Ultra HD – all dressed up and nothing to show

Television makers are keen to get Ultra HD screens into Australian lounge rooms, but who's going to put all those extra pixels to good use?

LG is touting its Ultra HD credentials, but when will we have something to watch? Source: Supplied

It's tough to sell people a new Ultra HD television when content providers are making promises that they literally can't deliver.

Every technological leap is initially faced with the classic chicken and egg scenario as it struggles to gain critical mass. It took a while for CD players to take off when most albums were still on vinyl or tape. The same with DVD players and the Blu-ray disc players which followed them.

At least these technological advances were launched with a roadmap – there were a handful of discs on the shelves, with more to come, and a clear plan on how they'd make it into people's homes. It's been a very different story with Ultra HD televisions and content.

New Ultra HD televisions promise images four-times sharper than Full HD Blu-ray, but when they hit Australian shelves the TV makers had no idea how we'd ever get Ultra HD content into our homes. More than two years later little has changed. If it wasn't for the fact that Netflix has finally turned its eye to Australia, there'd still be nothing for Ultra HD TV owners to look forward to.

The trouble with Ultra HD content is that ultra sharp resolution demands ultra large files and your typical Ultra HD movie weighs in at around 50 GB. There are three possible ways to deliver Ultra HD content into our lounge rooms – broadcast it, stream it or ship it on a new generation of high-capacity discs.

There have been Ultra HD terrestrial broadcast trials in countries like South Korea, but it's hard to see Australian broadcasters getting excited about Ultra HD when it demands more spectrum.

After promising a high-def future, Australia's free-to-air broadcasters have all but abandoned high-definition broadcasting even though most Australian homes can take advantage of it. Rather than broadcast movies or live sport in high-definition, Australia's free-to-air networks would rather dedicate their HD channels to 24-hour standard-def news or repeats of Gilligan's Island. If they have spare spectrum, it seems they're more interested in launching home shopping channels than improving picture quality.

Considering that they've retreated from high-definition broadcasting, it's hard to see Australian networks embracing Ultra HD. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the prospect of shifting to the more efficient MPEG-4 high-definition broadcasting in the next few years, which would open the door for Ultra HD broadcasts. A more likely scenario is that spectrum freed up by the shift to from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 would go to another round of home shopping channels, or else be auctioned off to the telcos for high-speed mobile broadband services.

As with high-definition sport, it could be Australian pay TV provider Foxtel which decides to embrace Ultra HD content. Like Full HD, Foxtel could charge a premium for Ultra HD content once we have a critical mass of Ultra HD-ready Australian lounge rooms.

It's not on the cards in the short-term – Foxtel has been quiet on Ultra HD content, even with the upcoming iQ3 set-top box. Delivering Ultra HD content over the pay TV infrastructure would also present challenges, especially when Australia isn't getting a nationwide fibre-to-the-premises network.

So if broadcasters won't come to our rescue, what about high-capacity discs following in the steps of DVD and Blu-ray? This time last year they were supposedly on the horizon, but the Ultra HD player proposed by Samsung never materialised. Sony also promised to offer Australians Ultra HD content by the end of last year, but all we saw was a handful of Ultra HD movies shipped with new televisions on a portable hard drive.

The obligatory format war held things up, but the content industry has finally settled on a high-capacity disc format. The Blu-Ray Disc Association is touting the arrival of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs by Christmas 2015, but all we saw at CES in January was a Panasonic prototype which was light on details.

Talking to the major home entertainment giants at CES, you get the impression they're hoping that online Ultra HD streaming services will let them off the hook. That might be the case in the US, where you can tap into Ultra HD streaming from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Sony, DirecTV and others. It's a very different story in Australia, where Netflix looks destined to be our first Ultra HD content provider when it launches in March.

Ultra HD streaming from Netflix demands download speeds of at least 15 Mbps, putting it out of reach of many Australian homes for the foreseeable future. Things would look more promising if we were getting a nationwide 100 Mbps fibre rollout, but the fragmented nature of the NBN-lite Multi-Technology Mix means content providers can't be sure what broadband speeds their customers will get. This makes it harder to justify investing in offering new services – that dreaded chicken and egg scenario that plagues new technologies.

Even if you own an Ultra HD television and your broadband speeds are fast enough to support Ultra HD streaming, you probably can't get it.

At CES, LG and Sony unveiled plans to support Ultra HD Netflix streaming on a handful of new televisions this year. Netflix streaming to other devices is currently limited to Full HD. It remains to be seen if a firmware update comes to the rescue of Ultra HD televisions already in Australian homes.

Rather than expect Australians to dump last year's Ultra HD televisions on the nature strip, it makes sense to bring Ultra HD streaming to various set-top boxes. If the television makers drag their feet when it comes to Ultra HD disc players and streaming boxes then it may fall to streaming media players to do the heavy lifting such as the next-generation Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and Nexus Player.

After Steve Jobs famously declared Blu-ray "a bag of hurt", it will be interesting to see if new Apple chief Tim Cook is ready to support Ultra HD Netflix and iTunes movies rentals with the next Apple TV. Not only would it give Ultra HD the shot in the arm that it needs to go mainstream, it would also put Apple in the driver's seat. If the traditional home entertainment players won't fast-track Ultra HD support, they could be left out of the picture.

Adam Turner attended CES as a guest of LG.

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