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

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.


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.