At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) back in January, we had a chance to see some demos of the first of a new breed of higher-resolution TVs that promise even sharper, more detailed images than the best 1080p models can now deliver. As we mentioned in our CES reporting, while new "ultra-definition" TVs with so-called "4K" resolution could hit the market as early as the second half of this year, one key ingredient will be missing: 4K content.
But this month, a standards-setting group called the International Telecommunications Union ITU (the same group that defined both the HDTV formats back in the '90s and more recently, 4G wireless networks) released standards for what it thinks "Ultra High Definition TV" (UHDTV) should look like. This could help pave the way for broadcasters to start moving toward 4K, though our past experience with the HDTV rollout leads us to believe the transition will be slow. Still, there will be some 4K production trials during the upcoming London Olympics this summer.
Like high-definition TVs, where both 720p and 1080p are considered high-definition formats, Ultra High Definition will be an umbrella term that encompass both 4K (3840 x 2160) and 8K (7680 x 4320) resolutions. The 4K resolution was arrived at by doubling both the horizontal and vertical resolution (1920 wide x 1080 high) of current full HD TVs. The total pixel count jumps from 2MP (for 1080p) to 8MP, hence the term "quad HD."
The 8K standard—7680 x by 4320—again doubles the 4K resolution, bumping the total pixel count to 32MP. (We can only imagine the onset of "octo HD.") While the 16:9 aspect ratio remains intact, a plus for broadcasters who won't have to reformat content as they scale the resolution, the ITU did add support for a higher 120Hz frame rate, which is double that of the current 60Hz standard in the U.S. This should help allay concerns that the higher-resolution video could look jerky during fast-moving scenes.
Although the establishment of 4K and 8K standards is seen as a positive step forward, many challenges remain for actually getting higher resolution into the home. For one, most broadcasters are currently transmitting either 720p or 1080i, and will likely move to 1080p before embracing higher resolutions. Also, they'll have to find the bandwidth to broadcast 4K programs, which require 80 times the bitrate of current HD shows. As for prerecorded video, Blu-ray currently doesn't support 4K video, though many believe the format is extensible enough to eventually do so.
There is already some 4K content, however, including both digital photographs and theatrical movies. Sony is now selling a high-priced 4K projector, and several other companies are touting Blu-ray players and even A/V receivers that can up-convert 1080p content to quasi-4K resolutions. And YouTube actually supports videos at an even higher version of 4K: 4096 x 3072.
At CES, both LG and Samsung said they were working on ultra-definition TVs. It's not yet clear whether 4K will be introduced this year in conventional LCD and plasma TVs, or if it will instead be relegated to companies' new OLED TVs, the first of which are likely to arrive in the second half of this year. The first could be a 55-inch 4K OLED from LG, which will reportedly carry a $10,000 price tag when it arrives.
—James K. Willcox