Television at four times the resolution of today's high-def images is turning out to be one of the most popular bets among consumer electronics makers in Las Vegas at this year's CES.
Most of the major TV set makers announced plans for the televisions, which are known as 4K TVs or Ultra HD TVs, but Japan's Sony went further. Seeking to realize synergy between its electronics division and movie production house, the company said it's planning a consumer-grade 4K camcorder and, perhaps the ace up its sleeve: a 4K content delivery service.
Sony's tried to do this before. Its rich catalog of recording artists on Sony Music didn't help the Walkman much in its battle with the iPod, but Sony is a very different company today than it was a decade ago. Howard Stringer, Sony's former CEO, fought internal fiefdoms to break down barriers and get the company working together toward a single goal.
"It's more than just the signal processing algorithms and all the other science that goes into making 4K devices. We know what content should look like, and we're at the forefront of creating content as well," said Kaz Hirai, Sony's current CEO, during a news conference at CES.
Hirai is right about Sony's unique position. Sony is the only major consumer electronics company to own music, movie and TV production studios, so it has a rich catalog of content for its devices. "Spiderman," "Men In Black," TV's "Seinfeld" and "Jeopardy," Alicia Keys, Ke$ha -- they're all part of the Sony family.
The 4K content service will launch in the U.S. in the middle of this year and initially offer about 10 movies.
"We will offer native 4K movie content to the home," said Phil Molyneux, president of Sony Electronics, which is Sony's U.S. electronics division. "The world's first service will allow owners of our 4K TVs to download and enjoy native 4K movies created by Sony Pictures and other 4K content companies."
The service could become a significant and important differentiator for Sony in 4K. That's because beyond the din of 4K announcements from electronics companies, a common question remains: What are consumers going to watch?
There is no 4K TV broadcasting anywhere in the world so consumers are mostly left with upconverting, a software process that artificially adds resolution. Upconversion was popular too with DVD owners when HDTVs came on the market, but it wasn't a substitute for real high-def content on Blu-ray Disc. The same is likely to be true for 4K.
Asked by reporters if Sony planned to extend the 4K delivery service to TV sets from competitors, Hirai said that might happen eventually, but it would initially be restricted to Sony TVs.
"Sony is uniquely positioned as an innovator and market leader in 4K," said Molyneux.
For Sony, 4K is one of the technologies that could help Hirai turn around its TV business. A longtime flagship of the company, the TV business has been losing money for years in the face of stiff price competition. Hirai is reducing the size and scope of Sony's TV product family in an attempt to stem losses and provide a strong base on which to grow again.
Sony didn't announce a price for the new 4K TVs. The current 85-inch model costs $25,000 and Molyneux said the two new sets would be at a "more accessible" price for consumers. The 4K camcorder, which will allow consumers to create their own 4K content, is currently on show at CES as a prototype. There's no launch date.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is [email protected]