As soccer fans debate the prowess of Portugal’s Christiano Rolando, the U.S. team’s Kyle Beckerman and Ghana’s Ayew brothers , there’s another star that will make its debut at FIFA’s World Cup in Brazil. For the first time, some matches will be broadcast in 4K, Sony’s (SNE) version of ultra HD TV — and SNE is betting big that the quantum leap in technology will push consumers to upgrade their old HD sets to new, higher-resolution TVs.
As the name suggests, 4K delivers four times the resolution of high definition TV, but while all 4K is Ultra HD, not all Ultra HD TV is 4K. Technically speaking, 4K is a digital cinema standard that delivers a 4096 x 2160 resolution. The “official consumer” format for Ultra HD is 3840 x 2160 . For consumers who care about such details, TechRadar has a nice breakdown of the differences.
Sony tested its 4K technology last summer at FIFA’s Confederation Cup last year. Now, three World Cup matches will be filmed and broadcast in 4K: a June 28 match of the round of 16, a July 4 quarter-final and the final on July 13. Britain’s BBC will be streaming 4K content, but only as part of a small, internal test of 4K TV, according to Britain’s Express.
Here’s why that matters: For the first time in soccer history, matches will be filmed in ultra-high resolution, using Sony’s 4K technology. Sports programming has long been a driver of TV technology adoption, as fans embrace bigger screens with sharper pictures and better sound — and Sony’s bet on the World Cup appears to be paying off. In light of declining global TV sales, SNE has positioned itself to cash in on high-end products like 4K TVs. That’s a particularly big deal for Sony, which has struggled mightily as demand for basic TVs declines around the world.
The good news for Sony 4K TV: Shipments of 4K TV units totaled 1.6 million in 2013 — nearly 1 million units alone shipped in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to research from industry analyst NPD.
The bad news: According to NPD’s DisplaySearch report out this week, global shipments of Ultra HD TV units with 3840 × 2160 resolution will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 69% through 2017, while Sony 4K TV units with 4096 × 2160 resolution will grow by only an 8% in that time frame.
NPD blames the very different fortunes of Ultra HD and 4K on the price disparity — the average selling price of a 31.5-inch Ultra HD TV was $11,000 in 2013, compared to the $25,000 price tag in a 31.5” 4K TV. The analysts believe that the trend toward Ultra HD and away from 4K will continue at least until the price of a 4K TV falls. Given the fact that the 4K TV doesn’t cost much more to produce than a basic 1028p HD TV, Sony does have some wiggle room when it comes to pricing and driving market share.
With an audience of more than three billion, the World Cup is certainly a grand stage for Sony to demonstrate the awesome viewing experience of 4K HD TV technology. It bears noting, however, that even if you run out today and plunk down the plastic for a Sony 4K TV, you still will be stuck watching the matches on basic HD channels — even the three that will be filmed in 4K — because the only live streaming will be for the BBC test.
From a broader perspective, 4K content will continue to be a challenge — at least until more movies and events are filmed in the technology. Perhaps the biggest potential impact for Sony and its rivals is which side — 4K or Ultra HD — wins the standards match for the next generation of TVs. For the sake of Sony and its shareholders, Sony 4K TV can’t end up and a 21st Century replay of the Beta vs. VHS video recorder war.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.