4K Blu-Ray: Too Much, Too Late?

At IFA in Berlin earlier this month, the Blu-ray powers-that-be awarded selected members of the media specifics of the upcoming 4K Blu-ray format. But the manner of the meeting revealed as much as the technical information imparted.

No grandiose announcement in an auditorium, not even a private meeting room briefing bolstered by a PowerPoint presentation. No, news about the long-rumored coming of 4K Blu-ray was casually imparted across a plastic-topped table in the cramped and crowded Philips press lounge in a pleasant cookie-catered tête-á-tête with a Sony executive and a marketing rep (preceded by a stimulating conversation about the U.S. baseball pennant races).

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

4K Blu-ray is either the savior of packaged media or its last gasp on the way to tech’s trash heap. That’s because Blu-ray hardware sales are –  what’s the technical term? – not good. DTC projects global non-PlayStation/non-PC Blu-ray hardware sales will be flat through 2015.

But what happens when 4K Blu-ray players hit the market in force in 2016? That’s the $129.99 Director’s Cut Special Edition Boxed Set question.

4K Blu-ray specs

At my IFA briefing, a Sony executive and a committee chair for the Blu-ray Group, told me the technical framework for the next-generation Blu-ray format has been set, with only a few outstanding issues remaining to be resolved.

The 4K Blu-ray spec calls for two disc capacities – 66 GB, which will support a 108 Mbps transfer rate, and 100 GB with a 128 Mbps transfer rate. Each capacity will support all frame rates 60p and below, an extended color gamut with 10-bit channel depth rather than 8-bit, high dynamic range, HEVC/H.265 decoding and HDMI 2.0.

By the time the interminable NBA and NHL playoffs finally conclude next spring, the 4K Blu-ray spec is scheduled to be completed and licensing to begin. Some aggressive hardware makers may have models on shelves by the holiday season next year, the executive predicted.

And then what? What impact will 4K Blu-ray have on the overall Blu-ray market?

IMHO, little to none.

4K Blu-ray roadblocks

It’s never a good thing when sales of your really expensive new product depend solely on the sales of another really expensive new product, and 4K Blu-ray decks depend solely on sales of 4K UHD TVs. And right now, the jury is still out on mass-market success of UHD TVs.

But even if UHD sales surprisingly and suddenly take off (and the entry of mass market TV savant Vizio into the UHD category this week may help), three factors may forestall 4K Blu-ray adoption.

First is the fact that all UHDs and a growing number of current Blu-ray decks upconvert 2K to 4K. I’ve seen some of these conversions, and they’re damned good. Why invest in new expensive 4K Blu-ray hardware when upconverted 2K Blu-ray already looks fabulous?

Second, how exactly are retailers going to demo 4K Blu-ray? It requires a very large screen and content encoded for all the benefits of UHD (high resolution, high frame rate, increased dynamic brightness and color range) to be able to see the difference between HD and UHD.  And to many, the difference probably won’t be enough to get them to go out and buy a new high-end TV if they didn’t already plan to buy one.

Third, streaming. Netflix and Amazon have already started 4K video streaming of its original programming. And by the time 4K Blu-ray decks make their appearances in 12 to 18 months, multiple companies will have joined Sony with 4K video streamer STBs, and all HEVC/H.265-enabled UHDs will likely be able to receive 4K video streams through content apps such as Netflix and Amazon. For now only a handful of consumers actually have the equipment and the bandwidth to play back the 4K streamed content, so 4K Blu-ray titles can help fill the current content gap. But how long will that “bridge” solution be needed?

Maybe in their heart-of-hearts, the Blu-ray hardware powers-that-be realize 4K may be a market and technological Hail Mary, hence the low-key unveiling.