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I’ve just spent the last hour on the phone with BDA spokesperson Dan Schinasi and Ron Martin of Panasonic Hollywood Labs, and I can confirm that 4K Blu-ray will officially be known as Ultra HD Blu-ray. The logo has not yet been finalized, but Dan and Ron were able to offer significant new details about the format.
As you know, the BDA’s global promotions committee chair, Victor Matsuda, has confirmed that the BDA board has now approved the draft extension of the existing Blu-Ray spec to include 4K. I’m told that the actual 4K spec extension is close to lockdown, with major agreement already in place between the various BDA members – there’s apparently just a few loose ends yet to be worked out. The spec is expected to be frozen sometime in the first half of 2015, with the goal that format licensing can begin by mid-year. That could mean that the first actual players and discs may arrive in stores in time for the holidays this year (Panasonic’s Ultra HD Blu-ray prototype is pictured below), though I suspect you’ll more likely see the first real rollout at CES 2016.
I’ve also officially confirmed that Ultra HD Blu-ray will require a new player, but that these new players will be backwards compatible, able to play all current Blu-ray and DVD software (as with current BD players, there is also optional support for existing 1080p Blu-ray 3D discs – note that true 4K 3D doesn’t yet technically exist yet as a format). Ultra HD Blu-ray will employ High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC – also known as H.265), which is the successor to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC and is considered the most efficient video compression standard available. Given that 4K video content requires much greater data space than existing 1080p, Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs will be produced in two configurations: 66GB dual-layer and 100GB triple-layer. Dan and Ron tell me that the goal in creating the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec extension is to future-proof the format, by including higher video frame rates (up to 60p), 10-bit color, a wider color gamut (up to Rec.2020 or BT.2020), and High Dynamic Range (HDR). All of this is hardware-mandated by the spec, though actual software implementation of this capability will of course be up to the individual studios and content providers. But the idea is that it gives filmmakers and content producers a great deal of room to work, and lots of headroom to add image quality going forward, as display manufactures roll out future and ever more capable UHD displays.
Ultra HD Blu-ray is also going to include some optional spec capabilities, the implementation of which will be up to both hardware and software manufactures. One of these will be Digital Extension or Digital Bridge, which (if and when employed) could allow consumers to securely move and copy movie content from the UHD-BD discs to their own hard drives and to mobile devices. The goal is to make the whole “digital copy” process much easier on Ultra HD Blu-ray than it is today on existing Blu-ray and DVD.
The open question, of course, is whether or not the Hollywood studios will move to firmly support Ultra HD Blu-ray, even as they’re pulling back from existing Blu-ray in favor of streaming and downloads. Moreover, by the time Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs start to come to market, there will already be stiff competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other services, which are making strong commitments to streaming 4K content delivery. But the good news, I’m told, is that there’s great enthusiasm and excitement for Ultra HD Blu-ray among the various BDA member studios, which include Disney, Sony, Fox, Warner, and others, as well as a great deal of cooperation within the industry. And of course, many of these studios are already mastering their films in 4K, so there should be no shortage of available content.
The goal of all this work (that’s currently under way within the BDA) is to ensure that Ultra HD Blu-ray greatly exceeds the quality of any other 4K video delivery format, and obviously to get the studios, the filmmakers, and of course movie/home theater consumers truly excited about physical media again. We’ve certainly all heard lots of talk about how it’s hard for most people to really appreciate the difference between 1080p and 4K content on mid-sized displays at average living room viewing distances, but the hope is that 4K resolution plus Ultra HD Blu-ray’s higher frame rate, wider color gamut, and greater dynamic range will make those difference obvious to anyone.
All right, I’d say that’s enough news for now. Not bad for one day, yes?
My thanks to Dan Schinasi of the BDA, Ron Martin of Panasonic Hollywood Labs, and Heather Gioco of Hoog Comm for their time and support today. Rest assured, we’ll be talking Ultra HD Blu-ray lots more with them in the weeks and months ahead, and we’ll be sure to bring all the latest details to you here at The Bits as we get them.
- Bill Hunt