Can 4K learn from 3D's mistakes?
Can 4K learn from 3D's mistakes?
4K is quietly but assuredly supernova-ing into consumer consciousness. CES 2013’s showroom was awash with Ultra HD televisions and 4K demonstrations, Sony Television stood out in particular by not only showing a wide range of 4K televisions, but by also announcing the development of their first 4K Organic LED set. IBC boasted similar affair with many stands devoted to 4K products.
Indeed, it seems as if 4K is the new kid on the block. Boasting twice the resolution of your standard HD television set; the picture quality is unrivalled, offering you sharper, crisper images and a wider spectrum of colours for you viewing delectation.
Despite all the excitement surrounding these new advances, the sense of déjà vu is creeping through each new product unveiling. Tucked away in the dusty corners of these showrooms sat some sad looking 3D televisions – once hailed as the “greatest innovation that’s happened for the movie theatres… since color” . 3D was predicted not too long ago to break the consumer market in a huge way; is 4K just the next overblown hype?
Yes, it wasn’t all that long ago that 3D had the industry buzzing; remember James Cameron’s catalytic Avatar? If you haven’t, it’s basically Pocahontas with blue people, but instead of talking trees and buddy racoons, you have glowing soul-trees with actual nervous systems and spears flying towards your face. That only came out in 2009, but already its landmark technological advance is the talk of yester-year. What was it that derailed 3D’s success? Or was it pre-destined for failure?
To understand more about what happened I spoke to Paul Cameron (no relation to James), a specialist in broadcast and digital cinematography training, for his opinion on what makes a technological advance successful in the consumer market. Paul believes that there are three main parameters that determine the success of any new product development and these are:
1. Price – How affordable this advancement is for the average consumer
2. Level of advance and ease of use – So, does the latest development warrant an upgrade of the product you already have? And if so, how quickly can you assimilate it into your lifestyle?
3. Fashion – Is this product cool? Do all the kids/guys in the office/your bosses/hipsters in Starbucks have it?
If you apply these factors to any new product launch, you get a good idea of what will come out on top, and what will inevitably flop. Paul notes,
“When CD and DVD came out the improvement in quality was obvious to anyone using these new discs. They were also easy to use. So people were prepared to buy new CD players and DVD players even though they were quite expensive to start with. The comparison between price and the level of technical advance was favourable.”
So what about 3D, was that not an obvious advancement?
“…when 3D came out it was quite expensive, there was not much 3D material and it was difficult to use (you need to wear glasses). So it never became very fashionable and it has not really taken off. The comparison between price and level of technical advance was not favourable.”
Paul then went on to describe the transition from standard definition to high definition television. HD also had a hard time breaking the consumer market, largely because of the high costs involved in implementing the transition and overhauling SD workflows. HD won out, however, because the advancement was so obvious and because there was no difficulty for the consumer in using it. A viewer’s experience was only enhanced by this progression; supply ultimately had to meet demand and so that transition was made. By comparison, Paul’s reckons 3D is an advancement, but its level of advance is negated by a lack of available 3D content, awkward glasses and high prices.
So what chance does 4K have?
4K – Does it have staying power?
4K is causing quite a stir in certain circles, but does it boast enough to get consumers interested? If we apply Paul’s three parameters, we get an idea of how 4K will fair when further products are launched.
4K is not cheap. It’s certainly more expensive than when the first 3D TV models launched two, three years ago. A low range Ultra HD television could set you back over £4000, and that’s a pretty off putting figure for your average-Joe consumer.
Level of advance and ease of use
There is an obvious difference between 3D and 2D television – someone puts a pair of specs on your face and you’re instantly involved in a new level of interaction with your television. In my personal opinion, 4K is a fantastic advancement for filmmakers and audiences alike, but its biggest downfall is the fact that many people may not be able to tell the difference between the quality of 1080p and 4320p. This is not because it’s not there, but because there is a limit to how much the eye can take in at a certain distance to appreciate that sublime difference. The only way to avoid this problem would be to make televisions bigger, and this is yet another drawback for poor old average Joe who now has to fit an 85” monster television somewhere into their humble abode.
HBO’s Bob Zitter doesn’t have much faith in 4K for this very reason, arguing that “only 30 percent of homes in the US has space for a 4K TV.” If this isn’t enough to chill a salesman’s heart, leading camera maker ARRI has also recently released a damning statement on the potential of 4K. “4K, right now, is way over-hyped,” says Product Manager of camera systems, Marc Shipman-Mueller. “What’s more important than resolution is overall image quality. Once you have that, you can upres [the images] to 4K, and they look spectacular.”
Of course 4K has many benefits, which Paul highlights.
"I think 4K has a good future in movies and the cinema because it gives movie makers and Hollywood an opportunity to be one better compared to television once again. When television was standard definition, movies were about the analogue equivalent to 2K. HD and 2K are very similar, so the quality in movies has not been that much better than HD tellys at home. 4K provides a good reason to drag people into cinemas, and get back the audiences lost through HD, Blu-Ray (and the relative failure of 3D)."
"4K also provides a future proof solution for movie makers and for television companies. Shoot in 4K, if you can afford it, and you have a superb recording that can be converted to the best quality 4K movie, 2K movie, Blu-Ray, HD programme, DVD, SD programme, Net Flix, You Tube, or whatever! And it can be put into archive for the best quality master for anything th
at comes in the future. Shoot in 4K RAW and you have oodles of quality to mess with."
"And another reason for 4K that has become obvious at IBC, is in sports. Shoot a wide angle 4K shot of a football match, for instance and you can pick out a smaller HD image, like a close up. If a foul occurs elsewhere on the pitch, that would normally be lost with a normal HD camera, the 4K camera with its wide view will probably catch it. The director can get a close-up of the foul, and still have lots of quality to get a good shot. The wide view can also be used to provide a summary of action on the pitch, where the commentator can use a telestrator to draw circles, lines and arrows on the image to show the viewers where things are. This idea could be used in other scenarios in the same way."
All very valid points of course! But is this enough to guarantee 4K's success?
“Mode passes, style remains.” So said the godmother of fashion, Coco Chanel, but how does this apply to technology? I think the best way to compare the chances of 4K against 3D is to look at their equivalents in fashion. As I said before, I believe 3D in its current state is a bit of a gimmick. Entertaining and enjoyable, it serves a purpose for many things like sports coverage or as an extra wow factor when watching an action film, but it’s never really going to enhance the look of a cake on The Great British Bakeoff, or your enjoyment of Kirsty and Phil’s ridiculous banter on Location Location Location. You just get this sense when watching 3D that it’s not really part and parcel of the finished product; almost as if it’s been tacked on. 3D is like shoulder pads.
Shoulder pads w
ere once the height of fashion for go-getting, power-dressing 80s fashionistas, breaking the glass ceiling one shoulder shove in a triangular suit at a time. They were cool for a period, and they served an important purpose, much like 3D television. But they couldn’t be sustained. After a while of getting caught in revolving entrances and subway carriage doors, it was decided that enough was enough (I don’t know the actual reason why they went out of style, other than they look pretty ridiculous) and fashion m
oved on to something bigger and brighter (see Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for an idea of what happened).
There are, however, s
ome things that never go out of style. Some things are just such a fantastic staple of life, that they can never be lost from your wardrobe. The little black dress is one such example, or a beautifully tailored white shirt. I can’t tell you any others because I have at this point completely exhausted my knowledge of fashion, but you hopefully by now get the gist of what I’m saying. HD television, when it first arrived on the scene, was expensive and meant a huge change in established television workflows across the globe, yet it was such an obvious evolution of previous technology, that the transition had to be made. I believe this is the advantage 4K has which 3D lacked. It is a natural progression, the next step on the evolutionary technological ladder. It has substance over fad, style over mode.
So 4K has this vital advantage over 3D, but that by no means guarantees its success. There is still a lack of content out there for 4K (though there have been murmurs of re-versioning old movies such as Laurence of Arabia that were shot on 35-70mm film as 4K, so that’s a bonus), and the substantial size of these sets makes them better fit for a cinema than your average living room. In many ways 4K and 3D seem pretty evenly matched, so only time will tell whether 4K will have better luck.
But I would like to end on a conciliatory note for 3D, I would like to mention that 3D has been very well received by both the gaming community and the medical community – where the simulated perspective has enhanced endoscopic surgery, and it is now being used to create incredibly detailed projection models of injuries. I honestly believe with future advancements and a new kind of technology, 3D could make a come back in a bigger way but, until then, fingers crossed that 4K will make a good stop gap.
And to finish, check out LG’s amazing prank with their new 4K screen, where you’ll see that the moral standards of advertisers have degraded so far that they will go to the lengths of putting people in mortal fear of their lives just to make a viral ad that you can laugh at. And I suppose it shows how awesomely realistic and detailed 4K picture is as well.