The 4K LCDs are coming, and there’s no stopping them — in fact, it’s being called the next generation television standard. By the term 4K, I mean an LCD flat panel that has four times the resolution of HD (high-definition) video. Some manufacturers are naming them 4K panels, while others, including the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) are calling them Ultra HD (UHD). Regardless of the name, the images are stunning and the quality, when compared to HD, is a major advance in photo realism.
This is the Year Of…
Imagine four HD panels arranged in a quad — remove the bezels, stitch the pixels together behind the glass, and you’ll get a good idea of just how impressive these panels are. HD (high-definition) video has a pixel resolution of 1920x1080, so we’ll round that off to 2 million pixels (or 2 megapixels). Ultra HD has a pixel resolution of 3840x2160, which rounds out to 8.3 megapixels. It’s extraordinary, to say the least.
Sponsored by the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), the annual CES convention is the industry’s huge showcase for new technologies. Past conventions have been touted as the year of HD, the year of 3D and the year of the tablet. This year, place your bets on the year of 4K.
The Current State
In advance of CES 2013 (and I hope to be there), let’s examine the current state of 4K. To date, a large number of major manufacturers have unveiled 4K panels, mostly at European and Japanese trade shows in the second half of 2012. For example, JVC, Sony and LG have introduced huge 84” diagonal models, Mitsubishi has a 56” model, Sharp has a 60” model and Toshiba has announced three models, at 50,” 60,” and 84.” We’re talking serious pixel real estate here, and each of these manufacturers will certainly be at CES with their panels. Could there be a bandwagon involved?
Although several manufacturers have produced 4K panels in the past few years, targeting high-end medical and graphics applications, this new wave of 4K devices targets the consumer and pro-sumer markets. Demo models are just starting to reach showrooms in the U.S.
Next, let’s talk connectivity. Most every HD consumer television uses an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port for connectivity. HDMI version 1.3, released in 2006, is probably today’s de facto standard for consumer sets. This protocol supports HD resolutions (1920x1080) plus audio, and a variety of connector sizes and HDMI adapters are readily available for all of your gadgets — DVDs, Blu-rays, cameras and more.
Some current 4K panels have four DVI ports, or four HDMI version 1.3 ports. This allows you to connect four individual HD signals — one to each of the panel’s four HD segments. Using the panel’s internal scaling engine, any HD input can be zoomed up to the full 4K dimensions — but it’s not a true 4K source. In this “scaled” mode, you’re simply multiplying pixels. To display a true 4K signal with this type of connectivity, you would need to connect a PC with a quad-head graphics card to the Ultra HD panel and run your 4K clips through the PC. In the words of one of my engineering mentors, that’s a lot of plumbing.
HDMI version 1.4a, released in 2009, offers a significant change. This new protocol supports 4K resolutions (3840x2160) plus audio and 3D — on a single connector. I imagine that most new 4K panels at CES will be equipped with HDMI 1.4 input ports.
Where’s the Content?
So we now have the horse, but not the cart. There’s plenty of HD content today, but hardly any native 4K content is available for these new displays at the consumer level. In the professional video production and post-production domain, they’re shooting with 4K cameras and editing with non-linear systems that support 4K, but that’s not the consumer’s playground.
If you factor in the absence of a consumer level method to play back 4K content, you’ve got a temporary dilemma in the industry. However, given a positive consumer reaction to the 4K rollout, playback devices will certainly appear (such as second generation Blu-rays that support Ultra HD). One would also predict that the cable and satellite companies will offer 4K streams, and additional content won’t be far behind. Remember — all the 35mm films stored in every secret Hollywood vault are resolution independent. Each can be scanned at the 4K level and made available for distribution.
The tech will move quickly and content will follow — if the 4K trend proves to be more than a fad. The industry is hoping that 4K does not follow in the footsteps of home 3D, which had an underwhelming consumer reception at best.
Given all this remarkable pixel real estate, what can the viewer do with a 4K panel, even if there’s no 4K content? Quite a lot, actually.
Imagine watching four NFL games simultaneously in HD, on one seamless 8 megapixel surface. Imagine watching a Blu-ray movie, alongside additional home HD sources such as PCs, cameras and more. And with the right video plumbing, imagine playing a video game in full Ultra HD “immersive” mode.
But wait, there’s more. At the top of the market, for professional applications and very high-end home theater installations, several companies such as California-based RGB Spectrum manufacture 4K multiviewers. These processors can turn the Ultra HD panel into a creative mixed array of HD and 4K sources, with multi-format inputs, scaling, positioning and presets for storing image layouts.
The Next Step Forward
Indeed, with 8 megapixels at your fingertips, there’s a great deal of visual enjoyment in store, even without 4K content. But all is not rosy in 4K land, and I’ve saved a key caveat for last — price point. These panels are just starting to arrive in stores, and prices (as quoted in early press releases) run from the $6,000 range up to the $25,000 range. At CES, we’ll get a better handle on pricing, and we’ll keep a close watch.
We know that HD television prices have dropped significantly over the last three years, as the LCD “glass” makers ramped up their production lines to meet the demand. As factory yields went up, costs went down proportionally. (For many of us, they’re actually almost affordable now.) Based on supply and demand, one would expect the cost for 4K “glass” to come down as well.
In a recent industry announcement, Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CEA, was very upbeat about this new technology direction. “Ultra HD is the next natural step forward in display technologies, offering consumers an incredibly immersive viewing experience with outstanding new levels of picture quality.”
Without a doubt, we’re on the leading edge of a stunning new era of displays — yet a host of questions remain. Will the visuals outweigh the cost, prompting consumers to open their arms (and pocketbooks)? Will affordable 4K content become available? Will Ultra HD become the next “must-have” home theater centerpiece?
Just like 3D, the market will decide.
Paul Berliner is President of Berliner Productions in Davis, CA.