If CES 2013 has proved one thing, it’s that 2013 will be the year of 4K. Sony, LG, Samsung, Sharp, and Panasonic have all announced that they will be releasing 4K TVs in 2013. If you are unfamiliar with 4K, check out Wikipedia. In short, it is a screen resolution 4 times that of your 1080p HD TV. It is also standard that digital cinema is delivered in. When you brought your children (and yourself) to watch Wreck-It-Ralph this fall, chances are it was being delivered to you in 4K. But aside from this, why am I so excited about the advancement?
When Apple released the redesigned iMac line in 2009, it opened my eyes to a greater offering of pro-sumer grade products. I was amazed at the amount of pixels in the iMac’s IPS enabled LCD displays. Apple decided that it’s most popular desktop line would not rest on the laurels the industry set at 1080. Instead, they decided to redesign their all-in-one desktop with a display capable of a native resolution of 2560 x 1440. Thus began my inkling that the time of 1080 would be nearing its end.
In 2010, two key technological advancements hit. In June, Apple released the long awaited iPhone 4. Aside from its gorgeous design and custom A4 processor, it housed a 640 x 960, 326 ppi Retina display; a consumer electronic smartphone with pixels smaller than the naked eye can distinguish at optimal operating distances. I was fortunate enough to take one home the evening of its launch and, to my surprise, I had a hard time falling asleep. I kept waking up to unlock my iPhone as if I had never seen one before. This display was nothing I had ever fathomed. At this point I knew displays would not be getting clearer than this. Only larger. A plateau had been reached followed only by iPad (3rd generation) and now the MacBook Pro with Retina display; bigger displays.
Shortly after, in July of 2010, YouTube released a playlist of 4K streaming videos. While it goes without saying that a majority of the public did not have access to the 4K resolution projectors and/or displays needed to view these natively, these videos did shake the Earth in terms of size. Each video clocked in at roughly 2 minutes and took nearly 10-20 minutes to load, opening our eyes to just how slow our broadband connections really were. While the idea was certainly more appealing than the result, the 4K test footage was another step toward an inevitability.
Over the course of the next few years, TV manufacturers and video game and film studios began to offer gimmicks. Super-high refresh rates that magically turned Star Wars and The Godfather into cable soap operas. In a push to re-invent split screen multiplayer, Sony developed a TV specifically for Playstation 3 that, when wearing special glasses, allowed two players to only see what their character was doing, hiding the other’s from view. Then 3D, the biggest gimmick of them all (and the one loads of us fell for).
As quickly as consumers latched on to those expensive TV’s and weighty, battery powered 3D glasses, they were just as quickly setting them down. It didn’t work in the ’80s, it wasn’t going to work now. Home-bodied consumers didn’t want to worry about having enough glasses for everyone or what angle to sit t0 allow for the most people to see the screen at once (usually 2). Even Nintendo’s glasses-free-3D 3DS couldn’t keep up the hype. Gamers quickly began disabling it’s 3D capabilities in lieu of increased frame-rate and battery life. It seemed that the only venue 3D would work in was the movie theater.
Now, in 2013, we finally have something to truly look forward to. 4K television. What makes 4K different than any other failed gimmick? Increased clarity and size. The same reasons we left VHS for DVD and DVD for Blu-ray. Only now has out technology finally caught up. Most digitally projected film is shot and projected at 4K resolutions. While not being able to release any other 2D technology before reaching cinema quality may make the TV industry shutter, it will provide consumers with huge piece of mind that they can comfortable settle into a medium.
This is all great for consumers in the present, but what does it mean for the the future of the industry? What new gimmick can be sold to us after 4K? 3D 4K? 8K? Roll back to 35mm? How will the TV and cable industry catchup and retool their studios and infrastructure to deliver 4K content? If 2 minutes of 4K footage takes 20 minutes to load over current broadband speeds, could this a step back for streaming content?
Sony has already announced that they will be offering “Mastered in 4K” Blu-ray discs (upscaled 1080 content). With the rights and a cornerstone on Blu-ray, Sony is sure to be first to market with true 4K physical media. I would not be surprised if 4K ends up to be the backbone of the imminent Playstation 4. While the initial prices for these TVs are a bit lofty, we should all be wise enough to realize that prices will begin to fall in the next few years, making these behemoths affordable for the average consumer.
So why am I so excited? The digital cinema standard of 4K will now be in our households. 4K is not a gimmick but a quality of picture and resolution we’ve had to buy a ticket to view. Until I am able to afford an IMAX screen, projector, and reels, I will be content with 4K quality. The gimmicks of yesteryear that were staving off the inevitably of 4K enabled TVs may finally be over! That is until TV manufacturers find the next wave of gimmicks (or until James Cameron decides we need to live in Pandora… oh wait). Wave goodbye to the HD catch-phrase. 4K is here… and here to stay for a long while.