Upscaling to 4K

Despite all the talk about 4K (or Ultra HD) displays, there are already a bazillion hours of “standard” 2K HD programming out there in videoland. Consumer 4K sources will be slow in coming, and they might well arrive over the Internet. The question remains as to whether or not the inherent data rate limitations of streaming video could dilute or eliminate the supposed benefits of 4K resolution—apart from the marketing hype.

Over the next couple of years, therefore, and assuming that 4K sets take fire in the marketplace, the smart money will be on upconverting 2K sources to 4K. No form of upconverting can add real resolution; genuine Ultra HD starts and ends with 4K resolution. Nevertheless, we expect plenty of action on the 2K to 4K upconversion front. Since consumer 2K is largely (though not entirely) 1920 x 1080 pixels, and consumer 4K is 3840 x 2160, it would appear that such upconversion might simply involve taking the content of each 2K pixel and quadrupling it (with no added enhancement) to fill a 2 x 2 pixel area on the 4K display. But that will gain nothing in subjective resolution, and may actually reduce image quality due to the added processing required. Most upconversion, therefore, will likely include enhancement and/or other digital manipulation, designed to both eliminate possible upconversion losses and better simulate the look of true 4K.

At this past week’s CES Unveiled in New York, Technicolor planned to demonstrate a promising 4K upconverter from Silicon Valley chip developer Marseilles. Located as I am on the Left Coast, I was not at CES Unveiled—a sort of Mini-me CES designed to fill in the January-to-January gap between the big, annual CESs in Las Vegas. Others, from Home Theater’s New York office, however, attended the New York event.

But in late May I was invited to Marseille’s California headquarters to view a preview of its technology. Their demo used two Sony 55-inch 4K flat screen Ultra HDTVs. The first comparison had native 4K on one display and Marseille’s upconversion of a 2K original on the other. There were essentially no visible differences, though if pressed I’d say that some scenes looked marginally sharper on the upconverted version. When they later showed upconverted 2K material on one set (using the Sony’s on-board upconversion) and their own upconversion on the other, the result was a visible win for Marseille as well.

I don’t think 55-inch 4K sets are the most revealing choice for such a face-off, but it did show that Marseille’s processing could be a serious player. I suspect they’ll have a lot of competition in this game, but the partnership with Technicolor is a smart move for both companies. Marseille is not a household name in video upconversion, but then again there are no household names in video upconversion. Videophiles alone may be familiar with Marvell, DVDO, Lumagen, Faroudja, and others, but everyone has heard of Technicolor—unless they’ve recently arrived from Krypton. Technicolor hopes to use its name recognition to promote Marseille’s technology. If this works out, expect to see the Technicolor name on a variety of future products that offer 4K upconversion. Likely candidates include Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, and perhaps stand-alone processors. I’d add televisions as well, but many HDTV manufacturers have a not-invented-here mindset.

The point I made above about the upconverted 4K looking a shade sharper than true 4K is an experience I’ve also had in Sony demonstrations. It may result in a slightly too ambitious use of enhancement to overcome inherent upconversion losses. I hope that when Technicolor/Marseille upconversion (or anyone elses) is included in products, or at least in products likely to appeal to serious videophiles, it offers a choice of several enhancement modes, from virtually none (or at least only enough to overcome upconversion losses, perhaps erring a bit on the conservative side) up to whatever the intended market, or marketers, require. The Marseilles reps commented that consumers in some markets actually like over-cooked sharpness enhancement in their HD (?) images! Offering a variety of options would allow the end user to tune out those over-eager designers at Edgy-R-Us Video.

MatthewWeflen's picture

Ugh. I can't believe we're back to this snake oil.

Every 4k set should come with a built in calibration video that explains why "upconversion" and "sharpness" are anything but.

maj0crk's picture

Yep, the pushers are at it again. First, it was up-conversion of DVDs to HD quality. Remember all the claims about THAT? Now we're expected to buy into yet another round of, to quote Matt above, snake oil. At least the writer has answered 1 question; will 4K look good on a smaller set.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
That is, you'll need upconversion if you buy a 4K set. Without it, a 2K picture on a 4K screen would appear as a small image at center screen with black bars on all sides. Given the prevalence of 2K HD material now and well into the future, decent upconversion will be needed for any 4K setup. That doesn't answer the question as to whether or not we truly need 4K in the consumer space. That's a different issue, about which we could have very long discussions. And often will, as the 4K train rolls out.

But marketing being what it is, there will he attempts to convince uninformed consumers that upconverting 2K sources (or lower) to 4K produces true, Ultra HD. Upconverted 2K may be 4K in pixel count, but 4K is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for an image to have a true claim to being Ultra HD.

The same was true of SD to 1080p upconversion. We're still seeing claims on some products that they can upconvert SD sources to HD. 480i can be upconverted to 1920 x 1080 pixels (loosely referred to here as 2K), and this must be done on a 2K set for the same reason described above for 4K--to fill the screen. But there's more to HD than simply a picture with a 1920 x 1080 pixel count.

Vance4243's picture

I own the 65" Sony 4K TV - it does it's own 4K upscaling extremely well. I've never had a need to use a 3rd party device to upscale to 4K even though both my Onkyo receiver and Oppo blu-ray player can perform 4K up conversion. For sure 1080p blu-rays look considerably better on the Sony 4K set (one of the reasons I bought it) which I believe is due to a combination of the Sony's superb built in 4K up conversion, wide color gamut and excellent dynamic range. As a photographer, I also use the set to show my photos, and with its 8 megapixel native resolution and expanded color gamut, the images look absolutely stunning. Perhaps 4K sets with less than stellar built-in up conversion will benefit with a 3rd party device - but I sure don't need one.