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Will Smartphones Jump-Start 4K Video Adoption?

A rocket in your pocket.

1000 Words /

Nearly ten years ago, U.S. broadcasters, by order of the government, helped usher in the new era of high-definition television. Will the next big upgrade be driven not by the government, but by the high-end smartphones that you may already own?

So-called “Ultra High Definition” or 4K TV sets have barely hit store shelves in the U.S. But that has not stopped mobile phone makers Samsung, LG and Sony from hawking high-end devices since late last year with the capability to shoot videos in 4K, which boasts four times the resolution of conventional HD video.

This could very well turn out to be the first living room revolution launched from your pocket, reflecting a wider trend across media where consumers are at the center, and not on the edge, of technology and entertainment innovation.

“One of the key things that mobile does is that it creates a lot of users with the ability to generate 4K content,” said Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management for Qualcomm Technologies, whose Snapdragon chips power the Samsung and Sony phones. “As the 4K TVs happen at home, while studio content in 4k is coming, there’s a lot more user-generated content that will be available in 4K.”

Although just two percent of the TVs shipped into North America this year will boast 4K screens, according to NPD DisplaySearch, some 160 million phones likely to be sold this year — including such high-end models as the Samsung Galaxy S5, the Sony Xperia Z2 and LG’s G Pro 2 — will sport cameras capable of capturing 4K video, Strategy Analytics estimated.

It is of little surprise that the smartphone camera has upended yet another consumer electronics category. It has decimated the market for point-and-shoot cameras, transformed how we take and share pictures (selfies, anyone?) and made the 1960s sci-fi fantasy of seeing the person you’re calling a basic consumer reality. Improving upon that has forced phone makers to scramble for an edge — whether it’s Apple poaching rival Nokia’s image quality honcho, or LG harnessing laser technology to capture the fastest and sharpest image.

Unlike other, more frivolous new-phone-feature upgrades, better cameras are leaving an impression on consumers. Alec Weinstein, a broadcast-camera operator and cinematographer who lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif., said he had thought Samsung was using 4K video as a marketing gimmick to promote the Galaxy Note 3. He didn’t expect performance that would rival more expensive cameras, such as the Canon 5D Mark III.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Weinstein, who conducted his own video test to compare the performance of the two cameras. He found that the Galaxy Note’s 4K video provided a more detailed, crisper image, even when downscaled to the lower high-definition format, though the Canon did better in low-light conditions and offered greater control over depth of field and focus.

But Weinstein had nowhere to show his videos in their full 4K luster. There’s also no way to get the video from the phone to the TV without resorting to some cumbersome approach, like transferring the image to an SD card. Qualcomm’s Talluri said the technical details should be worked out in a year.

The success of the last home entertainment milestone, high-definition TV, relied upon the formation of an elaborate infrastructure before consumers welcomed it into their living rooms.

Broadcasters were ordered by law to shut off, by mid-2009, the analog-TV signals that had delivered broadcasts since the 1920s and begin offering TV over more efficient digital signals to free up the public airwaves for other uses like wireless data. Consumers used this as an opportunity to upgrade to fancier high definition digital TV sets. An entire ecosystem of devices, such as Blu-ray discs, video-game consoles and pay-TV distributors, supported the transition.

Buoyed by the success of blockbuster films like “Avatar,” the electronics industry attempted to convince consumers to upgrade yet again to new 3-D TVs. But they never caught on with mainstream viewers, who resisted the idea of donning clunky 3-D glasses to watch TV in their own living rooms.

Ultra HD video has sought out a different path into your home. Online streams of Ultra HD quality are already being delivered by services such as Netflix and Amazon and supported by the Internet’s dominant video site, YouTube. Theaters have been screening 4K movies since 2007, to considerably less fanfare than the 3-D movies.

For the moment, screens capable of displaying the video at full 4K resolution in the home are in short supply. The first Ultra HD displays aren’t expected to reach mobile devices — starting with tablets — until next year, based on DisplaySearch projections. Sales of 4K TVs could increase tenfold this year over the prior year’s modest volumes as major manufacturers drop prices below $2,000, according to Strategy Analytics’ forecasts.

Cable, satellite and telecommunications companies are unlikely to hop on the Ultra HD bandwagon until more TVs are in American homes — a development that is still years away. Even though a high-profile sporting event like the 2014 World Cup soccer games were captured in 4K by Brazilian TV service Globosat, using Broadcom technology, those broadcasts weren’t carried by America’s leading sports network, ESPN.

For electronics makers, Ultra HD is a long-term bet. Takeshi Ito, chief technology officer for Sony Mobile, said the Xperia phone is only one component of the Japanese conglomerate’s efforts to advance 4K that also includes the movies produced by its Sony Pictures Entertainment division, its professional cameras and projection equipment, and its TVs for the home.

“Through the HD era, you could only capture HD-resolution video with a high-end recorder,” Ito said. “Nowadays, the device you capture the image on is actually the smartphone … which can expand the availability of content.”

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