“4K”, and “Ultra HD” are terms that have been getting a lot of buzz lately. I for one find it a lot more exciting than 3D, and I know I’m not alone on thinking that. However, like 3D, I know that a lot of people have already completely wrote it off. Well, I’ll just start by saying that 4K isn’t for everyone, but I certainly think it is a positive step for anyone who cares about the quality of movies viewed at home. So let’s look past some of the marketing, and in to what it means for the typical person (or nerd in his man cave).
Before we go any further, lets first take a look at what 4K actually is. In general “4K” is a term that applies to displays or content having a horizontal resolution of roughly 4000 pixels. In the past we often categorized displays by their vertical resolution. For instance a typical 1920×1080 resolution display would be called 1080p. So in this case, 4K being 4096×2160 could also be referred to as 2160p.
So why not just call it 2160p? Well to answer that, let’s take a small (ok, a rather long) nerdy detour in to what is happening at your local cineplex. Movie theaters began converting from film to digital projection several years ago now, and the standard they use is slightly different than what we have as consumers. Most movie theaters have 2K projectors with a resolution of 2048×1080. Wait! So the movie theater is projecting something that has only 6% more resolution than the 1920×1080 projector in my basement? Yup! It is just slightly wider than what is in your living room. The difference is in the aspect ratio, which is actually near 17:9, vs the 16:9 display in your home. And as such, industry professionals call it “2K” to differentiate it from the 1080p resolution found at home.
So how does this pertain to 4K? Well someone (over at Sony) got this great idea that maybe we can market the extra 6% resolution found in cinemas and sell it to consumers. “True 4K” sounds a lot cooler than 2160p, and you will have the same resolution in your home that is found in the best movie theaters in the world. Well this actually creates some problems. If you take a 1080p picture found on a Blu-Ray, you can’t just digitally blow it up by a factor of four and have it work perfectly for that 4096×2160 resolution; you also have to account for how to fill that extra 6% of screen width. Do you cut it off? Do you do some weird stretch to fill that space, that also introduces scaling artifacts? Eventually, some industry folks came together and said “maybe we should just make the consumer version slightly narrower again with a resolution of 3840×2160?” So that is exactly what they did, and now we call that 3840×2160 resolution “Ultra HD” or “UHD”. So, technically Ultra HD, is not 4k, but the term stuck (with Sony and most of the web); and now it just muddies up what we are really talking about in the end.
Maybe you’re thinking “Holy Crap! That is still cool? I must have it… throw out everything!” Well, all I have to say to that is “Whoa there Mr. Magoo! How good is your vision?” Seriously, there is a limit to the benefit of this stuff. Ask yourself, how big is your screen and how close do you sit to it? A 42 inch 4k television at a distance of ten feet away would be stupid. Generally speaking, if you sit more than 10 feet away from your TV, and your display isn’t bigger than 50 inches diagonally, then you won’t be able to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p, let alone 4K. Honestly, it makes sense for really big screens (I’m talking bigger than 70 inches, and move your couch closer while your at it); as well as computer monitors where you sit a foot from the screen. I know that my local 18 screen movie theater only has three 4K projectors on the three largest screens! Check out this graph below for a better idea.
Now, usually I’m pretty critical of any consumer electronic trend that comes across like a blatant money grab without much visible benefit. For many, it seems like 4k or Ultra HD sounds like exactly that, but not so fast. Some exciting things may come along with all of those extra pixels. The one benefit that sticks out for me is the possibility of better color rendition. Think of your television having a box of crayons to make up all of the colors and that box or “color space” is called Rec.709. You go to the movie theater and they have a slightly bigger box of crayons, that box is called “DCI” or digital cinema initiative; now the proposed 4K standard has ridiculously huge box of crayons in a new standard called Rec.2020. Mind you this color space only exists as a specification as of now. No one has said if any future content will actually utilize Rec.2020. If the industry doesn’t make any effort to improve color fidelity along with new 4K standard then they will have lost a serious opportunity, and it will be a real bummer for videophiles. Despite this, the possibility of deeper and more vivid colors has me pretty stoked, more so in fact than the increased resolution
The other benefit lies in better future media content designed for 4K televisions. As the world moves more to streaming media, most folks will find it increasingly difficult to stream anything of high enough quality to really utilize the displays full potential. The required bandwidth is much greater than 1080p. As such, the studios and networks will have to either produce better quality digital downloads using better compression; or hopefully put some additional pressure on internet service providers to invest in faster internet infrastructure. Both would be a positive in my book.
The Blu-Ray Disc Association is already discussing the technical aspects of the implementation of 4K Blu-Ray discs. Personally, I don’t see this as becoming anything more than a niche’ product. You probably will not see more than a handful of older movies re-released in 4K, due to the high cost of re-scanning and the mastering process needed by the studios. Think Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz and then newer movies originally shot in 4K like Skyfall.
Regardless of what television you own, an increased focus on video quality by the networks and studios can only be a positive thing for the consumer. A while back, I had the opportunity to watch some 4K content off of a server on a home theater projector that cost nearly $25K. It was great, I could literally put my nose up to a 130 inch screen and I couldn’t make out a single pixel.Then again, was it 25 grand great? Heavens no! Would I love to have a 4K projector for myself in time. Undoubtedly yes, but more importantly, if it ushers in better quality content at the same time then I’m all for it.