4K

4K Video Conferencing: Your New Year’s Resolution?

Ryan Murphy
January 9, 2019

Are you weighing out whether to move to 4K Resolution for your video conferencing? There are a few factors to consider.

Let’s take a look at what 4K is, what it’s capable of, and how it fits in the world of modern enterprise video conferencing. Hopefully by the end of this piece, you’ll have a better sense for if it’s worth shelling out for the cameras, TVs/Monitors, the solution and the bandwidth required to take the next step into what some industry experts are calling the future of conferencing.

Quick recap: what is 4K?

Most consumers know 4K as being the latest and greatest in television. Also known as Ultra High Definition (UHD), it’s the highest resolution available to the average person (although it’s rumoured that 8K will make its debut this year, but has no bearing on this discussion).

4K is the step up from 1080p, which has been the standard for some time. The naming convention comes from the pixel count – a 1080p screen has dimensions of 1920 x 1080 pixels (totalling a little over 2 million pixels), whereas the 4K is 3840 x 2160 pixels (putting it over 8 million pixels). (Note that some clever marketer took that 4K number from the horizontal axis; until now, the resolution had been named for the number of pixels on the vertical axis. A 4K TV could have been called a “2160p”. I hope they got a raise for that one.) 4K technology is able to reproduce the most minute and complicated details in much higher contrast simply because it gets to work with nearly 4 times the number of pixels.

4k compared to screens

With that in mind, and with the cost of 4K screens dropping every year, it would seem that going 4K should be a foregone conclusion – but it’s not. And why? Not a limitation in the technology, but in the human eye.

When does it make sense to use a 4K display?

This is an easy concept to understand: think of looking at a textured surface, and then moving away while still looking at it. While up close, you can see the details that give it that texture. But not long after moving away, you lose those minute features and just see a smooth surface.

Similarly, a 4K screen displays a level of detail that is noticeable from up close, but that cannot be seen by the human eye from further away.

This illustrates the need for optimal screen size and distance from said screen for you to get the full benefit of a 4K display. Beyond a certain point, there is no discernible difference between 4K and 1080p. A few steps further back from there and there is no difference between 4K and 720p. A few more steps and you wouldn’t be able to tell a 4K display from that of a 480p.

Take a look at this chart developed by Carlton Bale. It plots screen size against the distance from which the screen is viewed. As you can see, there are zones in which certain resolutions come into focus and then are optimized.

Conferencing resolution distance graphic chart

So let’s say that you want to equip a boardroom with a 4K setup. Based on these measurements, a 4K, 75-inch TV is optimized at 5 feet, and has a somewhat noticeable difference until roughly 10 feet away, and then is indistinguishable from 1080p beyond 10 feet. At 15 feet, the 4K is indistinguishable from 720p.

So how does 4K work in the boardroom?

This is where it becomes tricky. If you were optimizing a living room with a 75-inch 4K screen, you would place a single viewing point 5 feet from the display (and you can understand why, at that distance, a curved screen would make sense).

But what about when you have, say, 12 viewing points spread around a room 25, 30 feet in length? There may be a couple chairs within 5 feet of the screen, and a couple more within 10 feet. The majority, however, are beyond the point that they would be able to detect any difference in image quality. In circumstances like these, 4K provides diminishing returns. How much are you willing to pay for the people in the front row to be able to see in greater detail?

Other Factors to Consider

There are a few other things to consider if you’re weighing whether or not to move to 4K.

Futureproofing

Most industry experts agree that 4K is now the standard display, and will be for some time. 1080p TVs are no longer receiving the upgrades seen in newer 4K TVs, and will fall further and further behind.

Contrast ratio

The Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) states the most important aspects of picture quality are, in order: 1) contrast ratio, 2) color saturation, 3) colour accuracy, 4) resolution. While resolution is 4th on the list, to build on the point made above, only 4K televisions are receiving upgraded technology that improves these other, arguably more important elements.

Bandwidth

Moving to 4K video conferencing is going to up your bandwidth requirements substantially. In theory, you have 4 times the amount of visual information to transfer per second. That will cost you. And unless you know for a fact that the people on the other end have a similar set up, you’d better be with a bridging service that will automatically scale connection requirements with your call.

Consult the Pros

There are many things to consider when trying to determine if it’s time to move to 4K for video conferencing, budget not least among them. And depending on the space that you’re working with, you may not get much functional benefit anyway.

It’s worth placing faith in the professionals who design video conferencing solutions for a variety of spaces every day. You can be guaranteed that they’ll consider the factors above when they make their recommendations. But don’t be surprised or disappointed if they suggest holding off on 4K – in the modern boardroom, it may not make sense.

(It should be noted, of course, that I would fully advocate for seeing a video call in high definition, if not ultra high-def – if you’re near enough to the screen. The ability to interpret body language and facial expressions is the very raison d’etre for video conferencing. You should want the ability to spot a poker player’s “tell” during a video call. But the only modern way to take advantage of 4K would look like this.)