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4K: Are We There Yet?

4K: Are We There Yet?

For some tech managers, 4K is mission-critical. For others, 4K isn’t even in the radar. What’s stalling wider adoption?

Over the past few years, 4K/UHD has dominated the conversation and represented the edge of innovation for video switching and distribution manufacturers. The last three InfoComm tradeshows have treated us with “new and improved,” “4K” solutions, and promised that “this is the year 4K proliferates.” I, myself, even referred to it as being on “the precipice of practicality” last fall. I’m not certain whether that statement is any less accurate today than it was a year ago.

Slowly but surely, the products in the marketplace have grown from gigantic displays with incredibly niche applications to practical displays, switching and distribution infrastructure, and now even source device—media players and cameras. In addition, just about every computer on the market today outputs video signals in excess of 1080p that looks terrible when scaled down to 1920x1080. Manufacturers have been releasing products that are incrementally moving towards, what I would consider to be 4K, but the industry is still lagging behind in 4K adoption. For some technology managers, 4K isn’t on the radar at all. For others, a hesitancy to accept the benefits of 4K system designs and solutions still remain. In the past 12 months, prices of 4k products have fallen, from displays to infrastructure costs. Several manufacturers have even discontinued 2K specific products in favor of 4K products (which also support 2K) at the same price.

As an industry, we’ve come a long way in terms of developing products that serve the needs of technology managers wanting to utilize 4K resolutions, but there’s still significant progress to be made.

SO WHERE ARE WE WITH 4K?

Since the inception of the HDMI 1.4 standard, we’ve been able to use 4K, provided users chose to do so either with full color description (4:4:4 Chroma sub sampling and 12 bit color) at 30 frames per second or, if fast motion (60 fps) content is needed, the Chroma would need to be sampled using a 4:2:2 or 4:2:0 compression rate and the color depth lowered in order to incorporate these signals due to bandwidth limitations. It was understood that these limitations were due to the available hardware at the time. Recently, with the release of the HDMI 2.0 specification, the available data rate for HDMI 2.0 cables has increased to 18 Gbps, or twice the data rate of HDMI 1.4 cables.

Recently, Extron electronics released a whitepaper entitled Hitting the Moving Target of 4K, as well as launched a “True4K” campaign. This has generated a lot of attention within the AV Industry. According to Joe da Silva, Director of Product Marketing for Extron Electronics, Extron said that there was a lot of misinformation and not enough good information to help customers make a solid buying decision. “We feel it’s important to educate the market on the information they need to know in order to choose the right 4K product for their application,” da Silva said.

For Extron, that means more clearly defining those specifications for our products. The specifications da Silva is referring to are not only the total resolution, but also the frame-rate, Chroma sub sampling, and Color Depth. “We’re not saying ‘True4K’ is a certain level of 4K; we’re saying we’re being truthful about our 4K specifications and our 4K products.”

The desire to be more up front in advertising is felt throughout the industry, especially from technology managers who can find product specifications and marketing materials to be, at best, less than forthcoming, and at worst, conflicting and ambiguous. Justin Kennington, Technology Manager, DigitalMedia and Streaming Solutions, for Crestron said, “It’s a great idea. 4K is complicated, it’s more than a resolution: it also includes frame-rate, Chroma sub sampling, and Color Depth.”

Kennington also pointed out that Crestron’s DigitalMedia line, which includes digital solutions for small conference rooms all the way through 128x128 enterprise switching solutions have always had each of these four factors clearly labeled in all of their products’ technical specifications.

Bill Schripsema, senior commercial product manager, also concurred. “Providing full specifications are essential as each of the four subgroups dramatically change the bandwidth required to transmit a signal,” Schripsema said.

WHAT 4K HURDLES REMAIN TODAY?

The biggest piece of the 4K puzzle has always been and still remains to be the infrastructure. There are many products in the marketplace that handle transmission for 4K/60/4:2:0/8 or 4K/30/4:4:4/12. What doesn’t exist, yet, is the transmission method for full 4K/60/4:4:4/12. Extron is prepared with the frame and the HDMI 2.0 I/O cards, but no real way to get the content from the sources to the frame and from the frame to the display beyond using HDMI 2.0 cables, which will effectively be useless beyond 20 feet at that data rate. Other single-cable transmission mediums such as fiber optic transmitters/receivers and HDBaseT or Twisted Pair products reach their data limit at approximately 10 Gbps. Joe da Silva is brutally honest about this, “what can be sent over twisted pair, HDBaseT technology is a 4K/30/4:4:4 signal.”

Enterprise infrastructure distribution products for 4K/60/4:4:4 aren’t yet available, but that’s not the only hurdle to overcome. There are also concerns about content protection. Adrian Boyd, an audiovisual systems design engineer with more than 15 years of experience, designing cutting edge digital audio and video solutions, still points to content protection concerns as a red flag when designing 4K systems. In talking about the compatibility concerns between HDCP 1.x and HDCP 2.x systems, he states “this means all those digital systems we’ve designed and installed over the last few years can be rendered non-functional just by replacing a source.”

Another hurdle that remains, and likely will remain for some time, is the ability to stream 4K content. Right now the consumer market is looking at streaming 4K content through a variety of providers, but that doesn’t limit the need to stream 4K to the consumer industry. Pro AV technology managers need streaming in their audiovisual systems. Some applications call for streaming presentations and content to external websites, or cloud-based capture software. Other applications need to be able to transport video over existing IP networks to move beyond the distance limitations associated with dedicated infrastructure. For traditional high definition signals (720p and 1080p), the primary codec for IP streaming was H.264, which uses Chroma sampling as part of its compression algorithm. Newer compression algorithms, such as H.265, have a similar color compression component.

“We are faced with a requirement to now stream four times the information of an HD signal on networks at an acceptable bandwidth,” da Silva said. What remains unrealistic now, and for the foreseeable future, is moving high-resolution content such as 4K or UHD signals around on existing corporate networks. Technology managers will be forced to compress 4K content in order to make streaming a viable option. Compression can occur in various ways, such as downscaling or Chroma sub sampling and, typically, this also results in greater latency of the video deliver. This is especially problematic for applications requiring real time streaming.

Extron Electronics has a proprietary video code for use with some of their products. The PURE3 codec, which is focused on higher performance, lower delay, and preserving the integrity of the video image, including 4:4:4 color sampling, has been demonstrated at 4K resolutions with 60 frames per second but requires four separate encoders and four decoders to deliver synchronized, frame locked signals to a display system that accepts four inputs. This is similar to several of their HDBaseT extension systems that require multiple inputs and outputs to be synchronized to deliver a 4K/60/4:4:4/12 signal.

WHO REALLY NEEDS 4K/60/4:4:4?

Another easy target for 4K detractors is content. There have been floods of articles in magazines and on blogs bemoaning the lack of 4K content and it being one of the major hurdles slowing 4K adoption. Although I’m not sure it is as legitimate of a concern, or obstacle, to the adoption of 4K as some others, especially for business and enterprise customers.

“On one hand there’s a push towards bigger, faster, more, better. We build digital electronics. That is what we do. On the other hand the need for that kind of video is unclear,” said Crestron’s Kennington. For the most part, the lack of content is still on the consumer side. Enterprise and Corporate environments are already poised to take advantage of 4K, regardless of consumer content available in the marketplace. “The resolution itself—more pixels, makes a much more efficient, more productive, user experience in the commercial environment especially,” Kennington continued.

Everyone benefits from more pixels, but not every application demands 4K/60/4:4:4. For users manipulating data, spreadsheets, slide shows, databases and the like, the increased pixels can be a tremendous benefit. Being able to have more windows open, more rows on a spreadsheet, more pages in a word processing application points to a more efficient user experience. Users today are already accustomed to that as just about every computer, and most smartphones, are exceeding 1080p systems.

“People expect when I plug in my laptop into the conference room table I want to see the same image on my display as on my laptop. I’ve got my slides built just so, I’ve got a spreadsheet and am looking at 25 rows. If you plug these devices into a lower resolution system or display, suddenly you’re only looking at five rows of your spreadsheet and you’ve lost all your formatting on your slides because the resolution has changed,” explained Kennington. This is a similar frustration as the one felt in the migration to 1080p display environments, he suggested.

In terms of applications that can benefit from, not only the increased resolution, but also improved frame-rate, better Chroma sampling and high motion rates, Extron’s da Silva points towards several specialized applications that are ready for it. He notes, “A command and control center would be an ideal fit, you’re seeing fast moving, computer-generated content on the screen. You’re going to want 60 frames per second, not 30.” The key differentiation, for da Silva is fast moving with high detail. In other computer-generated environments, the Chroma sampling is imperative, and color bit depth comes into play in certain applications. According to da Silva, “support of the higher bit depth is important wherever material with high color fidelity is prevalent for critical viewing. Medical applications, the oil industry and geological type applications where color makes a big difference” are applications that are ready, today, for full 4K.

IS 4K/60/4:4:4/12 THE NEXT BIG EVOLUTION FOR THE AV INDUSTRY

Now that one manufacturer has introduced a switcher with a 50 Gbps backplane into the marketplace, and will also soon have HDMI 2.0 I/O cards, have we finally seen the first of what will be a sea of changes toward manufacturers releasing matrix switchers capable of this 50 Gbps throughput, designed to deliver 4K/60/4:4:4/12? I wouldn’t bet on it.

According to Crestron’s Justin Kennington, “The next real evolution will be 8K, rather than arguing how many color bits are available in 4K. The consumer industry drives the technology these days. They’re the ones who drive chip manufactures and buy millions of parts. If we want to go to full 8K, suddenly it’s a 64+ Gbps signal.” If and when that is the case, switching manufacturers will have to release frames with an increased bandwidth. For now, the XTP II CrossPoint represents a significant leap in performance over existing switching products in the marketplace. This frame will handle all flavors of 4K.

As da Silva noted, “The resolution arms race isn’t likely to end soon; therefore, it’s wise for customers to make an investment in AV infrastructure that will last as long as possible.”

This certainly will not be the last time the industry has this discussion, with regards to resolution and frame-rate, with Chroma sampling and color depth. There are products on the market today which will support any defined standard of 4K, but for how long will this be relevant, remains to be seen. There’s been significant progress made over the last year to set the foundation for 4K proliferation, but there are too many key missing features, at this time, for industry wide adoption to grow significantly.

Mike Brandes, CTS, DMC-D-4K, is writer, analyst, and former university technology manager.

Step Away from The 4K Label

It’s better not to focus on the resolution so much as the pixel clock. You will see many manufacturers claiming their products are “4K certified” or “4K compatible.” What that could mean is that their interfacing products are capable of passing lower frame rate Ultra HD signals with limited color bit depth.

Notable 4K Products & Systems

4K HDMI HDBASET 5PLAY EXTENDER

THE WHAT: An HDBaseT-certified transmitter and receiver, the Black Box 4K HDMI HDBaseT 5Play Extender allows users to transmit Ultra HD video with up to 4K resolution along with audio, IR, and serial RS-232 control signals up to 328 feet over a single CAT6 cable, or up to 500 feet in 1080p resolution in a special Long- Reach mode.

THE WHAT ELSE: The transmitter can be used to transmit audio, video, and control signal as well as power over one cable to a remote device. The HDBaseT-based extender provides 10.2 Gbps of bandwidth on all channels.

WHY THIS MATTERS: The 4K HDMI HDBaseT 5Play Extender transmitter is powering the remote device over the same cable using 48V PoH (Power over HDBaseT), and the 100BaseT passthrough capability distributes HDMI and Ethernet to a display over the same non-networked cable link.

MORE INFO:www.blackbox.com

CRESTRON DIGITALMEDIA 4K MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION SWITCHERS

THE WHAT: Three models for three room sizes: Crestron’s HDMD8x1- 4K, all-in-one 4K Scaling Presentation Switcher provides 4K auto-switching solution for smaller rooms, such as huddle spaces, and smaller budgets. Adding on features for mediumsized rooms, the DM-MD8x1-4K-C with HDBaseT output adds a mic input and a DM output, so HDBaseT can be run to the room display. Next up is the perfect fit for classrooms and conference rooms with the 3-Series 4K DigitalMedia Presentation System, DMPS3-4K-150-C.

THE WHAT ELSE: All three all-in-one presentation switchers are built on the new Crestron .AV Framework technology, so they’re ready to go right out of the box. Setup can be done from an iPad, laptop, or touch screen, without custom programming.

MORE INFO:www.crestron.com

4K RESOLUTION WITH EDID MANAGEMENT

THE WHAT: Kramer Electronics’ WP-5VH2 ultra HD HDBaseT active wall plate auto switcher, offers 4K resolution (ultra HD at a 2K price point) with EDID management, HDMI, VGA, unbalanced stereo audio, HDMI audio embedding and de-embedding, and clock stretching.

THE WHAT ELSE: The WP-5VH2 supports newer video sources that now offer faster Display Data Channel (DDC) rates, and can be powered remotely via HDBaseT using a Power over Ethernet injector.

WHY THIS MATTERS: The Kramer WP-5VH2 active wall plate auto switcher, can transmit data to a compatible receiver (e.g., the Kramer TP-588D or Kramer TP-580RXR) up to 328 feet with 4K, and up to 590 feet with 1080p60 via a CAT6a twisted pair cable.

MORE INFO:www.kramerus.com

NEW SWITCHES AND EXTENDERS WITH 4K SUPPORT

THE WHAT: The Rose Electronics universal Orion Xtender universal I/O board supports 4K video for the display port and dual-link DVI interfaces, as well as 3G-SDI and USB 3.0 high-speed data rate signals.

THE WHAT ELSE: You can customize a Rose Electronics Orion X or Orion XC KVM matrix switching and extender system with fiber, CATx, and Coax with support for either SDI signals or USB 3.0 sources. The universal card is an innovative coax/fiber hybrid solution using modular pluggable form factor technology. Each port can be configured to the desired cabling, control signal, and video requirements. Coax and fiber connections can be shared on the same eight-port card.

WHY THIS MATTERS: When ordering an Orion switch, specify your video and signal preferences, and the switch will be built to meet your requirements.

MORE INFO:www.rose.com

4K MODULES & LIVE WINDOW TRANSITIONS

THE WHAT: The CORIOmaster and CORIOmaster mini from tvONE offer a different approach to building video wall display arrays. This all-in-one system solution can manage up to four canvases for supporting multiple video walls, while also performing various other video tasks simultaneously, including: real-time 360 video rotations, multi-image processing and rotation & edge blending.

THE WHAT ELSE: tvONE CORIOmaster systems expand capabilities by adding live window transitions & 4K modules. Transitions is a new animation feature controlled by presets and allows users to create dynamic visual effects on sources in windows, such as fade through black, horizontal and vertical shrink, spin, and window movement consisting of window size, rotation and placement. The 4K input cards allow for HDMI resolutions up to 4K60 3840x2160 and the scaling 4K30 HDMI output card with resolutions up to 3840x2160. Both modules are HDMI 1.4 compatible.

MORE INFO:www.tvone.com