To revive an old standard recurring feature here on Digital Signage Today, we’re going straight to the horse’s mouth — or mouths, as it were. We’re going to get industry leaders to comment on one question that’s particularly newsworthy or buzzworthy facing the digital signage industry, and we’re starting it off this month with a look at 4K.

Ultra-high-definition or 4K — (and yes, there are people who get antsy when those terms are used interchangeably, as you can see here, and here) — is the next step up from full-HD and in some eyes the next step up in the overall evolution of digital signage.

So we asked two of the industry forerunners in bringing 4K digital signage to market to assess the state of the 4K ecosystem:

What would you say is the state of the overall 4k digital signage ecosystem right now? Or, put another way, what is your assessment of the ability of end-users to find, source, run and operate an end-to-end 4K network, from content to software to players to connectivity to compression to displays? Are we there yet?

First up, we asked Steve Seminario, senior director of product marketing for display provider Planar Systems Inc.:

When we speak to our customers about the 4K value chain, we often break it down as “Create – Play – Connect – Display.”

When the first viable commercial 4K displays hit the market in 2013, selection was limited. In Planar’s case, we led with an 84-inch 4K model. Today, two years later, we offer five models. (Editor’s note: And most digital signage display manufacturers now offer a range of 4K displays and some offer 4K projector systems and/or 4K LED displays.) The “Display” part of the equation has definitely filled out and, in parallel, the “Connect” portion has advanced as well. In Planar’s case, we launched with single-cable 4K/24Hz support, but within a year were supporting 4K/60Hz over a single cable. Companies like BrightSign have really led the way on the “Play” dimension with their aggressive support and advocacy for 4K/60Hz playback and H.265/HEVC support.

Over the past two years, “Play” has really evolved into “Distribute – Manage – Play.” And H.265/HEVC has been critical to that part of the value chain because it dramatically reduces the file size of the 4K content, making distribution and management feasible.

Finally, on the “Create” aspect, capturing 4K video has become accessible to everyone with the flood of high-quality, lower-cost 4K video cameras available in the market. The production and rendering portion of Create, however, has arguably been the greatest challenge, with popular software tools having taken some time to fully incorporate the new 4K codecs into the workflow.

Over the last two years, brick by brick, the foundation has been laid to enable end-to-end 4K digital signage. While it is still in its infancy, with significant development to come, 4K digital signage has become a viable option for companies seeking the highest quality signage implementations.

And we also asked Jeff Hastings, CEO of media player provider BrightSign, which has already shipped 17,000 and counting of the 4K media players it introduced just last year:

Last year 4K was more hype than reality; however, the 4K ecosystem is quickly becoming well established. Unfortunately there’s still a great deal of education that must happen to help people understand what’s necessary to achieve true 4K. For a digital signage solution to produce true 4K, it should start with H.265-encoded native 4K content captured at 3840x2160p60; decode content preserving the output at a data rate of 60 frames per second; and output content via HDMI 2.0 to maintain 60 fps and 10-bit color.

Any broken link in this chain results in sub-optimal performance. If you’ve seen 4K content displayed at a lower frame rate, you know what I’m talking about – the degradation and stutter are very noticeable. Also, certain content in 8-bit color will display an undesirable color banding effect on-screen, whereas 10-bit color will show a smooth blending of colors.

From a technical standpoint, achieving true 4K output is very doable, and 4K hardware for digital signage is making its way into the field. I’d say one of the greatest hurdles at the moment relates to the display. For most of last year, finding commercial-grade displays with an HDMI 2.0 connection was difficult, and the relatively small number of available SKUs gave integrators limited choice in the type/size of the display to spec out for a particular installation. Fortunately the number of display manufacturers offering HDMI 2.0 is growing quickly and I don’t expect this to be a problem for much longer.

Content in the world of advertising and commercial digital signage has been captured in 4K resolution for years. Most recently, the new encoding standard of H.265 was created to enable this content to be delivered and managed at a reasonable file size. The same file output at 4K H.265 will be approximately the same size as the same 1080p H.264-encoded file. Many different options for H.265 encoding are now available as well. Digital SignageToday

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