If you have a 4K-resolution TV screen—and many consumers do these days—you’re used to seeing your favorite shows, movies, and videos with few visible individual pixels. But over the next few years, those images may be about to get even sharper. We predict that 8K—an upgrade and complement to 4K resolution—will generate US$3.3 billion in global revenue in 2021, with this amount rising steadily over subsequent years (figure 1).1 These revenues will come predominantly from sales of 8K TV sets to consumers (an anticipated 1 million units with an average selling price [ASP] of US$3,300), with the standard becoming increasingly popular for the largest television set sizes. In addition, sales of equipment (such as cameras, monitors, storage, and computers) related to the creation and production of 8K content should generate hundreds of millions of dollars globally for the year.
At first glance, consumer adoption of 8K seems to face three principal hurdles:
These hurdles may suggest that 8K is unlikely to flourish in 2021. However, our view is that these challenges can be surmounted. There is already abundant content that can be viewed in 8K resolution, and that quantity will likely grow over the coming years. The cost of entry-level 8K TVs should decline to about US$1,500 by the end of 2021. And the most common comparison of an 8K TV to a 4K one is likely to be based on physical size and peak pixel count, rather than the screen definition used in day-to-day viewing.
With 8K representing less than 0.1% of all video content created in 2021, one might think that viewers would have trouble finding 8K content. But according to our estimates, enough 8K content already exists for an owner of an 8K TV to spend every hour of every day throughout 2021 watching 8K material—without watching a single repeat.
Further, the lack of native 8K content is, in itself, not a major constraint to the purchase of 8K TV sets. Back in 2012, the lack of native 4K content when the standard was launched was expected to deter purchases of 4K TVs. But the relative paucity of 4K content did not faze many consumers. The majority of TV sets sold since Q4 2018 have been 4K despite only a minority of broadcast, satellite, video-on-demand, and disk content being available in native or remastered 4K. If history repeats itself, we would expect that a large proportion of consumers would buy an 8K panel if it were close in price to a 4K set of the same size. And these consumers would be content with their purchase even if they watched 8K content only occasionally.
It is also important to note that consumers who buy an 8K TV set in 2021 may be buying it for the long term, expecting to keep it for five to seven years (the expected life of a TV set before it is replaced) or more. This allows ample time for more 8K content to become available.
But where will 8K content come from in the near future? We expect that in 2021, at least six sources of content will generate images that can be shown in 8K or that require an 8K screen.
The main workaround for the lack of native 8K content (that is, content filmed in 8K) is upscaling, which takes place at the television set. This is the process whereby an input at a lower resolution, such as 4K, is converted into an 8K image using local (on-device) artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and edge computing. Upscaling is considered successful if the viewer perceives an image converted to 8K as one that was originally captured in that resolution.
Ample 4K content already exists that could be “fed” into an 8K TV with upscaling capability. Netflix, as an example, now has one of the largest 4K catalogs in the world, with over 1,000 titles offering a total of tens of thousands of hours of content.8
In upscaling, a TV set analyzes each frame and applies AI to identify the many different objects that may be in it, be it a pair of sunglasses, a burger, or a building. An upscaling engine then converts each 4K-resolution object into an 8K one, restoring edges, repairing any compression artifacts, and coloring each pixel as accurately as possible.9 To inform this conversion, the TV set draws on a database that may contain tens of thousands of image references.10 Upscaling quality for 8K TV sets should improve over time, as more conversions are done and the collective body of knowledge per vendor on how to optimize scaling grows. 8K TV upscaling algorithms can be updated over the air.11
Upscaling is not new to 8K. It was a feature of the first 4K sets in 2012 to address the lack of 4K content then available.12 Back then, upscaling was less sophisticated and convincing. Initial approaches were based on duplicating neighboring pixels: If an empty new pixel was next to a blue one, a blue pixel would fill the space, often resulting in a block of four blue pixels. Later versions of upscaling averaged up to 16 neighboring pixels in each direction to fill an empty new pixel, but again, this can create unsightly artifacts. However, with the development of more sophisticated, AI-driven techniques, these problems are well on their way to being resolved.
Upscaling from HD to 8K is also possible. This requires adding 15 pixels per HD pixel, a far more challenging conversion than for 4K to 8K. But as techniques improve, artificially generated 8K video may become ever more realistic, even from HD.
Upscaling can also be deployed as part of a compression process. Native 8K content is downscaled to 4K, and then restored via upscaling to 8K at the TV set guided by instructions added to the compressed video file. This approach, commercially known as smart downscaling, promises significant reductions in required bit rate for transmission. 8K high-efficiency video coding (HEVC) content can be compressed from 40 megabits per second (Mbit/s) to 25 Mbit/s,13 and AV1 (AO media video 1)-encoded 8K can be reduced from 35 Mbit/s to 17 Mbit/s.14 This approach enables 8K content to be delivered over broadband, satellite, or terrestrial broadcast connections originally designed for 4K.
8K resolution is not completely new. Movies shot on 70mm film have a resolution equivalent to 8K.
A few movies have already been remastered in 8K (ultra-high-definition 4K digital remasters of 65mm and 70mm movies have already been created). One of the first to undergo this process was 2001: A Space Odyssey. This remastered version was broadcast by NHK in December 2018 on its BS8K channel.15 In March 2019, NHC also broadcast an 8K version of My Fair Lady.16 Dozens of other major movies that were shot on 65mm or 70mm could undergo the same treatment. Most iMax movies are shot on 65mm or 75mm as well,17 so films created for iMax cinemas, or with an iMax version available, could be converted to 8K.
Content shot in 6K, principally to provide more versatility in producing a reframed 4K master, may also be upscaled to 8K. The third season of Netflix’s House of Cards, for example, was shot in 6K. The season was released as 4K, but the 6K masters have been archived.18 Netflix’s Mindhunter was also shot in 6K for reasons similar to House of Cards.19
A few major movies and TV series have already been shot in 8K, although they were released at 4K and lower resolutions. These include:
In the future, once a large enough base of 8K TV sets exists, native 8K content could be released as an 8K stream or broadcast.
User-generated content has exploded in the last decade. The caliber of photographic and video tools available to consumers at relatively modest prices has steadily grown, thanks to the proliferation of the smartphone. One of the most popular applications for smartphones is photography, and in the near term, this may be one of the major sources of content that requires an 8K display.
Most current smartphones have at least one 12-megapixel (MP) camera, which capture images in 12 million pixels (dots of light which, in aggregate, make up each frame). At least a billion smartphones with 12MP capability are likely to be in use in 2021. 12MP images can only be displayed in their full resolution on an 8K TV: A 4K TV, with a mere 8 million pixels, is insufficient, but 8K televisions’ 33 million pixels are ample for 12MP. Mobile devices have collectively captured over a trillion images, of varying artistic caliber but consistent pixel count, which may only ever be seen in their full resolution when displayed on an 8K TV. Smartphones with 64MP and 108MP cameras are also in the market, and their full resolution exceeds that of even an 8K TV.20
The quality of photos taken on a smartphone, particularly when natural light is available, is very high. These photos may look spectacular when shown off on an 8K television screen, especially if the TV incorporates software that sharpens the image and removes noise.
The next frontier of widespread 8K video is also fast approaching. A few high-end smartphone models offered 8K video capture as of August 2020, namely the Samsung S20, Xiaomi 10, and Red Magic S3. This number is likely to increase over 2021 and beyond. These devices can capture content in 8K at up to 24 frames per second;21 over the next couple of years, the frame rate is likely to increase. Most owners today may only dabble with 8K video, partly because of its large storage requirements (600MB per minute) and because of the slower frame rate relative to 4K and HD capture. However, consumers who do shoot videos in 8K capture could share this content via online platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo. Over the course of 2021 and the coming years, the volume of 8K videos captured on a smartphone should steadily grow as smartphone memory capacity increases and frame rates go up.
Prosumer photographers, whose subjects span birthdays to corporate videos, may start to experiment with 8K capture, as could aspiring moviemakers with smaller equipment budgets. These content creators now have access to compact 8K cameras whose cost starts at about US$4,000, available from brands including Canon and Sharp.22 A decade ago, 8K prototype cameras weighed hundreds of kilograms; Canon’s current 8K camera weighs less than one kilogram.
Cameras that can capture content in 6K, which can then be upscaled to 8K are also available. As of August 2020, companies offering cameras with 6K capture included Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and Blackmagic Design.
4K has already been a differentiator for prior generations of game consoles, and 8K may prove the same. The year 2021 will be the first full year in which a new generation of 8K-ready game consoles will be sold. There will probably be few titles to play in this resolution in 2021, but over the next five years, more and more 8K games should become available.25 The latest consoles have been designed to cope with much larger file sizes,26 with eight core processors that are able to deal with more complex video.27 That said, 8K screens will likely appeal more to amateur users than to the much smaller population of professional game players, who favor higher refresh rates over resolution and would likely keep on gaming in 4K or HD.28
8K can have applications far beyond its use in entertainment. For example, one potential use of 8K could be for remote working. An 8K panel could be used to display multiple pages of content that a person or team is working on more crisply than would be possible at lower resolutions. These pages—perhaps a blend of diagrams, video calls, charts, and data sheets—could all be visible to a remote team scattered in different locations. This would be an upgrade from working from a single screen or having an array of monitors.
Office locations already use large panels for video calls and collaborative working. But for people expecting to work predominantly at home during 2021, large panels equipped with 8K could improve productivity due to their superior resolution. Documents viewed close up (from 20–30 centimeters), which may be pixelated on an HD or even 4K screen, would look clear on an 80-inch screen with 8K screen resolution. Video calls with dozens of colleagues could also be more practical on a large screen, with every individual discernible versus being visible only as a blurred rectangle.
The cost of 8K panels for work purposes may be tax deductible and/or subsidized by an employer. And they could of course switch applications once the working day is done, and be used to watch entertainment programs or play video games instead.
8K screens could also be used to display for online exercise classes, a content genre whose popularity surged during lockdowns while people were not able to go to the gym, go for a run, or ride a bike. The falling price of HD monitors and cameras enabled the first phase of online, interactive exercise classes featuring treadmills and static bikes with integrated screens. Large 8K screens, displayed on a wall, would enable instructors and fellow athletes to be shown larger—even life-size. Screens could also be used to show performance metrics from fitness bands and smart watches.29
Still another use for 8K panels is for “digital wallpaper” that decorates part of or all of a large screen. Ever since the advent of digital screens, digital images have been used as screensavers, showing everything from tropical fish to fractal images to personal photos. Vendors of TV streaming peripherals have also included screensavers in their products.30 8K TVs, which display a greater range of colors than 4K sets, can expand the range of images that can be effectively shown, including artwork from museums and private collections. A few digital art-as-a-service providers are already in business, and their number is likely to grow as more 8K sets become available.31
One major barrier to consumer adoption of 8K screens is their cost—for now. But in the near future, the cost is likely to drop substantially, especially when one calculates the cost per hour of viewing. Combined with TV screens’ appeal as a status symbol, this may be enough to push many consumers to consider an 8K set good value for their money.
8K sets are unlikely to enjoy the exact same pace of adoption as 4K sets, which took only seven years from their launch to become the most popular resolution in 2019, when over 100 million 4K TV sets were sold.32 8K adoption will be slower because of their higher costs and larger size. But the dynamic for 8K is likely to be the same: As price falls, demand will ramp up commensurately.
In 2017, the ASP for 8K sets was more than US$8,000.33 The following year, it had decreased to about US$5,500.34 By the end of 2021, we expect that entry-level 8K TV sets will be offered for US$1,500 or less, with an ASP of US$3,300 (figure 2). And as prices have fallen, sales have grown. In 2017, about 2,400 8K TVs were sold.35 In 2018, the first full year in which 8K TV sets were available,36 sales reached 18,600 units. In 2021, we forecast 1 million unit sales globally, compared to 550,000 the prior year. Though this is still a drop in the ocean relative to the approximately 220 million sets of all resolutions sold in 2018, the upward trend is clear.37
8K sales are likely to accelerate as the cost differential between 8K and 4K panels narrows. The smaller the differential, the more likely consumers will opt to future-proof, particularly for larger, higher-priced TV set sizes (65-inch or greater).
Moreover, as demand for 8K TV sets rises, supply is likely to ramp up, further driving down their price. In 2018, the global manufacturing capacity for 65-inch displays (of all resolutions) was just 12 million.38 In 2022, we expect this capacity to increase to support the production of 154 million 55-inch TVs and 37 million 65-inch TVs, with much of the incremental capacity focused on 8K screens. This also parallels what happened with 4K: The number of brands offering 4K TV sets globally more than doubled between 2016 and 2019, from 30 to 70.39
While lower prices are good news for consumers, the rate of price decline may, in the medium term (from 2025 and on), largely cancel out any increase in revenues for 8K set manufacturers and retailers. Purveyors of 4K sets have already experienced this phenomenon. In 2020, 4K TV unit sales in the United States were expected to grow by 12% to 25 million, but revenues were projected to increase by a mere 2%.40
Spending US$2,500, or even US$1,500, for an entry-level 8K TV may appear very hard to justify. But with an expected lifetime of seven years and an average usage of three to five hours per day, a US$2,500 set would cost less than a dollar a day and about 25 cents per hour of viewing time, with the cost shared among the entire household.
To put this into context, many consumers are likely to spend more per year on a smartphone. Multiple brands of smartphones cost more than US$1,000, and their ASP across all markets is about US$380.41 The expected lifetime for phones purchased in 2020 is forecast at only 2.7 years.42 Hence, a household with three people may spend around US$3,000 on smartphones over a seven-year period if each person purchases a US$380 smartphone, and around US$7,800 if each person spends an average of U$1,000 per device.
Few consumers are likely to calculate the cost per hour of a new TV set. But the volume of usage of a new 8K TV and the range of applications for which it can be used—as well as the satisfaction of showing a new, large, device to friends and family—are all factors that can help justify its purchase.
TV sets were popular sellers during the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In the United States, unit sales of TV sets 65 inches or larger went up by 52% in the first half of 2020, and larger sets over 65 inches were up 77% in the second quarter.43 In Germany, TV sets sold strongly even as lockdowns were relaxed, with year-on-year sales up 37% in May 2020 and 21% in June 2020.44
Should a degree of lockdown continue through 2021, at least until a vaccine is widely available and applied, citizens may continue to spend more time at home and less time in indoor venues such as cinemas. To help pass the time, they may continue to choose to upgrade their home entertainment, partly by using savings made from not going out.
The revenue streams for TV vendors have historically remained largely the same. The manufacturer generates the bulk of revenues at the point of sale, and then waits until the sale of a replacement set to generate further revenues. This model has worked for makers and sellers of television sets, as well as multiple other appliances, for decades.
However, connectivity enables this business model to change in ways that can make TVs more affordable by monetizing information about usage habits. Rather than collect all revenues in one go, a vendor could trade gross margin at the point of sale for revenues from advertisers and content owners throughout the TV set’s life. This could enable TVs to be sold at a lower price, making the TV set more cost-competitive while generating potentially higher revenue over the device’s lifetime ownership. For consumers, this may mean that they are able to acquire an 8K set for the same budget as a 4K set. The only requirement would be to connect the TV and agree to terms and conditions.
A connected TV generates information useful to an array of vendors every time it is used. For content vendors, the TV can collect and share information about programs watched, channels chosen, and apps watched and deleted. It could also collect data on what programs are clicked on or, once started, paused or abandoned, which can provide a feedback loop to content creators or content aggregators such as video-on-demand companies. Additionally, a connected TV can serve as a shop front for content providers’ apps. Space on the TV set can be rented to vendors, or commissions collected with every download. And it could be used to show ads distributed by the TV vendor, which could disintermediate TV broadcasters and other entities that have traditionally sold advertising space.
A connected TV can also collect data on devices in the home to help build a profile of the household based on the quantity and quality of devices owned. It could, for example, be connected to a smart doorbell or to a video baby monitor to be able to show who is at the door or to reassure parents that a baby is sleeping. The ability to collect additional data will depend on each market’s specific data privacy regulations.
This kind of business model is not new, of course.45 Though relatively novel to TV, other devices already collect or enable the collection of data useful to advertisers. Considering its success, TV is likely to adopt this model over the course of the 2020s.
TV screen size has become steadily and considerably larger ever since TVs were first invented. Between 2004 and 2019, the average screen size of TV sets in the United States increased from 25.4 inches (as measured on the diagonal from the screen’s bottom left to top right corner) to 47 inches. This translates into a steady rise in the average screen size of the installed TV base of one inch per year.46
The growth in TV screen size has been enabled by the shift to flat panels, which cost far less per square inch of screen to manufacture than those based on older technologies. Between 2014 and 2019, the average cost per square inch of screen in the United States fell from US$2.15 to US$0.39, an 82% decline.47 Concurrently, sales of large-screen sales increased. According to one analysis, the most common size of TV set sold in 2019 in the United States was 65 inches. In the same year, the price of 65-inch sets fell by 25%.48 In the first half of 2020, US unit sales of TV sets 65 inches or larger were up by 52% in the first half of 2020, and larger sets over 65 inches were up 77% in the second quarter.49
The larger the TV screen, the more likely a customer may be to opt for 8K so as to have a perfectly smooth, pixel-free image. The number of pixels on the screen at a given resolution is constant regardless of screen size; as screen area increases, the number of pixels per inch (PPI) for each resolution declines (figure 3), resulting in a grainier image. On a 36-inch HD TV, its 2 million pixels are packed so densely that the image appears completely smooth.50 On a larger HD set, say 55 inches (more than double the area of a 36-inch screen), individual pixels may be discernible depending on the viewing distance. 4K video on a 55-inch screen may be completely smooth, but on a 65-inch screen (1.17 m2, 40% larger than a 55-inch screen) individual pixels may start to become visible. On an 85-inch (1.99 m2) or 100-inch (2.76 m2) screen, only 8K content, native or upscaled, may guarantee a completely smooth image.
The sheer size of an 80-inch or larger TV set might appear to be a disincentive to purchase, as it would be too large to fit in most people’s cars. But online ordering and delivery are ready solutions for this. In the first half of 2019, one-quarter of all TV sets sold globally were bought online; in China, this figure was 50%.51 Lockdown is likely to have accelerated the move to online TV sales, even if research took place in physical stores.
Many studies have examined consumers’ ability to tell an 8K image apart from a 4K one. These studies tend to suggest that differentiating between the two is hard, with capability varying by genre of content. Nature documentaries appear to benefit most from 8K, perhaps because of the greater range of natural colors that can be displayed with the standard.
However, the inability to tell 4K from 8K may not matter in the long run. What matters more may be that owners of 8K TV sets enjoy—and derive utility from—the knowledge that their flat panel is capable of showing images in 8K. This phenomenon recognizes that the consumer is not always rational. The rise of the 4K format occurred while most content was available only in HD, and the rise of HD happened while standard-definition content prevailed. Even today, moviegoers may only know that they are watching in 4K if a trailer tells them so: They are not readily able to tell the difference.
The popularity of 8K TV sets is likely to be boosted by the appeal of very large panels of 75 inches and larger. The larger the TV set, the more immersive the experience. The television is steadily but inexorably transitioning from being the bulky cube in the corner to the slender panel occupying ever larger expanses of wall in ever more intense and vivid colors. 8K and very large panels are likely to become regarded by consumers as one and the same, regardless of the underlying resolution of the content. This is likely to drive satisfaction among owners and envy among visitors to friends’ 8K-equipped living rooms.
Though this chapter has focused mostly on the drivers for consumers to adopt 8K, we should also consider the incentives and barriers to creating content in 8K.
8K film and television cameras have existed for more than five years. Red, one of the first companies in the market, launched its first 8K camera in 2015.52 However, little content has been created in 8K to date. One reason for this is because few 8K TV cameras have been commercially sold: For much of the last decade, only prototypes were available. Additionally, shooting in 8K entails considerable incremental costs, such as for additional storage—one hour of raw 8K footage requires more than seven terabytes, or about 122GB per minute, of storage space—as well as for new monitors and cables.
That said, creating content in 8K also has several advantages that may balance out these current drawbacks. One of these advantages is that shooting in 8K may allow for better quality in postproduction. Downsampling 8K video to 4K often delivers a cleaner overall image than footage originally captured in 4K. This approach also eliminates certain types of artifacts in the final image,53 and may also help with image stabilization, which requires zooming in up to 20%.54 8K capture for 4K masters is likely to be particularly useful for movies with many visual effects (VFX), whose images can be subject to significant postprocessing.55
Reframing from higher-resolution images is also easier in 8K. Crops at 4K resolution can be readily created from an 8K file without loss of resolution, delivering smaller pixels and more detail.56 For sports, shooting in 8K enables fast-moving subjects from runners to racing cars to be more easily framed in 4K. Indeed, 8K cameras, whose prices as of summer 2020 started from US$4,000, may even change how sports photography is done.57 Sports photographers have traditionally relied on ever-faster SLR cameras capable of shooting multiple frames per second, with the hope that one of the hundreds of photos taken will be the money shot. With 8K video, the photographer can film the action at the highest resolution, then pull off a single frame, which will be 33MP in size. Nature documentary makers, whose subjects may move as unpredictably as footballers around a pitch or boxers in a ring, can also benefit from 8K video to generate high-definition stills.58 The cost of creating in 12K to be able to downsample to 8K now starts at US$10,000, with the launch of Blackmagic’s 12K camera in the summer of 2020.59
Finally, shooting in 8K extends the period in which content could be monetized. Content that is shot in 8K and mastered to 4K for release in 2021 could be rereleased in 8K in subsequent years as more 8K screens become available. This is important because the lifetime of content can be measured in decades. For instance, I Love Lucy, which first aired in 1951, was filmed in 35mm,60 enabling remastered versions to be created from the original recordings many years later. An HD remaster of I Love Lucyon Blu-ray was released in 2014.61
Most 8K content created or remastered in 2021 is likely to be targeted to consumers for consumption at home. But a growing volume of 8K content is also likely to be created for commercial uses such as:
8K’s spread among consumers can create opportunities for adjacent industries, with the telecommunications industry in particular standing to benefit. Operators should consider 8K TV sets as an opportunity to market higher-speed connections. They could bundle their highest-speed connections—1 gigabit per second (Gbit/s) in many markets—with subscription video on demand (SVOD) services offering 8K content, pairing the highest picture quality with the best broadband connections. However, operators should not expect gains in revenue from increased network traffic just yet. In 2021, 8K is unlikely to have a significant impact on network traffic overall, not only due to the still-niche installed base of 8K sets, but also because most content shown on 8K-capable panels is likely to be in lower resolution.
For their part, SVOD providers offering content in 8K may be able to bundle this content as part of a premium package. They will incur additional costs for storing and delivering higher-resolution content, but some of these should be recoupable by charging a premium for 8K content, as many pay TV (including SVOD) operators already do for 4K and (in some markets) HD content.
Ultimately, 8K’s core attraction to consumers is as an option on the future of video, and it will appeal to buyers for emotional as well as rational reasons. Owning an 8K screen offers the prospect of enjoying movies and television programming in the best possible quality in terms of pixel density, color range, screen brightness, and sound. It opens up the possibility of showing next-generation 8K video games on the best available screen. It also gives consumers the option of using large TV sets in new ways. They will no longer be just for watching video content, but also could be used to display digital wallpaper or, for home workers, productivity tools.
Commentators should not dismiss 8K’s prospects on the grounds of irrationality. Similar arguments were made about 4K: The screens would be too big for rooms, viewers would be seated too close or too far from the screen, or few would be able to discern the difference between HD and 4K. These resoundingly logical objections do not appear to have held sway. The majority of new TV buyers will opt for 4K in 2021, and they are likely to increasingly opt for 8K over the coming years.
For virtually all consumers today, a television set is a necessary fixture of everyday life. A few households will, of course, prioritize bookshelves over TV girth, but these may well be increasingly rare. Besides 8K’s appeal in terms of video and sound quality, the mass market is likely to relish a screen that dominates and defines a room rather than one hidden in a corner, and many will be eager to claim the bragging rights of owning the latest, largest state-of-the art TV set. 8K televisions are eminently suitable for all these purposes—and this will position them to invade the TV market in 2021 and beyond.
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