Ultra High Definition – The World Just Isn’t Ready

Jan 13, 2013 by

Without a doubt one of the biggest themes of CES 2013 was Ultra High Definition, or 4K, televisions. We had the opportunity to look at various sets from Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, LG, and more. There’s no doubt about it 4K televisions are beautiful. Even on the 85″ displays you had to be incredibly close to see pixels. I wasn’t as involved in this industry when HD was in its infancy, but I have to imagine that it felt exactly like this. All of the major players are racing to make the biggest 4K display that they can, and to get them to market faster than their competitors. It’s exciting to be watching during the birth of a new technology, but even after seeing so many of these new televisions I’m still left thinking that this won’t be the next big thing.

There are two main reasons I don’t think that we’ll be seeing an Ultra High Definition TV in most living rooms anytime within the next 10 years. The first reason is content. There currently just isn’t very much video content being produced at 4K resolutions. This will obviously change over the next two years, and if Sony has it their way you’ll be buying a 4K camcorder so that you can enjoy 4K family videos on your brand new 4K TV. Content creation isn’t really the problem though. The biggest hurdle is getting those massive video files into your living room. Even Sony, who created Blu-ray, doesn’t have an answer for physically getting 4K movies into your house cheaply and easily. Their best answer at CES was to take 4K mastered movies, down-sample them to 1080p for Blu-ray, and then to play them on a Blu-ray player that could up-scale to 4K. Most of us remember the days of up-scaling standard definition content to HD. It wasn’t pretty, and it borders on pointless. The idea of streaming 4K over the internet isn’t one that will realistically work in many parts of the world currently, even the United States. The average movie at 4K resolution would consume about 60 Gigabytes of data. Very few people have a connection fast enough to stream that in real-time. Even if you were to download it prior to watching it many internet providers have bandwidth caps.

All of those previous reasons can, and probably will eventually be solved. Technology will advance in some way to make distribution of Ultra High Definition content feasible. Maybe the biggest reason then is a far more practical one. For as beautiful and crisp as 4K is, you have to be viewing it on a really big TV for it to make any real difference. Most consumers are purchasing televisions in the range for 40-55″. High quality televisions in this range can be obtained for under $1000, but more importantly they actually fit in a normal living room. What would be the point in spending a lot more money on an Ultra High Definition television if you can’t even perceive a noticeable difference in the video over a much cheaper 1080p model.

Honestly, there is a part of me that hopes I’m wrong about this. Ultra High Definition is gorgeous. Also when we finally figure out how to distribute this much content it will have a much broader impact on the world than just being able to watch stunning movies at home. I could also see scenarios that would prove me wrong. One, and I’ll admit to this one being cynical, is that the TV manufacturers may eventually only work to improve overall picture quality (remember, it’s not just about the number of pixels on the display) on their 4K sets. That would leave people who also want realistic color and deep blacks left with no option but to buy the more expensive TVs. On the optimistic side, the lover of 3D within me thinks that it could lead to seeing much higher quality 3D on home televisions due to being able to split up four-times the resolution of our current displays.

There is one thing I know for sure: even if we’re all skeptical about Ultra High Definition, it’s going to continue to be a major focus of the major consumer electronics manufacturers. That also means that we’ll be seeing plenty more 4K televisions at CES next year. Hopefully then I’ll be able to write a more positive article about it.

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