Recently, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) formally announced the branding of 4K displays with the official designation of “Ultra High Definition” or “Ultra HD”. For a display to be labeled Ultra HD, it must display a minimum of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. That’s four times greater than the current “Full HD” or 1080P standard at 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The Ultra HD label also demands that a display have a 16:9 aspect ratio and a digital input that can natively transmit a 4K picture without upscaling.
Kudos to CEA for coming up with an easy to remember term for the new HD standard. Before Ultra HD, the industry had been using terms such as 2160P and Quad HD. Quad HD would have also been a good name as it captures the fact the new resolution has 4x as many pixels as today’s 1080P sets. Branding aside, will Ultra HD TVs be desirable for consumers? Will consumers notice a enough of a difference between 1080P and Ultra HD sets? Will it drive the next wave of HDTV sales?
To help figure this out, let’s recall that most folks sit too far from their HDTVs to see all of the detail it offers. In fact, the distance between the screen and the viewer should be no more than double the size of the screen. As an example, roughly no more than eight feet with a 50″ set. To really appreciate the difference that Ultra HD can offer, you would need a significantly larger screen in the same size room. Now, factor in the WAF (wife acceptance factor) and an Ultra HD set may be far off in the future.
The other problem with Ultra HD is the lack of content. The CEA press release stated that “variety of key stakeholders, manufacturers, retailers, broadcasters and Hollywood professionals” are involved in “how to bring this technology to market”. The CEA also stated that “Ultra HD technology will be prominently displayed at the upcoming 2013 International CES”. While there will be no lack of 4K displays at CES this January, there was no mention of any content announcements in the release. Currently, no one is broadcasting in 4K and the Blu-ray format does not currently handle it yet. Streaming video services have more flexibility to provide a higher resolution picture. However, the bandwidth required for Ultra HD would be enormous. Most consumers would need much faster Internet connections to receive an Ultra HD stream.
What’s disappointing is that Ultra HD did not take the opportunity to improve the other components that make a great picture. In particular, it would have been nice to see improvements in color space and frame rate as part of the Ultra HD requirements. While today’s HDTV’s are capable of displaying many more colors and higher frame rates ,today’s content and formats do not take advantage of it (sans some PS3 games).
Not all is lost, as Electronic House points out, Ultra HD sets provide an opportunity to significantly improve the picture quality of passive 3D TVs. It also has a place in dedicated home theaters where you can use projectors and wall filling screens. In my opinion, for Ultra HD to break into the living room, we’re going to need to see HDTVs with a different aesthetic or form factor. Perhaps TVs that can easily fold up (paging OLED!) or somehow slide out of sight.
To wrap up, the litmus test for consumers will be when they see Ultra HD TVs side-by-side with today’s HDTVs. If the difference isn’t apparent there, Ultra HD will be a niche product.
Update (10/25/12): Why wait for CES? LG announced a new 84″ Ultra HD 3D TV. Of course, there are other 4K products on the market already including Sony’s 4K projector. The 84″ LG only costs $20,000, so what are you waiting for?!