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February 14, 2022

Op-Ed: 8K and Sustainability

Intro and disclaimers

What on earth did I think when I offered to write about 8K and sustainability for the 8K Monitor? How could this title not be a contradiction in terms?

Disclaimer: This piece isn’t balanced; I’m making a case for 8K in a world where sustainability is ever more critical, and our planet is in pain TODAY.

When considering a new TV, environmentally conscious consumers will want to look at many issues, including the use of mercury, recyclable plastics, PVC-free components, packaging, repairability, and whether connection ports are future-proof. I’m looking at the glass-to-glass value chain in this piece, focusing solely on energy consumption.

Like most of us, my environmental concerns, which were always strong, have grown over the last few years. I was scared that researching and writing this piece would make me feel I was in the wrong place, doing bad by the planet. Although I couldn’t unearth irrefutable evidence or even theories explaining that 8K was intrinsically sustainable, I’ll have achieved my goal if you get to the end of this piece with an open mind.

According to a report titled “The Sustainable Future of Video Entertainment”, released by InterDigital and Futuresource, an 8K TV will use twice the energy of a 4K TV. That does not sound too optimistic, and indeed some trends in the TV industry will push toward this less sustainable future. But there are other trends that we think will help mitigate or offset the negative trends. By what degree is still very much to be determined, however.

According to Marek Maciejewski, Product Development Director Europe at TCL Europe, the power consumption of a 75″ 8K TV will vary between 100 W and 400 W. This wide range results from the average luminance level of the TV with bright snow scenes drawing the most power. Another critical factor is color coverage. Wider color gamut TVs consume more energy to produce their expanded range of colors.

The third most significant impact on power consumption is the panel transmissivity or light passing percentage for LCD-based TVs. The size of the pixel address lines and transistors stays the same whether it is a 4K or 8K display. But for the same sized display, an 8K panel will have four times as many pixels as a 4K panel. This higher density means the light passing area must shrink. According to Maciejewski, the transmissivity of today’s 8K panels is around 3.5%. The equivalent 4K panel has a transmissivity of about 7%. The impact is that a brighter backlight is needed to create equivalent front-of-screen luminance compared to the 4K panel. The result is a doubled power consumption, all things being equal.

OLED TVs are emissive without the transmissivity issues of LCDs. However, their power consumption is still quite image-dependent. Dark scenes will use far less energy than bright scenes.

Consumer behavior in the TV market can also impact sustainability. For example, consumers are still buying bigger and bigger TVs, and larger screen sizes will trend toward 8K resolution. Video consumption is way up due to the pandemic and a vast array of high-quality consumer content.

Addressing consumer behavioral trends seems to be a necessary part of any solution. But it will require consumer buy-in. There are, however, several technical avenues to explore to address the negative sustainability trends, which may represent lower-hanging fruit.

8K LG-SIGNATURE-OLED and sustainability
Image Credit LG

Mitigating Factors

First, let’s note that Moore’s law impacts the TV market too. TV processing needs keep increasing, but smaller design rules allow these increases to be handled with similar or lower power. In addition, regulatory actions in many regions of the world are placing limits and ratings on the power consumption of TVs. Poor energy consumption leads to poor ratings, negatively impacting sales. TV makers and their technology suppliers are this motivated to continue to reduce energy use.

Regulatory and ratings actions have been very successful as the power consumption of TVs has been steadily reduced over the years. Showing improvements in energy use is tricky, as TV makers have added more features, technology, and performance over time, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.

For example, HDR TVs specify higher peak luminance values that are much higher than SDR versions, but the average power consumption may not be all that different. That is because HDR TVs often have sophisticated dimming zones that allow for darker and brighter regions than SDR displays. This impacts the perceived image quality with greater dynamic range, but not necessarily with a big hit on energy consumption. Better backlight management is one essential technique that delivers performance gains while holding steady or reducing power consumption.

Display manufacturing techniques are also critically important. New transistor/backplane designs and fabrication materials are constantly being developed to improve performance, reduce cost and reduce power consumption in OLED and LCD-based solutions. Check out this article for a deeper dive on the OLED side. This trend is expected to continue.

Production is moving to higher resolution and HDR, negatively impacting the sustainability of the whole chain and consuming more energy at the TV.

Preserving artistic intent from the content creator’s mind to the theatre and in-home experience has always been a critical driver of media and entertainment. Today, many new tools are becoming available to content creators. These include 8K/12K capture, 360-degree capture, virtual sets, HDR, AI capabilities, game engines, and more, allowing creators to envision new ways to capture, process, and present their visions.

These new techniques can consume more power to create, process, deliver and display. We are at the beginning of the transition to 8K filmmaking – a medium that has yet to develop its own cinematic style. But content creators will always continue to push these frontiers and want to capture in the highest resolution possible to future proof their content. This artistic trend is unlikely to change, so technologists need to find ways to deliver these visions with less power.

But technology can be a mitigating factor in production as well. For example, there are potential energy savings by creating several camera angles out of a single shot. A single static 8K camera can cover a whole pitch providing the same information as 16 HD cameras in sports. An HD field of view can then be moved around within it, either by a producer, or maybe one day, by the consumer, perhaps assisted with an AI-based agent.

Compression is also getting more efficient all the time. The trade-off between the power used to encode and decode versus the bandwidth required for a video requires a technical approach beyond the scope of this article. In a future article, we will address it and compare different approaches to encoding, such as Low Complexity Enhancement Video Coding (LCEVC). See our call to the industry at the end of this article; we are particularly interested in data on power requirements for video decoding.

Typically, the move from one generation to the next doubles the effectiveness of compression technology. So we saw H265 become about twice as efficient as H264, for example, and expect H266 to be twice as efficient again. One not-so-obvious fact is that the higher the resolution of the source image, the more efficient compression becomes. With today’s technology, an action scene or sports clip in 8K could theoretically require up to four times the bandwidth of an HD version of the same content (in practice, it requires less). However, a talking-head video in 8K will be hugely compressed, and the bandwidth overhead barely visible over a 4K version of the same content.

Indeed, higher bandwidth should only ever be needed when there is valuable information to encode and transmit. As the core technologies that manage video streams, such as Adaptive Bit Rate and CDNs, mature, they will become better integrated. Variable resolution and content-aware encoding are progressing in leaps and bounds. Data transmitted will carry only helpful information, and user-controlled features are likely to appear, offering the choice to reduce bandwidth in exchange for buffering or lower quality. Marek, from TCL, told me that if a high-end 8K TV was akin to a car with a V12 engine, you could take it to the mall using just two cylinders.

Who gets to decide what level of detail is worth transmitting in a video? Certainly not us industry pundits. Even the most adamant green thinkers will agree that technology that improves life is good, even if some improvements require new technology and consume some resources.

The art of filmmaking and viewers’ desires will decide what is worthwhile. Whether to give enough data and coding/decoding power to keep the moving background of a fast camera movement from blurring is for the filmmaker and the market to decide.

The preservation of artistic intent will be more accessible when technology captures what’s in the filmmaker’s mind’s eye with finer detail.

8K doesn’t yet have its own cinematographic language, with wider shots and more detail as part of the storytelling, for example. New camera work and production techniques will leverage specific 8K features. 8K will then have a meaning beyond just more pixels. I believe that there will be things that can only make sense in this new augmented format, and some of these things might be very new to audiences. A wow! moment with one outstanding 8K production creating a whole new dialog may never occur. It could well be a succession of small steps so that we wake up one day to an 8K experience that would not have meaning in HD or even UHD.

Storytellers will see new possibilities. In the last century of filmmaking, it has become standard to focus the viewer’s attention on what’s happening in the center of the screen. There are well-established artistic storytelling reasons here, but technically, it would not always have been possible to do otherwise. Compression algorithms blur the background when there are bandwidth constraints. The background is often artificially blurred in postproduction for storytelling to keep that focus.

For example, in 2001, I brought a pre-release copy of “Pearl Harbour,” my first HD DVD home to show my family. I searched for a still image where the whole screen was in focus. I wanted to show off my fancy new 16/9 HD TV’s capabilities. It was in vain; no such image existed in the entire 183-minute movie.

With a larger screen and lenses with longer focal lengths, viewers may be presented with so much information on a large 8K screen that they will need to decide where to focus their attention. I can’t be sure that such a break from the traditional rules of filmmaking will make sense artistically. Still, it is a new possibility, and I trust filmmakers to explore it, and it is only a matter of time before some artist discovers how to exploit this unique aspect of 8K video.

The resolution offered by an 8K screen also provides a much more immersive feel. It can feel 3D-like, and one is more engrossed in the content.

Let’s not shoot the messenger because the resolution is but one parameter

8K is just a step in the technology journey of film and video. As global warming becomes an issue for all of us, objecting to a massive digital signage advertising display seems legitimate. But the question here has nothing to do with a video format or 8K resolution; it is whether we need bright adverts in public spaces or not in a world of finite resources.

In 2022 an 8K TV will generate more carbon than its 4K equivalent. Still, in the end, as we’ve explained above, the resolution is but one of many parameters in video entertainment. Sometimes a step back is what enables us to take two steps forward. Buying an electric car today is, in most cases, worse for the planet than a gasoline-powered vehicle. Yet, we still need to push on. Battery technology will improve, charging infrastructure will become more readily available, and electric cars will be better for the planet very soon. The only way we know how to make that happen is to start using what we have today.

A few years from now, a versatile energy-efficient device that may no longer be called a TV will be capable of offering the best possible user experience from any source, including 8K and maybe above.

The metaverse and a quality work-from-home

In the post-COVID world (assuming we get there soon), work from home will remain much more significant than it was in 2019. A great side-effect of this phenomenon is the reduction of travel.

Lockdowns and the resulting work-from-home phenomenon accelerate a more general concept that has been progressing slowly for decades. The current buzzword for the digitalization of our lives is the metaverse.

For this future world to effectively materialize, we will need to enhance the sense of being there. Higher resolution will be a crucial part of improved remote human interactions.

Future-proofing content

Even with the best upscaling technologies available, SD content can still only look like old archival footage. AI enhancements will continue to improve upscaling, but there will always be a quality gap. Already many productions that are still distributed HD today, shoot and post-produce in 4K to be rendered in this more future proof content. Moving to 8K only reinforces this guarantee of future usability. A sustainable future requires combatting waste, and having footage last much longer is also part of that struggle.

Call to 8K industry action

We collected data to turn this opinion piece into a data-centric article. However, we need more before we can publish. Please help us create an accurate picture of the energy consumption of devices in the 8K ecosystem. An excellent place to start is TV power consumption, where current measurements are very basic and don’t provide any real insight into the impact of the technology in the TV or content consumption. Maybe it would be helpful to try to answer some more detailed questions like:

  • What is the actual power consumption of TVs as a function of
    • Resolution
    • Content genre
    • Frame rate
    • Codec
    • Room ambient
    • TV peak luminance
    • Number of dimming zones or LEDs
    • Etc.

Please reach out to chris@8KAssociation.com if you can help us get real about 8K and sustainability.

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