4K Claims Commercial Video Market

Ultra HD format goes beyond consumers and makes way into digital signage, control rooms and other B2B applications.

Aaron Stern
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Sony’s Gordon Shackelford is an evangelist of Ultra High-Definition display technology, and for the past year has lived and breathed it. During a panel extolling the virtues and potential of 4K Ultra HD displays at last November’s CI Summit in San Diego, Shackelford sang the praises of the format, which promises four times the resolution of 1080p HD.

“After a year of watching 4K, 2K just seems thin,” he said.

Indeed, the beauty and clarity of Ultra HD displays is seemingly undeniable. But how and when they will catch on in commercial environments is unclear, and the early indications are that it will be another year or two before it is widely adopted. For now, high price points and issues with content — a dearth of material and limitations in distributing it — are keeping the lid on 4K.

But 4K will not, experts say, be a flash in the pan. Shackelford scoffed at the notion that Ultra HD would fall flat on its face like most would agree another recent buzz-worthy video format — 3D — has done.

Steven Barlow, president of digital signal solutions manufacturer DVI Gear, sides with Shackelford. “Manufacturers are motivated because they’re looking for a legitimate reason for people to upgrade,” Barlow says. “They tried to do that with 3D but failed miserably.”

Some commercial installations simply won’t be able to avoid the shift to 4K, because of the potential consumer letdown otherwise. Think about sports bars that use stretched-out standard-definition images on their flat panels rather than crisp, aspect-ratio appropriate HD for showing games — patrons can see the differences and won’t settle for sub-standard viewing.

“The biggest factor pushing many venues to 4K is that people are expecting it,” says Bob Caniglia, senior regional manager for creative video solutions provider Blackmagic Design. “They are seeing beautiful 4K images in digital signage (McCarran Airport in Las Vegas is a great example), and the push by folks like Netflix around 4K content is getting the general consumer accustomed to the technology. If you are a venue that depends on impressing people with amazing AV displays, the last thing you want is to have someone show up … and think that they could have seen a better image on their TV at home.”

Road to Market Adoption

Where 4K will thrive in 2014 is the consumer sector, estimates Mitsubishi Electric’s Frank DeMartin. There are a bevy of displays ready to flood the market, which saw the category launch in earnest in 2013, and 4K awareness will rise as consumers snap up the new displays.

“Manufacturers are motivated because they’re looking for a legitimate reason for people to upgrade. They tried to do that with 3D but failed miserably.” — Steven Barlow, DVIGear

Until that consumer awareness catches hold, look for Ultra HD to be adopted first in mission-critical commercial sectors where high-resolution is essential to the task, places like health care facilities and government command centers. Beyond that, it will likely be adopted into the places where wow-factor, eye-popping video can translate to dollars — large venues, high-end retail spaces and museums, for instance, will likely be the initial broader markets where Ultra HD takes hold. But in corporate and higher education applications, for instance, Ultra HD displays are more of a luxury right now.

“Medical imaging, mapping, visualization, and engineering are all applications that demand the very highest resolution. Anything that can deliver more information to critical decision-makers in these markets is a business necessity, not a nice-to-have,” says Dave Silberstein, director of commercial marketing for automation and AV distribution manufacturer Crestron. “Digital signage also presents a tremendous application for 4K, because the displays are large and viewers often get very close to them in retail and outdoor venues.”

One thing cutting against the 4K tide is that even now, as Ultra HD is still securing a foothold, whispers of the wonders of 8K are starting to spread. So integrators also must combat the skepticism, perhaps justified to some degree, of customers who are wary of planned obsolescence. It is up to integrators to reassure their customers that investments in 4K displays will have long-term implications.

“As far as planned obsolescence goes, you’re probably pretty safe for a few years,” says Ken Eagle, director of training and technical sales at Atlona.

Adds Blackmagic Design’s Caniglia: “I think format fatigue will be a problem for some. Where will the K’s stop? Some venue owners might be wondering why they should spend all that money for 4K when they still need to show HD and there will probably be something better in two years. Going hand in hand with this, many venues won’t understand that their HD infrastructure, which they spent a lot of capital on, is compatible with 4K.

“But on a positive note, we have seen that the [commercial] AV world is much further ahead in terms of using and understanding 4K than anyone else. There still needs to be a lot of education on the realities of 4K, but there are plenty of examples of people already doing it.”