ULTRA high-definition or 4K video content, offering four times the resolution of current HD, is being touted by NBN Co as a key advantage for the National Broadband Network, which threatens to leave traditional broadcasters behind.
Experts say that unlike 3DTV, 4KTV is not a "fad or gimmick" and a larger increase in quality than the jump from standard to high definition. Dozens of blockbuster films have been shot in the higher resolution format since 2004.
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HD TVs could fall flat
Tech companies showed off 4K TVs at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, but will they be worth buying until there are ultra HD programmes to watch?
Several expensive big screen TVs supporting 4KTV have already launched in Australia with more affordable models on the way this year. The problem is, with just an hour of 4K video running into the hundreds of gigabytes even when compressed, you can't exactly use a DVD or a standard internet connection to deliver it.
Stephen Langdon, manager of multicast, IPTV and video products at NBN Co, and Landry Fevre, NBN Co's general manager, media, say the huge pipes of a fibre-to-the-home network like the NBN are essential for delivering 4KTV.
"Optical fibre will be the only real effective way of getting 4K content to the consumer," said Langdon.
"[4KTV] is almost 3D without being 3D - it's so immersive that you just feel like you're looking out of a window it's the clearest thing you've ever seen."
Fevre said the NBN would be "open slather" for content providers large and small to offer IPTV and multicast subscription TV products in 4K resolution, with more competition for traditional broadcasters.
Foxtel, which says it is looking at 4KTV "very closely", admits it is "still some way off" implementing the technology required to deliver such high-bandwidth content.
Asked whether Foxtel would consider delivering a 4KTV channel using an internet platform like the NBN, Foxtel's executive director of product Jim Rudder did not rule it out, saying Foxtel would deliver the new technology "in the most effective and efficient way possible whether it be over IP, satellite or cable".
Langdon said current HD channels operate at about 6-8mbps whereas 4K content with the best compression would require at least 25-30Mbps. This would be comfortably supported by the NBN's base 100Mbps speeds.
He said NBN Co would be running a trial early this year testing multicast content delivery over NBN in a new development estate in Sydney in partnership with iiNet, which will be capable of streaming 4K video.
NBN Co wants traditional broadcasters to get on board distributing content over the internet. "Spectrum is a very finite resource in Australia so transmitting that level of bandwidth over the free-to-air transmitters is going to be a challenge," said Langdon.
Gartner principal research analyst Paul O'Donovan told Fairfax Media 4KTV was "not a fad or gimmick like 3DTV" and the technology was a natural progression in screen resolution for TVs.
"Unlike 3D, there is a lot of content available as 4K is a digital cinema standard and has been around since 2004," he said.
"Sony Pictures already has a back catalogue of over 40 movies in the 4K format as do other studios and content providers."
Delivering the high bandwidth video to consumers in the native 4K resolution is the biggest obstacle to 4KTV adoption. One method of delivering the content is satellite. In Europe, Eutelsat has already launched a 4KTV channel and British firms Sky and DirectTV are also considering similar launches.
Sony has also announced a dedicated 4K media player loaded with blockbusters (likely to be US-only initially) and there will also be Blu-ray products that support 4K later this year. Netflix in the US is testing 4K content delivery over the internet. YouTube already supports 4K video.
"So this is nothing like the 3D fad, this is a realistic proposition and benefits the viewer by increasing the colour gamut, colour depth and texture, said O'Donovan.
He said nobody would buy a digital camera or phone that only had a 2-megapixel camera these days but 2 megapixels was the total resolution you get in a current 1080p high-definition panel.
"So less than half the resolution of the average 5 megapixel camera phone can be seen on the latest and great HD TVs, he said.
"This sells it for me and for many consumers. Their own content immediately becomes better on an ultra-HD TV and there is movie content available as well.
In November last year the first 4K TVs debuted in Australia, 84-inch models from Sony and LG priced at $24,999 and $15,999 respectively.
This month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, 4KTVs dominated, including new smaller, cheaper 55-, 56- and 65-inch models, shown off by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Hisense and Changhong. Only Changhong has announced pricing and availability for the smaller models in Australia so far - a 65-inch set available in the second half of the year for under $6000.
"Choice testers reckon they [4KTVs] are a good thing," a spokeswoman for the consumer group told Fairfax. "Even though no 4K content will be broadcast in the foreseeable future, Blu-ray, HDTV, and even DVDs and SDTV look good when they are upscaled to 4k."
Choice said because the individual pixels are much smaller on a 4KTV viewers can sit closer to a larger screen without them being noticeable.
Paul Colley, group manager of Sony Australia's network services and technology division, said the visual difference between full HD and 4KTV was far greater than the difference between standard definition and full HD.
"Six million pixels greater to be specific," he said. "The content will come. Yes there is not massive availability of content for consumers today but that is always the way with new technology."
Colley said there was very little content available when other platforms like CD, DVD, Blu-ray launched.
He said many Hollywood titles had been captured in 4K as far back as 2004 and they are already displayed in that format in thousands of cinemas but now the technology was coming into the home.
Personal 4K video cameras - to match the existing professional models - were shown off at CES and most digital photos are already in 4K resolution or above, Colley said.
He said new 4K codecs were reducing file sizes of 4K video to the point where soon it will be able to be streamed from current cable connections.
"The NBN will only accelerate this ability," he said.
Langdon said with the NBN, more than 90 per cent of Australia would be able to access high quality video content over the internet rather than just those in fast broadband areas.