Ultra-high quality video set for massive growth online as YouTube launches live streaming for 4K

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The phenomenal growth of online video has only slightly been hampered by the limitations of the current data centre infrastructure and telecommunications networks. 

But with both the network and the data centre becoming faster and adding more capacity, the amount of video viewed online is increasing – and the quality of the video is improving.

YouTube has just announced that it will support live streaming for the highest quality of video most widely available today – 4K.

Kurt Wilms, senior product manager, writing on the official YouTube blog, says the company is “taking 4K video one step further with the launch of 4K live streaming for both 360-degree videos and standard videos”.

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Wilms adds: “Supporting this new format will let creators and partners stream incredibly high-resolution video, and let viewers enjoy the clearest picture possible when watching a live stream on 4K-supported devices. The image quality is just mind-blowing on screens that support it, and in 360 degrees … the clarity can truly transport you.”

4K video shows more than 8 million pixels in total – or 4096 x 2160 pixels – which is around four times the definition of 1080p – which is generally known as “high definition”, or HD. Specifically, HD has a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080, which equals about 2 million pixels.

Ultra HD is a derivation of 4K, and is slightly lower resolution.

4K is not actually the highest resolution currently available – that would be 8K, which displays an image of dimensions 7680 x 4320 pixels, or 33 million pixels in total.

8K is generally used for engineering applications in industry. For example, flight simulation at Boeing, which is bound to have a high-speed private cloud through which teams can view the video and perhaps collaborate on its development.

For the rest of us, on the public Internet, 4K is as good as it gets.

You’re gonna need a bigger Internet 

For many lucky owners of newer models of smartphones, a 4K video camera is standard technology, integrated into their beloved devices.

Strictly speaking, it’s not 4K in the sense that the aspect ratio of a mobile phone screen is different – it’s generally narrower, or wider, depending on your point of view.

But cropping and other technical details notwithstanding, most new smartphones are capable of recording “4K” video.

And given that 1 minute of 4K may take up to 400 megabytes of space on an iPhone 6s, for example, compared with 150 MB for HD, the amount of video data being stored online and streamed is obviously increasing in massive amounts.

This presents numerous challenges for infrastructure providers, and various hardware and software is being developed to cope.

Add augmented and virtual reality to this heavyweight data demand and you could say infrastructure providers are going through a critical phase.

But so far, people have found ways to record, upload and even live-stream their 4K videos, and YouTube, Google and others are moving to create platforms on which they can be viewed – live, or pre-recorded.

The virtual video library 

The end of the high-street video library came and went more than a decade ago, so the emergence of video libraries such as Netflix, Hulu, Apple iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and others took a little longer than might have been expected.

Perhaps one of the reasons was the film studios’ reluctance to allow their films to be streamed online by the new online projectionists, but they have eventually come round to the idea of online streaming, with some – such as Paramount – launching YouTube channels, and others launching their own online streaming services.

For television companies, their own websites have become the preferred delivery method, but in order to reach a wider or different audience, they often turn to companies like Netflix.

According to a slightly dusty research document from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the leading provider online video content in 2013 was Netflix, with some 63 per cent of the market. The business consultancy calculated that the percentage of respondents who use the following services to access television content online were as follows:

  • Netflix – 63 per cent
  • TV networks’ own websites – 49
  • Hulu – 35
  • Amazon Prime – 28
  • iTunes – 25
  • HBO Go – 24
  • Xfinity – 14
  • Hulu Plus – 11
  • TV links – 10
  • Sidereel – 6
  • The Pirate Bay – 3
  • Other – 9