The New Apple TV Turns its Back on 4K UHD, But the Industry Moves Forward with Vidity

| Analysis

The new, 4th generation Apple TV is due this month, and it won't support 4K UHD video. Yet the entire TV industry is laser focused on 4K UHD video. A technology called Vidity is part of that evolution and promises to return the customer to a simpler way to acquire and view content. How Apple will play in the process is still unfolding.

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There is no doubt, the TV industry is excited about 4K UHD video, a format that has a resolution of 3840 x 2160p, potentially more colors (10 or 12-bit vs 8-bit) and, beginning next year, a dramatic increase in the display's dynamic range, called HDR.

Right now, the industry is aware of several factors that could slow down adoption and is working to address them. The first solution is the introduction of High Dynamic Range (HDR) displays that produce a visible and dramatic improvement in the picture, no matter how close or far away the viewer sits.

Another initiative is called Vidity, from the Secure Content Storage Association (SCSA). I first wrote about Vidity in early September. "Vidity: A Potential UHD/4KTV Game Changer - Will Apple Play?Of course, we now know that Apple isn't jumping in with 4K support in the new Apple TV for its own reasons

The UHD Alliance and State of the Industry

It's also interesting that Apple isn't a member of the UHD Alliance (UHDA) given Apple's traditional attention to video. The UHDA, cited in the link above, "is charged with fostering an ecosystem that fully realizes and promotes next-generation entertainment technology." As we know from past experience, Apple tends to go it alone in some technologies rather than be shackled by committees. Time will tell how Apple plays—or doesn't.

In any case, it's clear 4K UHD momentum is picking up. Home Media Magazine quotes David Watkins, director of connected home devices for Strategy Analytics. "Ultra HD is rapidly becoming a de facto standard in the large-screen TV market."

Vidity's Role

Chris Saito

While the UHDA works out the standards for imaging and branding, another important set of factors is how the consumer will pay for, acquire and view 4K UHD content. Here's where Vidity comes in. I wanted to learn more about Vidity, so I asked Chris Saito, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Vidity/SCSA LLC, about some of the details that might be of interest  to Apple customers.

First and foremost, Vidity's goal is to make it easier for customers to view their content on many different devices. Recall that when High Definition first became mainstream in roughly 2007, there was a strong effort by the industry to prevent piracy of all that new HD content. That meant that the introduction of HDCP compliant devices, using HDMI connectors, to encrypt the video and control its flow from the source to the final destination, the display. As a result, in the early days, customers had a hard time moving HD content around..

Since 2007, the focus on mobility, largely spawned by the Internet capabilities of the iPhone and iPad, has slowly opened the door to the idea of HD video anywhere. Nowadays, consumers expect to be able to buy and view their content outside the bounds of the large HDTV screen in the living room, and the industry has slowly, cautiously introduced various means for doing so.

In order to both continue this trend and to make it easier for customers to own 4K UHD video, Vidity becomes an enabler. Vidity is designed to be platform agnostic—it will be available on all major platforms and devices according to Mr. Saito: Macs, PCs, smartphones, tablets, UHD Blu-ray players, set top boxes, game consoles and smart TVs.

In order to take the hassle out of authentication, Mr. Saito noted that, "... content activation is done at the time of purchase. no other content validation or activation is required for that content [after] the initial purchase. Vidity compliant products can then play Vidity content at any time. Vidity playback can be enabled in existing software players which can either be downloaded or would come bundled with the playback device as done today."

Of course, not every device the consumer owns is capable of 3840 x 2160 resolution. Accordingly, a Vidity enabled device will have three levels of playback. As Mr. Saito describes it, "the lowest level of playback will support up to low bit rate HD playback (including SD); the next level will support high bit rate playback (HD quality) and the last level will support up to 4K UHD and HDR playback." As you can see, Vidity is already anticipating HDR in its specification.

In addition to initial support from 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment studios, Mr. Saito noted that "...there are other studios who are active Vidity contributor members that we have not made public yet."

In short, because the Vidity app is designed to work across platforms and seamlessly exploit the fullest potential of the device resolution and make purchasing and authorization easy, it looks to be a valuable technology in the development and promotion of 4K UHD video.  However....

The 4th Gen Apple TV doesn't support 4K UHD
Image credit: Apple

What's at Stake

The TV industry has placed its bet on 4K UHD video. The development of today's HDTV's has reached the end of economies of scale, and there's little money to be made there. The newer UHD technologies, including a wider color gamut and high dynamic range, will be, once experienced, strong motivators for customers to upgrade.

Compression technologies like VP9 and H.265 are mature. The UHD Blu-ray specification is in place, and discs and players are on the way in the coming months. HDR capable UHD TVs will be the Big Thing in 2016. And it appears that Vidity will be one of the tools to help customers acquire and view their content at home or on the move.

For the Apple customer, from a purely technical perspective, the ball is now in Apple's court. A 4K UHD enabled 5th generation Apple TV with HDMI 2.0a (the "a" is required for HDR) would, of course, be welcome as well as Vidity app and HDR display support its iOS devices.

However, from a political perspective, what may well be at issue for Apple is whether it will be able to take its customary cut in the purchase process, as it has with iTunes. Years ago, Amazon learned how to work around the Apple 30 percent take by isolating the purchase process from the playback experience. I asked about that angle, and David Huerta, the General Manager of the SCSA, replied:

The SCSA has developed an enabling technology that it licenses to the ecosystem. Profit share between retailers and content publishers is a matter solely between the retailer and the content publisher.
 

We'll be exploring that as well as other issues in the future and keep you updated as the picture unfolds.

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Comments

Ted Landau

I’m sure 4K will eventually be the standard, just as 1080 replaced 720 years ago. But I suspect it will take a lot longer. I think that, for most people, the difference between 1080 and 4K is not big enough to matter - especially on smaller TVs that still dominate the landscape.

Plus 4K recordings will take up 4X as much space on DVRs and computer hard drives. People will not likely be in a hurry to deal with that.

And how long before 4K streaming and broadcast content becomes common enough to drive sales? It’s certainly been slow going so far.

Overall, I’m sorry that new Apple TV doesn’t have 4K support. But I think Apple still has substantial breathing room before that starts to hurt sales. Still, with TiVo and Roku and others rolling out 4K devices, I suspect Apple will have to respond before too long.

majordomo

Maybe Apple left 4K out so that they can come out with the new Apple TV next year that has it.  I mean they have to have some new things to talk about.  Next year it’ll probably be all about the 4K.  By that time more people will have adopted it.  Most people don’t have and don’t want a 4K tv right now.

geoduck

Ted:
You’re spot on. As the article states HDTV became “mainstream in roughly 2007”. That was about a decade after it was the hot thing that was going to take over any minute. And, looking at what my cable provider offers I still question if it is in fact THE standard or just one of many. 4K will become common but honestly I don’t expect to see much of it until at least 2025. Right now Shaw, my cable company, isn’t even talking about 4K, has no plans for 4K, and in fact is still trying to finish implementing HD.

I think Apple knows that. They know there’s plenty of time to wait for the dust to settle before they have to jump into the 4K. 4K on the iPhone is just a feeler, not the start of anything urgent or imminent.

txaggie90

@Geoduck
“4K on the iPhone is just a feeler, not the start of anything urgent or imminent.”

I may be off base on this and this might not reflect Apple’s thinking on including 4K on the iPhone, but back in one of my GoPro techniques book, they mentioned the uses of shooting in 4K even if your final output is going to be in 1080.  The extra pixels allows greater flexibility in post production. 

For instance, if you are running your video file through digital image stabilization, the clipping rectangles that change angles within the source file’s recorded rectangle for each frame will only lose a limited number of edge pixels and the remaining pixels can be resampled to produce a high quality HD output.  Sorry if this is hard to visualize with text.  Wished I had a nice image to show exactly the concept.

Anyway, my 2 cents.

hogtown123

Yesterday, Rogers the largest broadcaster in Canada announced that they will be broadcasting a number of programs in 4K beginning in January. Content includes NHL,MLB, Netflix, Shomi ( Canadian version similar to Netflix ), etc.
They are the first worldwide but no doubt others will quickly follow.
Therefore the new Apple is dead in the water before it is released. I wonder what all those brains in California have been doing since Jobs passed.
Interesting Roku just announced their Roku 4, does 4K and maintains the digital audio out.

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