UHD Blu-ray: The Stealth Device?

It seems Samsung wins the UHD Blu-ray first-to-U.S.-market award. A week ago, the day before CES officially began, the company put its UBD-K8500 player on pre-sale on its web site at $399.99 (for delivery in March).

But (and imagine I’m furtively whispering here) don’t tell anybody—apparently it’s a secret. In fact, UHD Blu-ray seems like the device no one is showing much enthusiasm for or wants to talk about.

Much like Panasonic’s stealth intro of its UHD Blu-ray player in Japan last November, Samsung made no mention of the new deck at its CES event last Tuesday—even though a Samsung exec told us the day before that it WOULD definitely be announced. Until it wasn’t.

Panasonic, which stuck out its chest when it announced and showed the first UHD Blu-ray prototype at last year’s CES, showed its spring U.S. UHD Blu-ray arrival, the DMP-UB900, at its booth. But the company made no mention of the deck during its CES press event, nor did the company issue a dedicated press release for it.

And neither LG nor Sony exhibited a UHD Blu ray player, though they did acknowledge they will introduce players later this year. Philips showed its compact BDP7501/F7 UHD Blu-ray player ($399.99, spring) and actually heralded it in a press release, albeit secondarily to its new standard BD models.

Why the lack of even moderate enthusiasm for what may be a critical piece of the 4K/UHD ecosystem from the major UHD vendors? After much rumination on this question over the course of CES and its aftermath—imagine us shrugging our shoulders with a blank look on our analyst faces—we still don’t have a clue.

DEG reports packaged goods revenues were down 12 percent in 2015 YoY, following a 10 percent-plus drop in 2014. Perhaps with the rise of streaming—up 18 percent YoY—the usual Blu-ray hardware suspects worry that even talking about physical media in a digital download age would make them appear antediluvian.

UHD Blu-ray’s Saving Grace

It is an interesting situation. Even though physical media may seem so yesterday, it will likely be the gold standard for high-quality UHD playback for some time. The players will deliver 4K resolution, HDR playback and wide color gamut. Plus they can support a bit rate of 100 Mbps. That means a consumer with the latest UHD TV with all the bells and whistles and a UHD Blu ray disc encoded to support all these elements will get a significantly higher-quality playback than is currently delivered by streaming services. Streaming services are simply hobbled by viewers’ limited amount of bandwidth. Over time, however, bandwidth will increase and providers of broadcast transmissions will be able to reach that same standard.

Or, perhaps the UHD BD vendors are not heralding their imminent arrival for other reasons: lack of a bridge to electronic retrieval, storage and convenience. A digital bridge, which is the ability to export content from discs to portable digital formats, isn’t being discussed as part of the first players.

Essentially, a consumer connects their UHD Blu-ray player to the Internet, connects a digital bridge-enabled external hard drive to the deck or inserts a digital bridge-enabled SD card into a deck’s available card slot. The consumer then accesses the digital copy function in the UHD Blu-ray disc menu, and the movie with the necessary permissions and perhaps extra features gets downloaded for transfer to smartphones or tablets.

The primary digital bridge brand looks to be Vidity, which was announced last spring by the Secure Content Storage Association (SCSA), a consortium of companies in the entertainment and storage industries founded in January 2012 by 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, SanDisk and Western Digital (which now owns SanDisk), and now includes Samsung, LG and storage maker Seagate among its hardware members, along with M-GO, a streaming content company.

Considering how poor most U.S. home broadband connections are, especially for 4K streaming, Vidity could become the cool, cost-effective, reliable way of downloading 4K content, if marketed correctly.

Or, consumers may see the UHD BD digital bridge functionality merely as an unnecessary middleman in procuring their digital content. After all, according to DTC, 1.5 billion smartphones and 234.5 million tablets are forecast to be sold this year, vs. just 232 million TVs, which includes 43.6 million 4K UHD TVs. In 2016, DTC projects just 43 million Blu-ray players will be sold worldwide, and that’s assuming UHD BD hardware sales amount to something. It’s clear where the overwhelming majority of digital content is at least obtained, if not consumed.

However, Vidity is not available on any of the new UHD BD decks we saw at CES. According to an SCSA spokesperson, “SCSA (Vidity) is complementary to other ecosystem platforms such as streaming and Blu-ray but has made no statement regarding support for Blu-ray’s optional ‘digital bridge’ functionality.”

Perhaps Vidity is still in the process of establishing its whole BD digital copy ecosystem; its digital bridge specs were only released last August, which may have been too late for the initial rash of UHD BD decks and even 4K movie titles. Perhaps it will appear as a step-up feature in premium UHD BD decks to come, along with Dolby Vision HDR compatibility.

Or perhaps the lack of UHD BD enthusiasm at CES may simply reflect a wait-and-see attitude on the part of the hardware makers, to see if consumers still care about physical media, before making a big marketing and product push, if any.