Blu-ray looks ahead to 4K
LAS VEGAS—Seven years after the Blu-ray Disc Association announced at CES that it had completed the technical specification for the format, the Blu-ray format continues to forge ahead—and its proponents must ponder its future when 4K HDTV televisions are all the rage here at this week's CES.
The first Blu-ray player was priced at $1000 from Samsung, but you can now buy a Blu-ray player for about one-tenth of what a unit cost in 2006. According to the Blu-ray Disc Association, the format is being widely adopted: 50 million households now have Blu-ray playback capability.
That's not bad for a physical disc-based format that grew up with the cloud of, well, the cloud and digital distribution over the Internet.
“Despite the dire predictions about internet distribution making physical media obsolete, Blu-ray has thrived,” says Andy Parsons, BDA president. Projected unit sales are for 2012 are up 21.3 percent year-over-year, according to Screen Digest, led by marquee titles like The Avengers, Brave, Ted, and Twilight.
Catalog sales of those classic titles from years gone by are also growing, according to industry association the Digital Entertainment Group. Parsons notes that this trend is encouraging. “People have been buying older titles that have been released on DVD, and now they're replacing them on Blu-ray,” he says.
The attractive price drops of catalog titles, including sub-$10 bargains, has had a big impact on sales and is the reason for the boost in the past year; after all, studio revenue on these sales has only increased by slightly under 10 percent.
Why Blu-ray rocks
For one thing, Blu-ray remains the most consistent and highest quality option for watching video. The average home has just 6Mbps bandwidth, which often is not enough for viewing high-definition content.
This disc-based media also has the advantage of content ownership. As Parsons rightly observes, with “streaming services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, content that was there a couple of weeks ago may disappear. That's when the benefits of ownership are becoming clear over the benefits of streaming, in terms of the quality of the delivery and the availability of content.”
Studios continue to bolster the appeal of Blu-ray Disc movies and television shows by adding value to the discs. You can often get Blu-rays in combo packs with a DVD, a Digital Copy option for use with a digital media player, and UltraViolet support for streaming or downloading via a digital locker.
And while the promise of BD-Live's options for supplemental connected content never really materialized in a pervasive way, studios are increasingly finding ways to extend the value of Blu-ray—the latest way being by creating a second-screen app that ties into the Blu-ray Disc or movie via either time codes or audio cues. For example, the Sherlock Homes app would provide a map that showed the whereabouts of the detective at any given point in the movie.
Next up: Extending the Blu-ray spec
With all of the talk of 4K this CES, the big question looming is how we can get 4K content onto these great new HDTVs? Sony has already announced it will offer customers a protected server with 4K content on board; but that's a limited play.
Could Blu-ray Disc become the distribution mechanism for this next-generation data? “We created a task force three months ago to study the prospects of adding new technologies to the format,” Parsons reveals. “We will evaluate three criteria, starting with the technical feasibility of doing 4K, which is four times the picture quality of 1080p.” The technology also has several variations between home and Digital Cinema use, all referred to generically as “4K.”
As a format, Blu-ray Disc is capable of handling the necessary capacities involved in 4K. But it would need to either accommodate additional layers to add capacity to the disc, or use more aggressive video codecs to compress the video. Current Blu-ray movie discs top out at 50GB for a dual-layer disc; but today we already have BDXL media for use with up to 100GB rewritable discs, and 128GB write-once disc.
It's not clear to the working group whether 4K can be added to the Blu-ray format inexpensively. After all, if a movie costs more than the player does, no one will rush out and buy it—awesome 4K quality or not.
The second criterion is market demand for 4K media. (It seems so, after seeing the differences between 4K and current 1920-by-1080p content here at CES.) A third question is the impact to the existing installed base of Blu-ray players if a 4K disc is inserted into an older player.
While questions remain, it's good to hear that 4K is at least under consideration for Blu-ray—especially considering that studios have been scanning film masters at 4K resolution for several years already. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment even announced at CES that it will start selling Blu-ray Discs labeled as “Mastered in 4K.” while such discs are clearly intended for today's 1920-by-1080-resolution Blu-ray players, you'll still see extra detail in discs made from a 4K master, so keep an eye for these titles as they roll out this year.