As if LED and 3D TV weren't confusing enough, 2012 and beyond will bring a high-definition TV (HDTV) technology called 4K. It's being heralded as the next high-def and manufacturers are already lining up to bring you products.
But just as was the case with 3D, it's the hardware chicken before the software egg: there's no consumer 4K content available. Still, if you listen to the industry, it'll tell you it's the last resolution you'll ever need. So what is 4K and what makes it different from high definition?
The 84-inch LG 84LM9600 is one of the largest LCD TVs seen yet and one of the first with 4K resolution.
Digital resolutions: a primer
The latest in a line of broadcast and media resolutions, 4K is due to replace 1080i/p (1920x1080 pixels) as the highest resolution standard available for movies and, perhaps, television.
Though there are several different standards, "4K" in general refers to a resolution of roughly 4000 pixels wide and about 2000 pixels high. That makes it the equivalent of four 1080p screens in height and width. Currently, 4K is a catch-all term for a number of standards that are reasonably close to that resolution and the first TVs we'll see labelled 4K will actually be Quad HD, defined below. Frankly, though, we think 4K is the catchier name.
Meanwhile, high definition (HD) itself has been with us for about a decade and is used in Blu-ray movies and HD television broadcasts. There are three versions of HD: full high-definition 1080p (progressive), 1080i (interlaced) and 720p (also called simply "high definition").
All DVDs and most television programs that we watch are encoded in standard definition (720x576).
Four resolutions compared: standard definition, full high definition, Quad HD and 4K/2K.
(Credit: Derek Fung/CNET)
The beginnings of digital cinema
The roots of 4K are in the theatre.
When George Lucas was preparing to make his long-promised prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy in the late '90s, he was experimenting with new digital formats as a replacement for film. Film stock is incredibly expensive to produce, transport and store. If cinemas were able to simply download a digital movie file and display it on a digital projector, they could save a lot of money. In a time when cinemas are under siege from on-demand pay TV, streaming video and illegal downloads, cost-cutting helps to keep them competitive.
After shooting The Phantom Menace partly in HD, George Lucas shot Attack of the Clones fully in digital 1080p. This was great for the future Blu-ray release, but the boffins soon found that 1080p wasn't high resolution enough for giant theatre screens. If you sit in the front rows of one of these theatres as it's displaying 1080p content, you may see a softer image or the lattice grid of pixel structure, which can be quite distracting.
The industry needed a standard that works on the proposition that you'll be sitting one-and-a-half times the screen height from the screen and this required a higher resolution than 1080p. Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) was formed in 2002 with the goal of setting a digital standard. Based on these efforts, two new resolutions came about: a 2K specification and later in 2005, the 4K format.
The first high-profile 4K cinema release was Blade Runner: The Final Cut in 2007, a new cut and print of the 1982 masterpiece. Unfortunately, at that time very few theatres in the US were able to show it in its full resolution. It would take one of director Ridley Scott's contemporaries to truly drive 4K into your local cinema.
The 4K "standard"
4K is at the point of diminishing returns.
— Dr Dave Lamb, 3M Laboratories
Despite the industry's best intentions, there is still no single 4K standard — there are five or more different shooting resolutions available. In cinemas you see projectors based on the DCI specification, which supports both 4K and 2K, while Sony sports its own standard (also 4096x2190-pixel resolution) and series of projectors.
Things are a little simpler in the home. The HDMI organisation recently added two types of 4K support to its latest 1.4 specification: Quad HD (3840x2160 pixels) and 4K/2K, also called 4Kx2K (4096x2160 pixels). Only Quad HD conforms to the classic 16:9 ratio of modern television screens.
Meanwhile, some industry experts have questioned the necessity of 4K as a home format given the lack of content and the need for very large displays to appreciate the extra resolution.
"There was a huge, noticeable leap from standard definition to HD, but the difference between 1080p and 4K is not as marked," says researcher Dave Lamb of 3M Laboratories.
Lamb adds that "4K is at the point of diminishing returns", but there could be some benefits for screens over 55 inches.
Parts of The Phantom Menace were shot digitally and the film will enjoy a new lease on life in early 2012 with a 3D cinema release.
(Credit: 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm)
Did you see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D at the theatre? Then you've seen 4K in action. Cameron's movie about "giant blue dudes" helped drive high-resolution 4K Sony projectors into theatres around the world and made a lot of money in the process. Movie studios keen to maintain that momentum have released a slew of 3D films — mostly converted from 2D — and continued the expansion of 3D into cinemas.
However, this forward motion hasn't translated to a success for 3D TV in the home.
"Manufacturers would have wanted 3D to be bigger than it was; they wanted it to be the next LED, but it didn't work out," Lamb says.
Given a so-far-mediocre response to 3D, and the expense and bulk of active glasses, manufacturers have begun to search for an alternative and 4K offers a way to increase the quality of the 3D image with passive glasses or get rid of them altogether.
In-home 4K now and the future
4K TVs will be big and expensive for the next couple of years.
In the US, LG and Toshiba will release 4K displays in 2012, but in the absence of 4K media to watch, the main benefit would seem to be the enhancement of 3D quality. The resolution disadvantages of LG's passive 3D system can, in theory, be overcome by doubling the number of horizontal and vertical pixels, allowing 4K passive displays to deliver 1080p to both eyes.
The first consumer-grade 4K panel to hit the American market will likely be a 55-inch Toshiba LCD that features autostereoscopic 3D or "glasses-less 3D" as it's more commonly known. It uses the Quad HD specification, which is four times HD at 3840x2160 pixels.
No other 4K flat-panel displays have been announced yet. Sony US announced its 4K home theatre projector, the VPL-VW1000ES, in September, but does not make the product available through its website or stores and instead sells it directly to custom installers. Meanwhile, JVC in North America announced four projectors in 2011 that upscale 1080p content to 4K, but currently are unable to display native 4K content.
In the absence of 4K content, players and displays will need to upscale 1080p or even standard-definition content. To this end, Sony announced a new Blu-ray player at CES 2012, the BDP-S790, which will upscale to 4K.
Looking to the future, Sony is reportedly keen to have the forthcoming Spider-Man reboot become one of the first 4K Blu-ray movies and is apparently in talks with the Blu-ray Disc Association to finalise the specification.
Tim Alessi, director of home electronics development at LG, says he believes that such a development was not only inevitable but also potentially valuable.
"I do expect that at some point [4K] will be added [to the Blu-ray specification]. Having that content in the home is what the average consumer will want," Alessi says.
Just when we thought we had it all covered, 4K may not even be the final word in resolution. Japanese broadcaster NHK was the first to demonstrate 8K in 2008 and at CES 2012 there were industry murmurings, and at least one prototype, devoted to higher-than-4K resolution.
Will the extra resolution offered by 4K make movies better? You could argue that it depends on the format of the original film. For example, The Blair Witch Project and 28 Days Later were both shot with standard-definition camcorders and there would arguably be little extra benefit to buying either movie in a 4K native format over a DVD — depending on the quality of the scaler in your brand-new 4K screen, of course.
Even with reference-quality native 4K material, however, a 4K-resolution TV or projector won't provide nearly the level of visible improvement over a standard 1080p model that going from standard-def to high-def did. To appreciate it you'll have to have sit quite close to a large screen — approximating the experience of being in the front few rows of a movie theatre.
But whether it's 4K or 8K, you can bet that manufacturers haven't run out of cards when it comes to trying out the next "must-have" feature in the coming crops of televisions.