This year’s International CES could just as easily have been called, “The Great Big Giant 4K TV Show!” because if you ventured anywhere into the central hall, that is practically all you saw or heard about. (OK, it actually isn’t 4K, as that technically refers to the theatrical formal that is 4062×2160 resolution at 17:9 aspect ratio. We all need to start getting into the habit of nipping this 4K thing in the bud, and start calling it Ultra HD, which is 3840×2160, or (conveniently) exactly twice the horizontal and vertical pixel count of 1080p. Who’d have thought that after all of these years line-doubling would come back into such fashion?! The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
Of course, as anyone that has lived in these United States for any length of time can tell you, bigger is always better. I mean, who wants a 48-ounce Big Gulp, when you can get a 96-ounce cup of sugar-filled Mega Diabetes for just pennies more?! We’ve been taught that “value size” really means, “super-mega-jumbo-size” with enough calories to preserve a family of Eskimos through the long, cold winter. We demand cars that roll on tires big enough to shame the Lunar Rover. When new cell phones come out with even a single extra pixel in their cameras, we all want to run down to the hammer store so we buy a tool capable of smashing our current phones into silicon powder, just to justify the expense of the upgrade we all know we must have to live a fulfilled, satisfied existence.
So, obviously, the four million-ish extra pixels offered by Ultra HD are the only thing that matters. In fact, I fully expect that each one of these extra pixels is likely to individually revolutionize TV and movie watching in a way that will make everything that has come before them seem like a blurry and out-of-focus mockery. I, for one, am preparing to weep for the lost innocence of my youth. Right after I finish smashing out the last bits of glass on my Pioneer Elite 9G Plasma, punishing it with extreme prejudice for the years of my life that it stole, of course.
Seriously, though, does anyone really care about Ultra HD besides the TV manufacturers that have corporate shareholders lined up waving flaming pitchforks and screaming, “NOW where is the money going to come from?! What’s next?! WHAT?!?”
So far, I’ve yet to have a single person walk into my showroom and ask about Ultra HD. I’ve also yet to have a single person ever complain about the picture quality of a 1080p TV. Nope. Never once had anyone say, “Sure it looks good, but I mean, I really feel like the pixel structure of 1080p is holding me back from actually enjoying my system. I mean, no, I can’t actually see the pixels from where I’m sitting, but I know that they’re there. I feel those tiny squares making up the image and that just ruins my suspension of disbelief and makes it impossible to enjoy the fine beard hair detail on Duck Dynasty.”
Now, I’ll admit that I personally spent several long minutes gazing at the glory which is Ultra HD resolution at CES. And, the images were gorgeous and detailed to be sure, likely fed a stream of barely compressed, native Ultra HD material from a concealed hard drive somewhere. But, after several hot, sweaty, agoraphobia inducing moments standing in the various demonstration prisons masquerading as booths, you start to notice that at all of these demos, people are standing mere feet away from the screens. And no one was just watching the screens. Oh no. They were all standing and scrutinizing the displays like they were all scientists peering at mysteries of the Ebola virus in a million-power microscope. You know, the way you casually watch TV at home.
At a CES panel “Ultra HD/4K: Solving Challenges for Sales, Demos & Multiroom Distribution,” Robert Zohn of Value Electronics stated, “I learned from [Imaging Science Foundation’s Joel] Silver that you need to be closer to the panel. I have an 85-inch TV with seats four feet away in my showroom and no one says, ‘it’s too close.’”
Now, no one may say it is too close for a demo in a store, but I have a real hard time picturing any of our clients actually scooting their comfy chairs and couches 48 inches from a TV and huddling around an 85-inch display like they are at a campfire; roasting s’mores and telling ghost stories, while basking in the digital glow of 8-million pixels.
Also, while sitting that close might indeed make for an impressive, “SEE HOW TINY THE PIXELS ARE?!? NO?! THAT’S CAUSE THEY’RE SO TINY YOUR STUPID EYES AREN’T EVEN GOOD ENOUGH TO SEE THEM!” demo, at that viewing distance, you are way, WAY closer than the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ (SMPTE) recommended 30-degree subtended viewing angle. You’re even closer than THX’s recommended 36-degree subtended viewing angle. In fact, at four feet away you’re at a whopping 75-degree angle! Now, I dropped out of high-school calculus, but I’m betting that’s going to make the head turning at a front-row-seated tennis match feel like just a little neck warm-up for some serious TV watching cardio.
The other thing that I noticed while CES-ing is that as the resolution increases, so does people’s desire to get ever nearer the screen. Where we were comfortable watching a 27-inch CRT tube from across the street at a neighbor’s house, and were thrilled to sit 15-feet away from a high-def set, now we’ve got to continue migrating closer and closer. And where people were sitting a stately and moderate four feet away from the Ultra HD sets, the prime viewing location for Sharp’s prototype 8K set appeared to be literally inches away from the screen, as people were pushing and scuffling like the beginnings of a rugby scrum as they jockeyed their way to get closer and closer to the display.
At this rate, I’m assuming the only way to truly enjoy the inevitable arrival of 16K resolution will be to literally press your nose against the screen. This will turn TV viewing back into a social experience as you will literally need to ask those around you what is happening on their quadrant of the screen. It will also be a boon to Monster’s line-up of 16K certified nose-oil screen clean kits.
So, yes, Ultra HD sets are inevitable. You will sell them and I will sell them. And one day we’ll even have a variety of content to view on them. And at some point, streaming 8-million pixels worth of Ultra HD will become as ubiquitous as 1080p is today, and everyone will be able to look forward to a future where we can view the full glory of Ultra HD in a bathroom’s 32-inch display.
But as I explained to an employee who came in all excited after hearing about the sub-$1000 Ultra HD Seiki TV he saw, resolution has never been the singular measure of a quality display. And hopefully in all the hoopla of more pixels, the idea of all the other things that make up true picture quality—contrast, brightness, scaling, color accuracy, gamma, greyscale, black level, etc. —won’t be forgotten. Of course, the job of educating everyone about these things will fall to us, the integrators. God help us all.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.