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SD, HD, 4K? Not yet, but soon

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March 28, 2014
4K Televisions
Dan Phillips

Years ago at a HITEC in some city I have since forgotten, I was speaking with a guy who was selling televisions – specifically an IP TV solution for hotels. He enthusiastically went through his dog-and-pony show and told me all about its features and benefits. I think he had me convinced that if guests would just stand in front of his TVs, raise their hands and spin around a couple of times, they’d be cured of anything that ails them.

He might have been right; what can’t a TV do today? TV used to be a lay-back experience in a guestroom, while working on a laptop via the hotel’s HSIA solution was a lean-forward one. But today, with Internet-enabled, smart TVs and remote controls that should have been used by NASA during the Space Shuttle missions, guests are highly engaged in the TV experience.

The buzz at the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was 4K TVs, also known as Ultra HD, a TV with four times as many pixels as an HD TV. It also comes with much better processors and supports the new, HDMI 2.0 standards and more. The true wow factor is in the picture resolution. But are they right for the hospitality industry now and/or in the near future?

This writer went out to the industry’s television providers to find out how their companies envision 4K TVs in the hotel space. Richard Lewis, vice president, B2B technology and research for LG Electronics USA, said that for the lodging industry in particular, Ultra HD represents the natural evolution of display resolution, providing increased picture density that will become increasingly important as the average screen size deployed in hotel rooms continues to grow in the years ahead. “Ultra HD TV is the next major sea change in the television business,” he said. “With 8 million pixels on the screen, Ultra HD provides amazing clarity and a more immersive entertainment experience, especially on large screens.” 

Jonas Tanenbaum, vice president, sales and marketing hospitality TV for Samsung Electronics America, agreed that 4K is the evolutionary next phase in the progression of HD TV. “It is a quantum leap to the next level of quality and immersive TV viewing experience that consumers are looking for,” he said. “There are certain segments of the market where this exciting new technology will be immediately applicable such as boutique hotels and the higher-end luxury segments. There will also be applications in public space areas where hoteliers want to make a more sudden and dramatic impact on their guests.”

Jim Noecker, product manager, flat panel displays, Panasonic System Communications Company of North America, also sees Ultra HD as a luxury ticket item. “We’ve seen a steady progression towards greater image quality and clarity – from SD to HD and now 4K,” he said. “While widespread adoption is still a ways off, early adopters of 4K in-room displays will use the technology as a competitive differentiator in luxury properties and suites where guests expect a five-star experience in every aspect of their stay.”

Noecker added that 4K displays will also be appealing to those in the hotel industry looking for new ways to set them apart from the competition. “With 4K technology and content, hotels can offer guests a top-of-line television experience with ultra HD movies, a higher level of Internet browsing on sites like Google Earth on connected 4K televisions, and potentially a new level of in-room video game play,” he said.

Lewis predicts the 4K will eventually become the standard for displays, at least in large screen sizes. But, with 4K sets continuing to command premium price points, Lewis said full-scale adoption is a few years off, except in premium suites. However, once the consumer market catches on, the incremental cost to manufacture displays will decrease and make 4K displays more viable for the hotel market in the years ahead.

“While content will ultimately be an important driver and much work remains to have widespread availability of native 4K content, the benefits of Ultra HD’s increased resolution are available today thanks to powerful upscaling inside the TVs,” Lewis said. “Much as 720P content can look outstanding on a full HD display, HD content on a large-screen Ultra HD set looks amazing.”

Noecker said, “There are a lot of pieces to the 4K puzzle that will need to come together before installations can begin successfully. Right now, 4K displays are out of reach due to budget constraints.”

Arguably, the biggest issue in deploying 4K TVs in hotels today, other than cost, is the availability of 4K (UHD) content. Keith Michael, vice president marketing, P&F USA, Inc. (Philips), said content will definitely be the delegator. “In the industry, the largest challenge or opportunity with any new technology is the availability of new content,” he said. “There are recent announcements from broadcast and content providers to develop and make available content. As the technology develops, costs certainly come in line for attractive outfitting of properties.”

According to Lewis, for the immediate future, content will come primarily from over-the-top (OTT) services, but as the popularity of the display format and use of HEVC decoders increases, the hotel industry will see mainstream satellite and cable providers delivering 4K content. “In the hospitality industry, most hotels are served by system integrators that run small networks within the hotel so we may see more rapid adoption in these situations,” he said. “Studio pricing of this content will play a key role in the adoption rate.”

Lewis added that OTT services are launching 4K content at no additional charge, and if studios add PPV services with modest premiums this will help speed adoption.

Larry Magid, a technology journalist and an on-air technology analyst for CBS News thinks solving the content issue won’t be easy. “TV networks will have to make an enormous investment in cameras and control room technology, and cable and satellite providers will have to figure out how to upgrade their networks to carry the signals,” he said. “For now, the best hope comes from delivering the content online.

“At the LG news conference at CES, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that his company will start streaming UHD content this year. Comcast and Samsung also announced a partnership to stream UHD programs to Samsung TVs,” Magid said. “These partnerships are a good start, but there is one more issue. UHD takes up a lot more bandwidth than high-definition content, which will put a lot more strain on the Internet infrastructure required to deliver all the data necessary to watch these shows.”1

That brings us to another challenge: the additional drain on the hotels’ HSIA networks if content initially comes primarily from sources like YouTube and Netflix. “Early estimation is that 4K content may have some burden on existing networks,” Michael said. “Recent articles state that 15 Mbps is required. As a comparison, the average American household uses about 7.4 Mbps, so a possible doubling of the network speed may be required.”

Noecker agreed, but said as compression technology improves and bandwidth costs are reduced, the hotel may be able to provide access to these services over its network and has the ability to generate revenue by charging guests for such access.

In-room entertainment solution provider, Enseo, plans to have 4K content available within the next 18 months. Its Set-Back-Box solution, the HD8000, will allow any hospitality TV to receive and display HEVC content produced in 4K and other resolutions.
Vanessa Ogle, Enseo CEO, president and chairman of the board, said, “The exciting thing about HEVC is not just the resolution (4K), but the opportunity to reduce the cost of transmitting the content with more efficient compression rates. More efficient compression leads to smaller data packets, which leads to less cost to transmit. Everybody wins.”

This also means higher quality video content at a better price.
Michael said, “UltraHD provides four times the resolution than conventional full high definition. With this there is more to creating a great picture then just resolution. Along with increased resolution typically comes better management of other picture quality attributes such as luminance, color reproduction and contrast. In addition, guests can sit closer to your TV, without ever seeing pixels.”

However, if some hotels installed 4K TV right now, Noecker said there is a chance that the 1080p content could look less than optimal on a 4K display. He said, “This might occur because built-in upconversion/scaling on a 4K TV could make 1080p content look softer than if it was shown on a native 1080p television.”

“Certainly UHD content should further drive demand and speed adoption,” he said.“However even in the early adoption phase of the technology where UHD content may not be as widely available there are immediate benefits of scaling, up-converting to a greater resolution that may be tangible and compel upgrade…to acquire a product that is more likely to be future proof.”

Anantha Narayanan, CTO, Quadriga Worldwide, said, “4K ultra HD is a very exciting development which will deliver significant opportunities for hoteliers to deliver the ultimate TV viewing experience. It will also enable the advent of incredibly powerful, interactive digital signage solutions to attract and engage guests in the lobby.”

In order to appreciate the significant difference in resolution and screen quality between 4K and HD sets, viewers would need to sit very close to a 50-inch screen. “The ratio of screen size to distance from the screen is roughly half the ratio,” Noecker said.

With its significant visual advantages but current challenges, 4K is something to keep in sight. Five years from now, this could be the in-room amenity that makes or breaks your hotel. Crestron's Tom Barnett said, “As 4K televisions become the standard at the high end of the market, they become a must for the properties that cater to that customer.”

Dan Phillips is a partner at Dare to Imagine and can be reached at dphillips@dare2i.com.  

1 Huffington Post Technology Newsletter, January 22, 2104, “4K TV Not Quite Ready for Prime Time,” by Larry Magid 

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