By Gordon Meyer
Not surprisingly, I spent a lot of time at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show looking at the latest and greatest in flat screen displays. Last year, we saw prototypes of the first 4K home displays and I gave the opinion that, given the size of most flat screens in the home, not only is a 4K display overkill, I also expressed skepticism that very few people would be able to see any kind of difference, let alone enough of a difference to justify the higher cost of 4K technologies, especially when most digital cinema projectors use 2K technology on screens a hundred times the size of a large home display.
While I’m still skeptical, some of what I saw this year leads me to soften my stand. First of all, let’s define exactly the difference between 4K, HD and 2K DCP. For those not familiar with the language, digital image resolution is defined by a grid that’s X number of pixels (i.e. “picture elements”) high by X number of pixels wide. HD images measure 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high. Using television terms, that translates into 1080 horizontal lines of resolution – six times the 720 x 480 resolution of DVDs. 4K Digital Cinema’s 2160 wide x 3996 high image yields an image with roughly four times the resolution of HD.
In terms of the audience experience, using film terms, VHS is roughly the equivalent of Super 8mm; DVD is comparable to 16mm; Blu-ray akin to 35mm and 4K is like 65/70mm. The more pixels you have, the more detail becomes visible to the naked eye and the fewer artifacts you’re likely to see. For film, those artifacts take the form of grain. With digital, it’s being able to see the pixels, something that’s pretty easy to see with consumer digital projectors if you sit close enough to the screen.
At CES this year, JVC Professional Products showed off the GY-HMQ10, a $5,000 palm sized 4K camcorder capable of shooting 3840 x 2180 resolution in 24p, 50p and 60p frame rates (strangely no 30p option). The camera can store up to 2 hours of footage on a 32GB SDHD card, according to JVC’s posted specs.
On the display side, a number of exhibitors, including Panasonic, Toshiba and Vizio, showed off 4K and the even higher resolution “Ultra HDTV” displays capable of handling resolutions up to 7680 x 4320, even higher than standard 4K Digital Cinema and according to NHK Science and Technology Research, the Japanese R&D think tank that developed UHDTV, this gives the new format roughly 16 times the resolution of standard 1080p HDTV.
However one clear benefit of these new 4K displays is visible when it comes to 3D using RealD compatible passive displays. As I’ve said before, one of the trade-offs of passive vs. active display technologies is that the passive displays have to essentially cut the horizontal resolution in half so that, instead of the full 1080 line images each eye would see with active shutter systems, with a passive display, each eye only gets 540 lines. While the further back you sit from the display the less noticeable this drop in resolution becomes, it is a quality compromise.
Since the new 4K displays start with a much higher resolution to begin with, even passive displays enable viewers to enjoy close to 2,000 lines per eye. And yes, since there has yet to be any native 4K content available for home viewing, until that happens, these sets have built-in upscaling to simulate 4K resolution.
Now we have a classic “chicken and egg” situation as there has yet to be any native 4K, much less UHDTV content available to run on these higher resolution displays. One exhibitor had a side by side comparison of their 4K and 1080p displays where there was clearly more detail visible on the former. But until I can see either a side by side comparison using 1080p and 4K commercial Blu-ray discs, I’m still skeptical as to how much of a difference the average Joe will be able to see, even on home displays as large as 80” or more.