If you’ve been following the gradual rise of Ultra HD TVs, you’ve only been getting half of the picture. Computer monitors, some Blu-ray players, and now even laptops are 4K compatible, but there’s one crucial piece of the equation still missing — content.
This isn’t a new argument — I’ve been complaining about the distinct lack of 4K video content in Australia since the launch of LG’s pioneering 84-inch 84LM9600 — but it’s telling that even a couple of years after that announcement, there’s effectively no difference in the availability of Ultra HD movies to the average Australian.
We don’t have Netflix (yet?), Foxtel streams its IPTV video at sub-720p resolution and mediocre bit rates, and the closest thing we have to 4K is some confusingly named ‘Mastered In 4K’ 1080p Blu-rays from Sony Pictures.
For 4K content to become ubiquitous in Australia to the level that Samsung, Sony, LG and Panasonic must want it to be (to sell more Ultra HD TVs, right?), there has to be some momentous shift in the way Australian viewers consume their television and movies.
Free to air TV is, unfortunately, a dead end — at least for the time being. The unfortunate confluence of timing, finicky multi-channel legislation from the Federal Government, and a disastrous foray into trial 3D broadcasts killed off the chance of Aussie TV viewers getting anything more than the occasional 720p or 1080i burst on One or SBS any time soon.
From what I understand, money is a pressing concern for both the government-run and commercial free to air broadcasters, and it doesn’t make economic sense to push 1080p Full HD FTA TV, let alone 4K. And that’s notwithstanding the technical challenges and limitations of the broadcast spectrum allocation in Australia. Japanese broadcaster NHK is the go-to for 4K and 8K development, but we can’t realistically expect the same here.
Don’t look straight to the Internet, either. I’m one of the crazy few who owns a copy of TimeScapes in 4K. I bought it online, but the file was delivered to me (a few days later; it came from New Zealand) on a USB flash drive. I downloaded the 5GB 1080p version while I waited, but clearly the 25GB 4K video was too much for the production company’s data centre bandwidth.
I bet that same argument is playing out in Foxtel HQ, as in Quickflix HQ, as in Samsung’s online video department, as you read this. Australia’s internet quality, by and large, is not good enough to facilitate streaming 4K video. There’s simply no way around that — our data caps are too small, our ‘net is too slow, and the cost of transferring large amounts of data internationally, inter-network and eventually to your home is too high. The NBN (fibre to the home for sure, but perhaps to the node as well) will be a huge enabler in this area, but it won’t be around for quite a while to come.
And if you’re holding out hope for a new physical standard format to come along and offer us 4K salvation, you’ll be holding on for a long time. Does anyone else remember how complicated the transition from DVD to Blu-ray (via HD-DVD) was? I don’t want to go through that again. A new 4K disc would render every current Blu-ray player obsolete, annoying everyone who bought one alongside their 4K TVs hoping for the best. At the moment, in Australia, my money is (extremely warily) on a new software format like HEVC H.265, delivered over USB flash — but have you seen any announcements around that recently?
As disheartening as all that is, I happen to think we should all be heartened by the relatively speedy rise of 4K content creation and consumption in a tangentially-related field. CAD companies and designers on the PC and Mac have readily embraced the extra visible resolution offered by 4K, as has the PC gaming community. Even Toshiba’s newest laptop, the Satellite P50t, has a 4K touchscreen.
If you want a thrilling and immersive 4K experience in your home, right now, all you need is a relatively powerful gaming PC with a good graphics card, a few thousand dollars extra to blow on a mid- to high-end Ultra HD monitor, and a Steam or Origin account. Hell, you can even hook up your 4K TV.
It’s far easier to make your own 4K fun than rely on an Australian ISP, TV station or movie distributor to supply it to you. Isn’t that a little odd?
It’s not movie-makers’ fault, either. Even indie production houses, smaller movie studios and the Sony/Universal/Paramount blockbuster-creating behemoths have made great and rapid leaps forward in their adoption of 4K. You’d struggle to find a high profile film that isn’t substantially shot in 4K, and many cinemas house shiny new 4K projectors and digital cinema package playback systems.
There’s just something getting in the way between those filmmakers and the film-watchers sitting at home in Australia, staring sadly into their under-used Ultra HD TVs.