The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) released specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs (UHD BD) 12 May 2015. Licensing of UHD BD is scheduled to begin in summer 2015, with UHD content to be made available to consumers in Q4 2015.
UHD is the new evolution of the BD format and among its specifications are a number of enhanced capabilities over standard BD:
- Videos will play at resolutions up to 3840 x 2160 and at 60 Hz high frame-rates.
- There is an expanded colour gamut to ensure more refined and realistic images.
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) should provide an enhanced picture quality enabling thousands of shades of display colours.
- A high bit-depth of 10 should allow for the smooth delivery of HDR and expanded colours.
- High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), offer the same level of picture quality with as older codecs but updated with better data compression.
With HEVC the new format will be able to use standard double layer BDs for some content, however, there is also provision within the specifications for playback of triple layer 66GB and 100GB discs. The BDA also revealed that UHD BD new players will be backwards compatible with conventional and 3D BDs.
Thus far the absence of the UHD BD format has not stymied initial sales of 4K TVs. Historically, the lack of immediately available of content was not a barrier to entry for many consumers buying HD and 3D TVs. Both innovations rapidly became a standard feature of high end TV sets and the same will be true for 4K. Indeed, IHS forecasts indicate that 4K TVs will make up around 40% of shipments of larger TVs by 2019.
As with HD and 3D, some 4K content has been available virtually from launch with content tending to be a mix of films and documentaries, predominantly from US studios. However, to date the pool of UHD titles commercially available is virtually non-existent, and with the catalogue of native 4K content being relatively small the number of UHD titles will remain low. In order to help plug this gap some 4K TVs have been sold with hard-drives containing a limited selection of 4K titles. Elsewhere, pay TV providers such as Sky in Germany, are preparing to launch UHD branded services, primarily focused on sport. In addition, SVoD providers, Netflix and Amazon prime, are already advertising the availability of some 4K content via their services.
As with HD before it, there is a broad range of image resolutions that qualify as 4K. These range from just above HD resolution (1080p) through to the full 3840 x 2160, 60 Hz promised by UHD DB. However, broadcaster and SVoD resolution will tend towards the bottom of this range meaning that, whilst picture quality will be superior to HD, consumers seeking UHD content from these providers will not necessarily be gaining the full 4K experience. UHD BD will for the foreseeable future remain the only means by which consumers can fully experience 4K in the home.
Owing to the fact that the new specifications require the ability to playback triple layered BDs; the new physical format will require the consumer to purchase a UHD BD player. Additionally, and unlike with 3D, BD enabled games consoles will not be able to receive firmware upgrades to facilitate 4K playback. Given the current price of 4K TVs, it is unlikely that such additional hardware requirements will, even at this stage, deter home theatre enthusiasts keen to own the latest audio-visual set-up.
However, support of UHD BD by the wider home video industry is by no means assured. BD mastering and replication, already limited to only a few international players, will for UHD BD become more niche. This is owing to the added complexity of mastering 4K and the required upgrades to manufacturing lines to produce triple layered BDs.
Additionally, with the wider downturn in video disc unit sales now affecting the sale of BDs to consumers, the commercial viability of releasing a title on a UHD BD is called into question. BD as a format could already be considered niche among video disc purchasers, with DVD continuing to account for the greater proportion of sales through the forecast period. Indeed fewer titles are released on BD compared to DVD on an annual basis. Moreover as a BD sub-category, UHD BD will also have to contend without the consumer awareness that is generated for 3D BD titles by theatrical 3D.
Such low volume sales will inevitably limit UHD BD to all but the most prestigious titles, slowing the development of any significant catalogue of titles on the format, and as a result making UHD BD a less compelling proposition for consumers and retailers alike.