The transition to 4K as the standard resolution for the many screens that surround our lives is beginning to seem inevitable. Interviews with CE/imaging industry leaders Samsung, Sony and Panasonic reveal divergent strengths and strategies. But the global competitors are in complete accord when it comes to making 4K the next big thing.
Refusing to be boxed in by maturing markets and declining margins on HD products, they’re moving up to Ultra HD (UHD) and launching a whole generation of 4K display and capture devices that will find their way into consumer, industrial, military, scientific and untold other applications.
Market analysts predict the global market for 4K products will grow at a hyperactive pace of 36.33% per year (compounded) from 2012–2020 and morph into a behemoth that generates revenue of $371.35 billion by 2020. The major challenge that analysts see is the current shortage of commercial content for 4K screens, which is linked to the technology’s exorbitant bandwidth demands.
Industry leaders acknowledge the problem and are counting on consumers to bridge the gap by creating their own content with a new breed of 4K digital cameras. Samsung, Sony and Panasonic have all introduced innovative hybrid cameras designed to be equally adept at capturing high-quality stills as well as 4K video. Available in formats ranging from handheld and cell-sized to wearable and flying on drones, these highly connected cameras may soon be capturing and streaming life in Ultra HD.
But 4K migration involves more than cameras, TVs or rows of pixels dancing across a screen. Mainstream acceptance depends on an entire ecosystem of interrelated products and technologies working together to give consumers compelling reasons to convert. Samsung, Sony and Panasonic all seem ideally positioned to lead the migration because they are multifaceted companies with deep pockets and product portfolios that span the 4K ecosystem. But there is plenty of room for competitors to focus on specific areas, such as 4K cameras, and make major contributions.
Samsung Strives for Seamless Integration
As a world leader in semiconductors, TVs, monitors, tablets and cell phones, and a growing force in cameras, Samsung has 4K covered from the inside out. The company has high expectations for the new technology and a unique strategy for promoting it.
“4K is the next must-have resolution across the board for video capture and display,” says Jay Kelbley, senior marketing manager for Digital Imaging at Samsung America. “As an option on TV, it’s moving much faster than Full HD did initially. There’s also a big and fast migration up to 4K monitors for computers. Just as HD eventually became the table stakes across all technologies, 4K will become the dominant resolution, and sooner rather than later.”
Making 4K devices that play well together is key to gaining mass-market acceptance, and Samsung excels in integration. “We think seamless interoperability of 4K across many product lines will help the consumer and the industry,” adds Kelbley. “We’ve integrated on the capture and display side. We’re embedding the ability to process, store, compress and decompress 4K video into chip architecture across our portfolio. We’re standardizing our products around the new H.265 codec, which doubles compression efficiency, making 4K video easier to store, manage and share. We’re in a very good position to continue to help move 4K into more consumer applications.”
Samsung thinks the biggest marketing challenge for 4K TV is developing content that “wows” consumers, opening their eyes and their wallets. But for content creators such as photographers and videographers, the new hybrid cameras already have plenty of allure.
“Professional videographers love 4K for several reasons,” explains Kelbley. “4K has clear advantages in terms of detail and quality. They’re jumping on it now because it gives them a way to differentiate from competitors. For production houses, the huge advantage of shooting in 4K is being able to scale down to Full HD and zoom in or crop without losing any quality.”
Event photographers are enthusiastic about 4K cameras because they can simplify workflow and increase profits. “Instead of having one person shoot stills and another video, they can converge to one capture device,” Kelbley says. “They can shoot in 4K video, pull out 8MP stills and blow them up to 8×10 or 15×20 prints. When the light is good, quality is imperceptible from a standard still photograph. For me, that’s the most exciting thing about 4K.”
Kelbley, a photographer who worked his way through the masters program at RIT by shooting weddings, is putting his money where his mouth is and buying a 4K TV for his personal use. “I’m shooting in 4K, and I don’t want to have to go into work to see the results. I want to show it at home for everybody to see. So I took the plunge.”
Samsung’s flagship 4K camera is the new mirrorless Smart NX1, which has a feature set designed to satisfy enthusiasts, starting with a 28 megapixel CMOS sensor, the largest of its type. The supercharged sensor enables continuous shooting at a rate of 15 frames per second, and 4K video recording. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity make it easy to connect with compatible devices for remote control, real-time monitoring and image sharing.
Sony: Imaging, TVs and Movies
In the march toward 4K, Sony is Samsung’s archrival and most valuable ally. Like Samsung, Sony has expertise that surrounds the 4K ecosystem. But Sony alone has deep roots in the entertainment industry, vaults full of movies and world-renowned 4K cameras for professional video production.
According to Mark Weir, Sony Electronic’s senior manager for Technology, “There are plenty of companies in imaging, not so many in imaging and TV, and still fewer in imaging, TV and movies. Sony’s engagement in every step of the process is a significant strength. It gives us a broader perspective of what it takes to really support the development and expansion of 4K.”
Sony believes that TVs are the leading edge of the 4K revolution. Falling prices and improving content will drive 4K TVs into more homes, sparking “exponential growth of interest” in 4K cameras. “Capture devices are an important element of the 4K ecosystem,” adds Weir, “because people are asking: where is the 4K broadcast content? We think 4K personal content creation really solves that concern.”
Once people start working with 4K hybrids, they’ll discover that the technology is not just for video. “We think the act of capturing your life and memories in 4K will become very compelling for still photographers as well as videographers,” explains Weir. “Many cutting-edge adopters are shooting in 4K and pulling stills from the 4K data stream. Being able to get 8MP frames at 30 or 60 fps is a great value that’s not widely understood but is huge for people doing it.”
Sony can draw on core strengths in lenses, sensors and software in developing 4K cameras for enthusiasts and pros. Lenses for hybrid photography are particularly challenging because still and video cameras have different and sometimes conflicting optical requirements.
“Still camera lenses need high resolution and optical characteristics because we look at individual stills for seconds at a time,” says Weir. “In video, we view each frame for a fraction of a second, so lens performance doesn’t have to be that high. Autofocus is also very, very different for still and video lenses. Sony has the benefit of significant experience with lens design and manufacture for both video and still photography.”
Sony has rolled all its expertise into the Alpha a7S, a mirrorless 4K hybrid camera that features a full-frame Exmor sensor, Bionz X image processor, 4K recording and high-speed video up to 120 fps. “The Alpha a7S is a very specialized 4K capture device,” Weir says. “It’s one of two in the world that can capture 4K video on a full-frame image sensor, and the only one that can use the full width of the full-frame image sensor. With the Alpha a7S, we created a camera that captures 4K in a way no other camera can, and it has been embraced not only by consumers but also by the professional filmmaking community.”
Sony’s palm-sized 4K camcorder, the FDR-AX100, is also breaking ground and generating buzz. It features a large, 1-inch image sensor, seven times the size of conventional camcorders, which provides a significant boost to image quality, especially in low light. The AX100 also uses a very efficient codec that allows it to record 4K video on relatively inexpensive SD media cards.
Sales of Sony 4K cameras and camcorders are “growing at very healthy levels and some would say even faster than that.” But the growth rate is soaring partly because the category is starting from zero. Demand is strongest from filmmakers, pro and semipro, who can’t wait to get their hands on the new equipment. The enthusiast market is also beginning to adopt.
“But in terms of mainstream consumers, it’s going to take longer,” says Weir. Price may be one issue for some. But the people buying 4K cameras today seem willing to spend a few extra dollars. “Adoption is more by higher level consumers or prosumers. You can walk into a store and buy a 4K camera for under $1,000,” he says, “but they’re not flying off the shelf while the more expensive models are very popular.”
Panasonic: Opening Eyes with 4K Cameras
Panasonic can’t compete with Sony and Samsung across all product categories, but by focusing on 4K cameras it is doing a lot to make 4K more accessible and affordable for photographers and videographers on all levels. Panasonic recently impressed the industry by earning prestigious Gold Star Awards from DPReview for not one but two 4K hybrids: the Lumix DMC-GH4, a high-end mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera that has already won many fans among pros and enthusiasts; and the Lumix DMC-FZ1000, a 4K compact P&S that takes 20MP images, offers 16x zoom and makes 4K available at substantially less than $1,000. Also notable is Panasonic’s wearable 4K POV camera, the HX-A500, for under $400.
According to Darin Pepple, Panasonic’s senior marketing planning manager for Imaging, “4K is a key focus for Panasonic and expansion is exceeding our expectations. Professionals are very excited and enthusiasts are taking notice. We think the whole industry will move up to 4K and progress won’t stop there. People are already working on 6K and 8K technology.”
Panasonic has been an early and forceful advocate of hybrid photography, and it has developed a 4K photo mode that makes it very easy for photographers to pull print-quality stills from the 4K video stream.
Gavin Impet, a San Francisco-based videographer who does corporate and documentary work, is one of many pros shooting 4K with the GH4 and liking what they see. “It’s a much more compact format that has much better low-light capabilities,” says Impet. “Using the GH4, I was able to strip seven pounds off my Steadicam rig, which is huge when you’re shooting long events. A new app allows me to connect wirelessly to my Nexus 7 tablet and monitor footage as I shoot. It’s amazing that the Wi-Fi coming off the camera is good enough for you to monitor live, with all the savings in weight and cost.”
Actually, Impet has all the bases covered, because he uses Panasonic for 4K capture, Samsung for monitoring results, and Sony Vegas software for editing. In a way, that’s the kind of seamless integration the industry is aiming for. “If you’re shooting in 4K for delivery in 2K, it’s much easier to crop in on the track and correct for errors,” says Impet. “And even when I knock the 4K down to 1,080, it’s somehow more pleasing to the eye. Clients just seem to like it better than anything they’ve seen before.”