no object.
Every potential buyer, no matter how impressed he might be with a store demo, will ask whether he can play 4K movies with his existing DVD or Blu-ray player. When he finds out he can’t, he’ll sigh and bemoan how fast technology changes, and will then resignedly ask what will work instead. But imagine his look of disbelief when he hears that there isn’t anything that will work. Imagine his astonishment when he processes the fact that companies are trying to sell him a TV for Rs 20 lakh or more which he can’t actually make full use of! “Oh, you can upscale Blu-rays!” he’ll be told, like it’s the best thing ever. But upscaling isn’t worth 20 lakhs. There couldn’t be a stronger disincentive for anyone considering a forward-looking investment.
There aren’t any 4K movies to watch. There just isn’t a version of Blu-ray (or a successor to it) that can hold the amount of data a 4K movie would require. Even if there was, no standard for encoding and compressing such data exists. Industry stakeholders are yet to get together to hash out details of the codecs, specifications and copyright protection mechanisms that could eventually become a standard. If they can’t agree, we’ll end up with multiple competing standards again, just like the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD debacle. (Note: a number of Blu-ray discs labeled “Mastered in 4K” will soon hit store shelves everywhere, but these discs are still ordinary Blu-rays that play back at 1080p. They might look a little better and might be able to be upscaled to 4K better, but you still aren’t getting anything close to actual 4K content.)
It’s quite likely that they don’t want to agree in the first place. Content delivery is already fragmented between devices, services and products—you can have some TV channels on some cable/DTH providers, but not all; some channels offer some shows online, but not all; some services work with hardware from the same brand, but not others; some let you rent, some make you buy, some let you stream, others make you download. Customers like digital services because they’re quick and convenient, but content owners like them even more because you can’t share discs, sell them secondhand, pirate them, or keep them forever. You have to do everything their way. If you want to watch their content, you’ll need a TV, phone, tablet or a set-top box (or at least an app) that works the way they want it to—which, if needs be, is not at all.
This doesn’t make sense even in parts of the world where broadband Internet access isn’t a complete joke and monthly data caps can accommodate the size of each movie. It simply won’t do for us or for millions of other people around the world. So we're left out in the cold (and once again, piracy looks like an attractive option).
Internet streaming is a non-starter of an idea. Optical discs could be stretched to higher densities and more layers, but who knows how long that would take. Hard drives could leverage the TVs’ USB ports, but the cost of shipping media on individual drives would be prohibitive.
Sony expertly used its PlayStation 2 and 3 to spread the popularity of the DVD and Blu-ray formats when they were first launched, even though it meant selling the consoles at little to no profit. Details and specifications of the PS4 have just been announced, and there’s no hint of 4K support. Everyone has blown the opportunity to use next-gen consoles as living-room Trojan horses. Gaming might have been the one thing that would stimulate 4K TV sales. Consoles won’t fill that void now, but maybe 4K PC gaming will appeal to the tiny niche of very wealthy gamers who might be willing and able to hook up a powerful gaming rig in their living rooms.
To illustrate just how ridiculously convoluted the situation is just now, Sony’s current solution is to “loan” buyers of its 84-inch 4K Bravia model a PC with content preloaded onto it. New content can be delivered via multiple Blu-ray data discs or a Sony representative will have to come to your house to manually update it. That’s their idea of a distribution system.
Every new tech generation has an initial chicken-and-egg period during which people don't buy in because things are too expensive and prices don't come down because there's no audience to justify mass production. The cycle needs to be broken, but how is that going to happen this time? 4K TV is a wonderful experience—far more rewarding than 3D—but it looks as though no one will be able to enjoy it.