There was lots of buzz about 4K, or “UltraHD”, television at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held last week in Las Vegas. Representatives from several companies that plan to manufacture these next generation TVs or produce hardware for TV production attempted to explain why there’s so much interest in 4K and how the industry can expect to convince consumers to pay what will initially be a big premium, and eventually will be 50 percent more, for the technology.
At a panel held Thursday, Sony’s Chris Cookson said that 4K is a natural evolution for home cinema, because postproduction of today’s film movies is done in 4K. Television technology has throughout history chased the theatrical experience; 4K in the home is just another attempt to catch up. Ted Schilowitz from Red Digital Cinema said now that HD is coming into small mobile displays, people are expecting more from home cinema. He reminded CES attendees, however, that 4K won’t be the end of the resolution race, like HDTV, it will simply be a moment in time.
The panel of experts then made the case that going to 4K TV in the home will reawaken interest in 3D, a technology that some think is irrelevant in the home. Even those who are big believers in 3D today consider it simply a feature, not, as had been hoped, a reason for consumers to buy a new TV. But, the experts on the table agreed, the 3D experience will be better in 4K, and may even allow evolution towards high definition glasses-free TV. It will also allow a better integration of the web and TV, including split-screen features.
Schilowitz said that people tend to prefer the immersive experience of 4K to that of 3D. “3D comes at you, but 4K pulls you in,” he said. Other panelists insisted that the best immersive experience includes both.
4K TVs will need 4K content. Upconversion, technology that processes 1080P videos into 4K versions, is surprisingly effective, the panelists said. And, pointed out Tom Coughlin from Coughlin Associates, speaking on an earlier CES panel previewing IEEE’s International Conference on Consumer Electronics said that experts believe that the content distribution problem will be solved when a new video compression standard, HEVC, is released. This form of compression is expected to allow content distributors to fit a 4K movie onto a 50 GB Blu Ray disk.
No companies planning to ship 4K televisions later this year have announced pricing. “It will be under $20,000,” said LG’s John Taylor. He did point out that even if 4K TVs cost more that $20,000, there are people in the market that will have to have them. 4K TVs won’t, however, be mainstream until they cost just 50 percent more than comparable HDTVs, the panelists agreed, and that will take time.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.