With 3D fading into oblivion, the big news in televisions these days is ultra-high definition, TV makers’ quest to quadruple the resolution of the average high-def flat panel found in most U.S. homes. Called 4K resolution, it can be stunning, with deeper colors and a picture that many people often equate to “real life.” The new higher-resolution is expected to expand slowly in 2014. Netflix (NFLX) plans to stream some content at 4K resolution this year, and Amazon (AMZN) announced it will shoot all of its original series in 4K ultra-HD starting this year.
Gorgeous image or not, the question arises: At what point do the capabilities of the technology outpace those of our eyes? Farhad Manjoo, writing in the Wall Street Journal, declared that we’re almost there: “Nobody’s eyes are good enough to appreciate resolution above 4K.”
Videophiles and display experts say that’s not the point, that higher resolution is only one aspect of the effort to design and build better television displays. Color depth, brightness, and contrast ratio, for example, are all important for picture quality and will accompany higher resolutions. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, Sharp (6753:JP) and Samsung (005930:KS) both presented prototypes of 8K displays. “Better is better, you know?” says Hans Baumgartner, director of product management for Rovi (ROVI), which makes video compression products. “We went through this same argument with regular HD.”
He and others in the industry say most TV shoppers will immediately discern the difference between the current field of high-def models and the new crop that’s slowly filtering into showrooms. Prices remain steep—$3,500 and up—but are falling quickly.
Still, it’s a safe bet that display technology will at some point surpass our eyesight. Apple (AAPL), for example, all but laid down a visual marker with its Retina Display in 2010, when Steve Jobs posited that a standard 300 pixels per inch is the “magic number” for reading print, at a typical 12-inch distance. As it is, a 1080p television has higher resolution than an iPad 2.
Sara Dawson, a Manhattan optometrist, says most consumers can’t see much beyond the threshold of the current iPads with a Retina Display, but that viewing distance is critical to how much resolution one detects. Dawson says she hasn’t examined the new ultra-HD models—although “my husband wants one.”
Someday, when we all have massive, wall-size screens that we use not only for watching television and films, but for surfing the Internet, writing the grocery list, playing video games, video-chatting, and other things we haven’t even thought of yet, then we may want super-ultra-high definition, although how many K that requires is anybody’s guess.