Not long ago, 4K video was a very long way outside the mainstream. Even if 4K screens are becoming affordable, the technology will never take off without plenty of content published in the new format. Well, that groundswell of 4K video content is happening in 2015 -- including Blu-ray discs supporting the higher resolution.
To enjoy the next-generation standard for high definition video, which quadruples the pixel count on your screen while expanding the available color palette, you need three things:
- A 4K-capable screen, of course -- and the improved quality will make a larger difference on bigger screens.
- Content created with 4K resolutions in mind.
- A way to deliver that 4K video stream to your fancy TV set.
This three-way marriage has been rare so far. Last year, you largely had to settle for a handful of 4K movies or TV shows available on Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), plus a smattering of ultra high-def YouTube videos.
Each of these content libraries must be pushed to the 4K screen by a select handful of approved devices, and it's been nothing but highly compressed online video streaming so far. That's about to change.
The popular Blu-ray disc will soon handle 4K video. Announced last September and demonstrated at January's CES gala, the 4K-ready Blu-ray format should be ready for mass production by the end of 2015. And that might be just the adrenaline shot that the 4K revolution needs in order to hit every living room in your neighborhood.
What difference will Ultra HD Blu-ray make?
There's nothing inherently wrong with online streaming services, but 4K video will consume a lot of your bandwidth, even in a heavily compressed format.
Video purists will complain about lost detail. Consumers subject to monthly data caps will start hitting those limits very quickly. And if your home only has access to DSL broadband services, which tap out long before cable or fiber systems hit their top speeds and barely qualify as broadband at all nowadays, the 4K streaming idea simply may not work for you.
Blu-ray discs avoid all of these issues. There's no need to suck down enormous amounts of information through your broadband connection, and no need to compress the video to the hilt. The proposed standards don't just expand the field of view, but also adopt a more efficient compression format and might even double the amount of data stored on a single disc.
Is anybody making movies fit for a 4K screen yet?
If you think that movie studios and other content producers will be left upstream without a paddle, their catalogs bulging with lower-resolution original videos, you're happily mistaken -- with a few caveats. The problem is real for many TV series shot with digital cameras.
For example, CW hit Supernatural is shot with digital cameras and mastered directly to the regular 1080i high-def standard. HBO produces Game of Thrones the same way. The cameras used can produce 4K video -- but some of that detail is surely lost along the way as shots are cropped, special effects applied, and so forth.
These producers can't just bake up a 4K version of their shows, slap them onto a beefed-up Blu-ray disc, and start invading store shelves. If they want to go 4K later on, they'll have to change their production standards. Older seasons are stuck at 1080i, short of scaling up and remastering the whole shebang -- another process that simply won't fly with video quality purists. But the vast majority of Hollywood's productions will be good to go, with nothing more than a spit shine and another publishing pipeline.
Today's digital cinema projectors already present movies in a 4K format. The cinematic process is actually a little bit more detailed than the home entertainment 4K standard, with a few extra lines of vertical resolution, and a slightly broader wide-screen stretch. This conversion should be a cinch, and almost identical to the original product.
Ah... but what about older movies and the reactionary auteurs, both of which probably used 35mm film for every step of the production?
This is one of those cases where the digital world can only hope to provide a decent carbon copy of the analog reality. The level of detail captured by old-school film is easily comparable to 8K video, which is another four times the pixel count of the 4K standards we've been looking at here.
Even so, digital video always comes with limitations to the color ranges you can see. Analog film has no such step-by-step graduations from one shade to the next.
Taken together, the superior resolution and color space of analog film means that anything shot in this format will be good for at least one more generation of digital improvements after the 4K hand-off. Funny, but it's true: Movies produced a century ago can survive digital transfers that leave last year's biggest hits flat-footed.
The Blu-ray standards developers are getting their acts together, and should have a final blueprint ready by the summer. And 4K screens are getting cheaper by the minute; next-generation Blu-ray players conforming to the new specifications should follow suit quickly.
There will be no shortage of 4K video content when the holidays roll in. Amazon and Netflix are expanding their ultra HD portfolios and their lists of suitable devices, and the 4K Blu-ray standard will provide the final push.
Expect 4K video to hit the mainstream in a big way this year. Investors should be ready for the sea change. This could be a great time to double up on your favorite consumer electronics stocks, not to mention the media producers and publishers that get to sell their best content all over again.
Anders Bylund owns shares of Netflix. He also has the following options on Amazon.com: short January 2016 $320 puts on Amazon.com and long January 2016 $320 calls. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.