Beyond HDTV

Lots of sites have picked up on the fact that Sharp demonstrated an “ultra high-definition” display at the CEATAC show in Japan last week. Yes, the 4,096 by 2,160 pixel display looks impressive with incredibly fine detail; Westinghouse demoed a display with the same resolution at CES last January. Some folks are getting all excited about how this is the future of HDTV.

Well, it may be the future, but I’m not convinced that I’ll be around to see it (and no, I’m not all that old, thank you very much!) Just because these displays can be made does not mean that they will ever be used for broadcast entertainment. First of all, you will need to sit very close to such a panel in order to see the extra detail that it provides over a 1080p display that has one-fourth as many pixels. People are not willing to sit as close as they need to for 1080p as it stands now, so what makes us think that people will sit even closer for one of these?

But the big problem is not panel size or viewing distance; the question is how the images are going to get to the panel. We’re talking about four times as much information as required by a 1080p display. Currently, most broadcast HD content is in 1080i format, which is half as much data as 1080p. And we’re struggling to get sufficient bandwidth in cable or over-the-air or satellite distribution for 1080i as it is. We see examples of over-compression in all three systems. How will we deliver signals requiring eight times the data? Even high bandwidth Internet connections to the home would be challenged to deliver this much data, even if the rest of the infrastructure could support it.

These Ultra HD resolution panels make some sense where you want to show four 1080p images at once, as might be the case in a television control room, or where you want lots of detail on a large image, such as in medical or mapping applications. But as a practical entertainment product, I don’t think we’ll see this resolution be a commercial success any time soon.