In Depth: 4K TV comes to the Winter Olympics, but you won’t be able to watch it

In Depth: 4K TV comes to the Winter Olympics, but you won't be able to watch it

The Olympics have historically been a hotbed for testing new entertainment technology. First came color TV in 1964, 1080p HD in 2008, and 2012 marked the first-ever Games in 3D.

This year’s Sochi Winter Games is no different. While tech news surrounding the biennial spectacle has been keenly focused on new fangled speed skating tracksuits, bomb detection methods and hackers, Ultra HD is also making an appearance at the global sporting event.

Unfortunately, the tech won’t be standing on a podium, as it were.

Over the last couple of months murmurings swirled that electronics companies and TV networks were teaming up to record and show the Sochi Olympics in 4K. After a bit of digging, TechRadar learned that the Olympics would indeed be shot in 4K and even 8K.

However, these UHD Olympic takes won’t be viewable to the general public save for those visiting NHK-sponsored public viewing locations in Japan. Otherwise, most of the footage will only be shown at special press viewing parties and other private events, making Sochi’s 4K a more closed-off affair than the Super Hi-Vision (SHV) cinemas hosted by the BBC for the 2012 London Games.

There is some UHD tech worth paying attention to, and we’ve gathered what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and various firms have planned to put it into action. Perhaps, by the time Rio rolls around, 4K will be ready for prime time.

Winning all the Ks

We first caught wind of the beyond-1080p HD plans for the Winter Olympic from an IOC release stating, "Sochi will be the first Winter Games to have individual events broadcast in Super Hi-Vision digital format."

Ultra HD 4K TV, NBC Universal, 2014 Sochi Olympics, Olympic Broadcasting Services, Samsung, Panasonic, Panasonic GH4, Newstrack

In this SHV format, the IOC and Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS) camera operators will catch the athletes strutting on the ice and flying through the snow in 7680 x 4320 pixel resolution.

While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Olympics captured at 16 times the quality of traditional HDTV footage – London took that crown – this will be a first for the Winter Games. The Olympic overseers hope to catch every high-def detail from this year’s events down to specks of ice coming off the hockey rink.

The main Olympic body isn’t the only one planning to record beyond 1080p, as Panasonic revealed it would record the Opening Ceremony in 4K. What’s more, the Japanese electronics firm the 4K-capable GH4, showing non-professional shooters Ultra HD video is within reach.

One of the biggest problems with bringing 4K to the masses is the lack of content and cameras’ notoriously high price tags. For example, the UHD-capable Canon EOS-1D C cost upwards of $12,000 (about £7,351/AUS $13,438). Panasonic’s GH4 should come in at a more consumer-friendly price, though that information is still missing.

Ultra HD 4K TV, NBC Universal, 2014 Sochi Olympics, Olympic Broadcasting Services, Samsung, Panasonic, Panasonic GH4, Newstrack

Between the professional cameras and consumers bringing their own devices to the Games, 4K-plus is making an appearance in Sochi. It boils down to there being no simple or widespread way for users or networks to share these shots with the watching world.

We’re going to need a bigger pipe

While the IOC boasted that it will be able to show the Olympics in a nearly life-like detail and utilize 22.2 multichannel surround sound, it didn’t share specifics on where the 4K films would end up. We asked the OBS where the broadcasts would go, but haven’t received word if any of them will air directly to customers.

While 4K may not be making its way to households, many of the sporting events shot in UHD will be shown at private viewing parties.

Comcast Senior Director of Corporate Communications Lisa Scalzo told us that while it is capable of delivering 4K content to customers, for the Games it partnered with NBC to show some 4K highlights privately.

These press and industry viewing parties are aimed at showing off 4K technology, as well as demonstrating Comcast’s Xfinity 4K app coming to Samsung Smart Ultra HD TVs, which the it announced at CES 2014.

Ultra HD 4K TV, NBC Universal, 2014 Sochi Olympics, Olympic Broadcasting Services, Samsung, Panasonic, Panasonic GH4, Newstrack

At events in Philadelphia and Washington D.C., Comcast plans to show the Ultra HD games on Samsung’s massive 55-inch U9000 UHD curved display. In San Francisco, the cable company plans to display looping highlights from the Olympic opening ceremonies along with scenic Sochi vistas and skating on a 65-inch flat-screen Samsung UHD TV.

The uphill climb

Of course the elephant in the room slowing Ultra HD 4K TV’s growth and its support from networks is the continued success of 1080p HDTVs. While 4K TV sales languish with 57,000 units in the sold in the US, according to Consumer Electronics Association numbers from August 2013, a 1080p 50-inch HDTV screen can be had for roughly $600 (about £366/AUS $699).

Whether 4K TV makers will be able to reach a more affordable price point by the time the next Olympics rolls around remains to be seen.

For now this year’s Sochi Olympics will be another passed opportunity for 4K to make its big showing, but there will be more chances during future sporting events. International competitions have always been opportunities for new TV technologies to prove themselves, and we should hear more about UHD during the upcoming FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. Hopefully by the time these events roll around, 4K won’t be relegated to private viewing parties.

  • Is 4K video all it’s cracked up to be? Check out our hands on review of the Panasonic GH4!