Netflix Expects 4K Streaming Within Two Years

Netflix expects to be streaming UltraHD 4K content within a couple of years—which, if it happens, would be a watershed moment for the evolution of the next-generation of video resolution.

The upper end of HDTV offers a 2K resolution (2048 pixels over 1080 lines), but UltraHD ups the ante with 4K resolution (4096 pixels over 2160 lines). It thus delivers a resolution of eight million pixels, or four times the resolution of HDTV. It’s a big change, and only a handful of films have been produced using 4K cameras. Also, there is no broadcast standard for television feeds, nor compatible Blu-ray players or other STBs, meaning that the majority of TV companies have thus far opted out of spending the money to upgrade their equipment to deliver the content.

Thus, “streaming will be the best way to get the 4K picture into people's homes,� said Neil Hunt, chief product officer at Netflix, in an interview with the Verge. “That's because of the challenges involved in upgrading broadcast technologies and the fact that it isn't anticipated within the Blu-ray disc standard. Clearly we have much work to do with the compression and decode capability, but we expect to be delivering 4K within a year or two with at least some movies and then over time become an important source of 4K.�

He pointed out that while one of Netflix’ original series, House of Cards, was mastered in full HD and shot in 4K. The company expects to take that raw footage and “have some House of Cards 4K encodes later this year,� Hunt noted.

Outside of having content available, the other key to everything, of course, is reaching an install base of devices that can properly render 4K content. High-end models of UltraHD TVs (going for $10,000-$25,000 a pop) were showcased at CES (News - Alert) and Mobile World Congress this year, but the industry has a long way to go to get 4K capability into consumer hands.

But one analyst argues that if set-makers wrap a range of content types into their offerings, 4K could become much more than simply a path to a crisper picture.

“Video standards and broadcasting count for less – at least as far as TV brands’ strategies are concerned,� said Paul Gray, researcher at DisplaySearch. “TV is becoming a mixture of video and graphics. As smart TV services mature and the big processor cores in the next generation of TV chips are used, graphics and Internet content become increasingly important.�

Enter, of course, Netflix. Hunt said that his company is ready for the transition. “Our goal is for people to get immersed in the story, whatever that is,� Hunt said. “And to that end we try to make the technology as seamless and smooth as possible. If people notice the rendering of the picture or the user interface, then that's subtracting from the experience we're looking for. The goal is to deliver the best possible picture that your equipment and network and source material is capable of. That way, we let people connect most closely to what they're watching.�

Meanwhile, David Hsieh (News - Alert), NPD DisplaySearch vice president for the greater China market, said panel manufacturers are also looking to accelerate 4K panel adoption by strengthening their relationships with LCD TV brands with more aggressive manufacturing and sales efforts.

 “4K×2K LCD TV is the newest TV technology available, and in order for it to be successful, it will be critical for the supply chain to avoid falling behind when making their purchases, even if content is still scarce,� Hsieh added. “Some panel makers are also working with design houses to develop circuits built into the panel, to enable up-scaling of HD to 4K×2K content. This will help to drive the 4K×2K LCD TV market and encourage panel makers, especially those that have already started design-in work with TV brands in 2013.�

Edited by Rachel Ramsey