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What the Heck Is (n)K Resolution?

Adrian Pennington

February 24, 2021

Leaps in video resolution are unrelenting. Acquisition continues its inexorable march from 4K to 8K—and toward a time when pixel counts will be virtually unlimited. This trend is set to unleash new creative possibilities, spurred on by advances in technology and by consumers' desire for more immersive, photorealistic experiences. Avid calls this trend (n)K resolution, and it describes a future in which creatives are no longer constrained by the number or quality of pixels in a screen.

So, what is driving resolution independence, and what can you expect to see from it down the line? Let's break it down.

Moving Toward Resolution Independence

"Within Avid, we've been following a philosophy of resolution independence," says Shailendra Mathur, vice president of architecture at Avid Technology, in a Z by HP report titled Reshaping Creativity. "That's why we call it (n)K resolution. Any aspect ratio, any resolution. We've gone from SD to HD to UHD, and now we're at 8K. That trend is going to continue."

There are many reasons for acquiring video at the highest resolution, including banking a master copy for sale when the format's market (e.g., the install base of screens) catches up. From VFX to frame resizing, high-end content is routinely produced in post using high resolution and bit rates. Acquiring at the highest resolution produces a better-quality output—even if the end device plays back a lower resolution and bit rate.

The industry's adoption of UHD formats is following a similar trajectory to the transition from SD to HD, though at an accelerated pace thanks to digital-first platforms like YouTube—and the momentum is on track to continue through 8K to 16K, 32K, and beyond.

"The biggest driver is the demand by humans for even more immersive visual content," says Thomas Coughlin, digital storage analyst and author of the annual Digital Storage for Media and Entertainment Report. "Other drivers are computing, networking, and storage technologies that can support the creation and use of ever higher resolution content."

The Desire for Higher Fidelity Content

Jeremy Krinitt, senior developer relations manager at NVIDIA, agrees. "There's a strong desire among people to experience content in higher fidelity. This has driven higher resolution requirements, but it's also driving technologies like HDR that can more accurately display colors," he says. "Ultimately, all of this is in the service of storytelling. Whether something is recorded on an old webcam or on the latest 8K camera, it needs to be able to serve the storytelling purposes of the person creating the content."

In Japan, 8K broadcasts have already made the air, a library of 8K resolution content is available on sites like YouTube, and the flagship screens/flat panels of major consumer electronics brands are now 8K. However, the creative demand for super resolutions is targeting emerging immersive applications.

"While flat image resolution may reach a limit, 360° content requires higher resolution, driving the resolution and image quality requirements even further," says Coughlin. "Volumetric computing capture and display technology will require the use of even more captured content."

Another factor impeding the breakout of consumer VR is the bottleneck in both resolution and the ability to deliver high fidelity to all parts of the viewing experience, including peripheral vision. VR requires wrapping the participant in a photorealistic experience with a minimum of 8K resolution content delivered to both eyes.

Reshaping Realities with Volumetric Video

"Viewing through two eyes is the natural thing to do, and stereoscopic VR takes us into the next level," says Mathur. "It's a wholly immersive experience." Mathur believes we won't be satisfied with entertainment "until we can offer an alternate reality that matches how our senses work."

This vision is in the early stages of being built by computing giants Apple, Microsoft, Google, and NVIDIA. Otherwise known as spatial computing, it conceptualizes a next-generation, 3D version of the internet that seamlessly blends the physical world with the digital in an extended reality.

"When you create things spatially, you can explore them as either a virtual reality or an augmented reality experience," says Nonny de la Peña, founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, in the Z by HP report. "I think that the idea of the separation between [AR and VR] technologies is going to go away."

As Reshaping Creativity observes, spatial computing offers gesture control—currently only practical in VR—in the 3D world, allowing users to interact with virtual interfaces and objects by reaching out and touching them. Resolution, along with key image attributes like HDR and high frame rate, are key to this future.

8K Production Has Arrived

The ecosystem to produce 8K has arrived. Feature films like 2020 Netflix release Mank are part of a growing number of productions being shot in 8K, in part for production and in part for archive. RED, ARRI, Sony, and Blackmagic all have cameras capable of 12K acquisition—the release of more cameras able to record at these higher resolutions is inevitable.

Higher resolutions are entering the mix beyond television and film, too. The first applications will be in digital out-of-home advertising and large entertainment venues, such as the MSG Sphere being built in Las Vegas.

Experiencing images at higher resolutions whets the appetite for pushing visual limits even further. Techniques that capture volumetric video of a 3D space may help create content for VR head-mounted displays, and eventually for free-standing holography, such as those being developed at Light Field Lab.

"I have heard talk that something like the holodeck from Star Trek could require more than 520K video," jokes Coughlin.

Yet NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang says in this IBC article that the combination of cloud-native and photorealistic tools with path tracing and material simulation, powered by NVIDIA GPUs and AI algorithms, could bring that holodeck to life.

n(K) Resolution Is on Its Way

None of this will be easy. It is predicated on continued advances in compression technology with AI solutions, cloud storage, 5G edge computing processors, and networking bandwidth.

According to Krinitt, it's not just about processing: innovations will rest on higher efficiency and capabilities from networking technology. This has implications for CTOs and IT teams looking to future-proof their infrastructure.

"Since resolution and other important video requirements, such as bits per pixel, will drive ever higher storage capacities, anticipating this need and building for this level of scale will be an important element in future-proofing post-production and archiving architectures," says Coughlin.

It's quite a vision for the industry. Resolution independence opens new possibilities for creatives to tell stories at whatever combination of resolution, color gamut, dynamic range, frame rate, and even dimension they wish, automatically scalable up or down to the viewer's screen, environment, or pleasure. (n)K resolution is on its way—and it might be here sooner than you think.

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Adrian Pennington
Adrian Pennington is a journalist, editor, commentator, and copywriter on film and TV production. Follow him on Twitter @Pennington1.

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