Much of the world is shifting to streaming video delivered over the Internet, but don't count out optical discs just yet.
The Blu-ray Disc Association is most of the way done defining a version of its optical disc technology that can handle high-resolution 4K imagery, the group said Friday at the IFA electronics trade show here. It will start licensing the technology in the spring or summer of 2015, and the first 4K Blu-ray players should arrive by the holiday-shopping season of that year, said Victor Matsuda, chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association global promotions committee.
Using physical media instead of relying on fallible and often limited Internet connections means Blu-ray discs can provide the best possible image quality, he said. But there's more to 4K Blu-ray than just four times the number of pixels as in today's prevailing 1080p video, he added.
The new specification also will improve color gamut dramatically and offer a higher dynamic range so details in shadows and highlights are visible. The new format also will be able to show 4K video at 60 frames per second, he said.
"The packaged media and that enclosed, stable environment -- that's part of being the best of the best," Matsuda said.
It's not clear exactly now much of the market wants the best of the best, though: people have flocked to streaming services despite difficulties with bandwidth and image quality. With services from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Google, and others, people can watch the video they want immediately rather than having leave the house to get a disc. And subscription services offer access to a library of titles so people can watch as much as they want -- and try new TV shows or movies without having to decide whether it's worth the per-show price tag.
Streaming media is also becoming more convenient with players from Apple, Roku, Amazon, and Google. As of the second quarter of 2014, 17 percent of Internet-connected households have streaming-media players, NPD Group said.
But Matsuda believes a lot of the world will continue to use optical discs. Blu-ray is a force to be reckoned with. In the US, 72 million households -- about 62 percent -- had a Blu-ray player of some sort in 2014, according to the Digital Entertainment Group. Many people move to new technology slowly, and outside the US, there's another lag of six to 12 months.
Format changes that offer better quality are often a pain for consumers -- especially those who pick the wrong one, as was the case when the Betamax videotape format famously lost out to VHS, or when HD DVD lost out to Blu-ray. Consumers don't have to worry so much about formats with streaming media.
The new format works on existing Blu-ray discs with 50GB capacity, but higher capacities are on the way, said Ron Martin, vice president of Panasonic's Hollywood lab and a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association's task for for next-generation Blu-ray development. It stores data in a different way, though, moving from the H.264/AVC (Advanced Video Coding) compression technology to the newer H.265/HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) successor. HEVC takes more processing to use when encoding videos but compresses them more compactly -- or alternatively viewed, lets more pixels be sent across a given amount of data-transfer capacity.
The new technology also will get updated digital rights management (DRM) technology for preventing unauthorized copying, Matsuda said.
Although 4K Blu-ray doesn't require larger disc capacity, they would benefit from it -- and that's something else the association is working on.
"The expected capacity will probably be the 66 and 100GB versions," Martin said. "UHD content, which may include higher frame rates and greater color gamut, might require more disc space. We want the extended Blu-ray format to be as robust as possible and be prepared to handle future demand of filmmakers and content providers...The goal will be to always have one movie on one disc."
The new 4K Blu-ray drive players will be able to extract data from discs at 82 megabits per second for 50GB discs, 108Mbps for 66GB discs, and 128Mbps for 100GB discs. The technology quadruples the number of pixels from 1,920x1,080 pixels with today's HD to 3,820x2,160 pixels with UHD.
For each frame of 4K Blu-ray video, the association expects significant image-quality improvements. Many experts are skeptical that people watching TV at ordinary TV viewing distances have sharp enough vision to tell the difference between today's 1080p HD video and 4K video -- also called Ultra HD or UHD. Matsuda, though, believes he can based on side-by-side comparisons, and certainly the TV industry is gradually moving that direction.
Matsuda and Martin expect other improvements than in spatial resolution, though.
First is better dynamic range. The 4K format will increase the bit depth for each pixel from 8 to 10, meaning that a greater range between bright and dark can be recorded for video that's been produced to take advantage of that.
Currently, "with fireworks or flashbulbs or looking at the sun, you get the level of brightness as with anything else white in the scene," Martin said. "Now we have 100 percent more signal range to capture those highlights to make a visible difference."
Second is a broader range of colors. A new color-recording technology called BT.2020 allows a wider gamut, Martin said.
"The existing 709 color encoding system shows 30-35 percent of the visual color spectrum," Martin said. BT.2020 can "render about 70-80 percent. As TVs migrate you'll be able to detect those colors," he said. Blu-ray players will be able to detect BT.2020 support and use the better color gamut if it's available, but today's TVs don't yet have the feature, he said.
The Blu-ray contingent has one more advantage on its side, too: Hollywood. Consumers who've bought copies of the same movie in VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray aren't necessarily going to buy another version in Blu-ray 4K, and movie studios aren't necessarily going to go to the trouble of remastering existing movies to take full advantage of the new format. But for new movies, already often produced in 4K versions, the decision to support the format is a lot easier.
The Blu-ray Disc Association counts big studios as board members, including Disney, Warner, Fox, and Sony -- which makes both Blu-ray players and runs its Sony Entertainment studio. Also members of the association are Lionsgate, Universal, and Paramount.
"At one level or another all Hollywood is on board," Matsuda said.
Update on September 6 at 12:39 a.m. PT: Adds comment about future disc capacities suitable for 4K content.
Correction on September 9 at 7:56 a.m. PT: Fixes the data-transfer speeds for the 50GB, 66GB, and 100GB discs.