Japan's NHK Launches World's First 8K TV Channel

Courtesy of Cannes
'2001: A Space Odyssey'

The public broadcaster launched the channel with a restored version of seminal sci-fi epic '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

The world's first 8K channel was launched in December by Japan's public broadcaster NHK. The ultra-HD format features four times the resolution of 4K, weighing in with a hefty 33 million pixels, as well as 22.2 multi-channel sound.

The NHK BS8K channel debuted on Dec. 1 with a restored version of seminal sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey converted into the new format by Warner Bros., which worked closely with the Japanese broadcaster on this world first.

"2001: A Space Odyssey was chosen because it was shot in 70mm," explains Hiroyasu Masuda, senior manager of 8K technical production development. "35mm films being digitalized and archived in 4K is fine, but it’s a bit of a waste to do 70mm films in 4K."

My Fair Lady, which was also made in 70mm, is scheduled for broadcast in March, with more films shot in the format set to get the 8K treatment.

Other content on the channel includes programs featuring footage shot in 8K from the Antarctic and the International Space Station, along with concerts from some of the world's leading orchestras to showcase the immersive 22.2 channel sound.

In the immediate future, the home audience for these broadcasts is going to be small. Only Sharp has 8K television sets on sale, with a 60-inch model retailing in Japan for $3,600 (¥390,718), plus around $2,000 for a dedicated tuner.

"We've heard that sales have been higher than expected, but there haven’t been any actual figures released yet," says Yukie Tanaka of 4K and 8K promotion division at NHK.

NHK is promoting the channel with public viewings of major events, such as the network's long-running New Year's Eve music special Kohaku Utagassen, at its headquarters and regional stations, according to Tanaka.

At its main broadcast center in Tokyo's Shibuya, huge 8K screens allow visitors to experience the incredible resolution of the format, which can make the real world look somewhat pedestrian in comparison.

The broadcaster has been developing 8K at its NHK Science & Technical Research Laboratories in Tokyo since 1995, with the format first publicly displayed at the 2005 Expo in Japan's Aichi. The 2012 London Olympics saw the first 8K test live public broadcasts, which Masuda says marked the start of concrete planning for a dedicated channel.

The development of the new format has thrown up numerous technical challenges for NHK, some of which have yet to be fully resolved, according to Masuda.

"The first 8K cameras weighed about 80kg [176 lbs] and needed four adults to carry them. By the time of the London Olympics, they were down to about 30kg [66 lbs] and now the cameras are around 7kg. But the lenses are still very heavy, which they have to be for 8K specs,” Masuda says.

"The data is also very heavy, eight times that of 4K, so for editing, the workstations we use aren’t really powerful enough yet," he adds.

"And there are only two companies making mixing desks that deal with the 22.2 channel sound. And nowhere makes a 22.2 channel speaker system, so we have to use multiple 5.1 and 7.1 channels together and things like that," according to Masuda, who says NHK is now collaborating with Dolby on an Atmos system that will be compatible with 22.2 channel sound.

Next up for 8K is the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, beginning Jan. 13. As well as seeing the giant wrestlers in 7,680 x 4,320 resolution, the broadcasts will use the new technology to measure and display the speed of their initial 'tachiai' charges and the force of impact when they clash.

For those wondering where the drive for ever-higher resolutions will ever end, 8K should be that format; the resolution it delivers is approximately at the limit of human visual perception.

However, the scientists at NHK's research lab have another trick up their sleeve. They have for years been working on an integral 3D system, which doesn't require special glasses and will allows images to be seen from varying angles depending on the position of the viewer. It may be ready by 2030.