4K movies are coming to Blu-ray discs and hard drives

Sure, there are plenty of Ultra HD televisions floating around the Las Vegas Convention Center, but how will you find anything suitably super high-res to play on them? Netflix, Amazon and a few others have started 4K internet delivery, while DirecTV and Comcast also have limited approaches, but sometimes you prefer media you can hold onto. Physical media fans have help on the way in two forms, but the bad news is neither one is ready to launch right now. The Blu-ray Disc Association has confirmed the name of its 4K format (Ultra HD Blu-ray) and many of its capabilities, while the Secure Content Storage Association has its own demo for Ultra HD movies you can download and transfer (almost) at will, with backing from Fox, Warner Bros., Samsung and others.

Panasonic is showing off a prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player in its booth here, and shockingly -- it's a Blu-ray player. The demo unit has a hole cut in the top, but we didn't spot any extra pixels leaking out anywhere. According to statements from various board members, licensing is on track to happen this summer and we could see discs by the end of this year. It's expected that Ultra HD Blu-ray will upgrade the format to handle 33GB layers (up from the 25GB per layer of current discs) and discs that hold as much 100GB of data. You'll need a new player to read the new discs, but the new players will be backwards compatible with existing Blu-ray movies. In our discussions with studio execs, we've heard that most movies encoded with HEVC (h.265, the new compression format for 4K video) should fit on dual-layer discs comfortably.

There's room for 60 fps video, HDR/Dolby Vision support, at least 10-bit color gradation and wide color gamut (read: better and more colors). Panasonic's prototype player spec says it can push video at up to 100 Mbps -- far higher than the 15 Mbps profiles we saw demonstrated by Netflix last year. Of course, there's a lot of work to be done before the spec is final, and we still haven't heard much about improvements to audio.

But what about those who have moved on to a discless lifestyle, or are just interested in a version of digital copies that can be carried around? The Secure Content Storage Association has stepped up and, like the BDA, says finalization of its spec is "coming soon." We got a preview of what it's working on this week, when Samsung announced that its new TVs would support 4K downloads from M-Go, by using the SCSA's standards. We got a quick demo of what the consortium has planned and it most reminds us of what we've seen from internet stores for video games like Steam, Xbox and PlayStation.

We'll still need to wait and see exactly how Hollywood studios implement the DRM, but it's set up so users can download copies of movies, store and watch them without hassle. There's an ability to copy, move or share the stored files, and users can access various profiles for different devices like TVs, phones or tablets. In a mocked-up player, users had the option to make a licensed copy, registered to them and playable on any device, or an unlicensed copy. That copy of the movie can be shared, but if someone else wanted to play it, they'd need to buy it from a store in order to unlock it for viewing.

Also built in is support for finding any compatible files across a network, so if the movie is stored on your NAS, a PC, a phone or tethered hard drive, it will pop up in the menu for playback. For better and/or worse, it all struck me as a sort of movie studio-designed variant of XBMC (oops, Kodi) or Plex.

The SCSA is also talking about quality, with support for Ultra HD, HDR and potentially things like high frame-rate video. It's also considering that customers might be able to upgrade their copies to a new version, so if, for example, a remastered HDR version of a movie comes out, it will be in your library. Our remaining questions cover things like studio/store support -- you can count on the usual names from Ultraviolet plus some newcomers, but we'll have to wait and see if Disney jumps in or goes its own way again. It appears that finding compatible devices won't be difficult, and Qualcomm is on board to make sure its chips (probably inside your phones/tablets already) are compatible.

Formerly known as Project Phenix the SCSA is several years in the making; we'll see if that long gestation was enough to strike a balance between the desires of studios and the customers it hopes will want to pay for downloadable movies.