Ten years ago the first high definition televisions began springing up in homes and businesses around the country. Customers lauded the new technology for its crisp imagery and unparalleled resolution. Soon, cable companies began broadcasting in HD, DVDs began to be released in HD, and video game systems began to incorporate HD resolution as well. At this point, it’s harder to find a home or business that doesn’t own an HDTV than it is to find one that does.
Several years later, the next step in home and corporate display technology was introduced: 3D. In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was released in theaters in 3D, and customers flocked to witness the stunning graphics of the new technology. The film grossed 2.7 billion dollars worldwide. Soon more films opened utilizing 3D technology. Surely 3D TVs would follow this trend and become the next innovation in home and corporate display.
That was not the case. The fad passed, and today 3D is used as more of a novelty than anything, seen in children’s films, action movies, and a handful of cable TV stations. Likely due to the glasses that one needs to wear in order to utilize the 3D component, mixed with the novelty of the gimmicky technology wearing off. 3D was interesting, for sure, but it didn’t add to the viewing experience the way HD did to standard definition.
Today, 4K Ultra High Definition is the next great innovation in home and corporate display technology. At InfoComm 2014, almost every manufacturer of flat panel display, and same projection systems as well, displayed 4K solutions that would be rolling out throughout the year. The buzz seems to be that 4K is the next step in the evolution of technology, replacing HD in homes and corporations alike. The question is, will this come to fruition, or is 4K the next 3D—a more expensive and interesting technology for a niche market that doesn’t catch on with the masses.
When the argument between 4K and HD is presented, the very first measurement that needs to be discussed is resolution. This is where 4K wins out in a landslide. 4K UHD displays a resolution of 4096 pixels by 2160 pixels (versus 1920 by 1080 for standard HD). This gives a 4K about four times the resolution that standard HD televisions produce. A 4K screen can provide a viewing experience that is unrivaled. In fact, when the 3D movement began in cinemas, 4K projection systems were needed to handle the 3D technology. While 3D may not have stuck around, now every film is projected in 4K.
However, there are circumstances when the benefit of 4K can’t be fully utilized, and it has to do with viewing distance. To perceive the full benefit of a 4K resolution, the human eye needs to be at a certain distance from the screen, depending on the size of the screen. This is also true for 1080p over 720p.
“In general, from an integrators perspective, we try to look at what the viewing distance or the vieiwing angle of the folks involved might be,” says Mike Hancock, Vice President at MechDyne Corporation. “Flat panels, except for some of the really extreme large-sized ones, really only work good for rooms that are less than 20 feet.
The ideal distances have to do with pixels per inch based on the screen size and maximum resolution your vision can discern based on distance from the display. There is an ideal screen size based on distance that maximizes the amount of extra resolution that would be visible based on these factors. Luckily, Chris Heinonen has made a chart that helps to determine these ideals (based on a viewer with 20/20 vision). You can also use his 4K Calculator for more accuracy.
The next determining factor is going to be the price of the display. 4K is a new technology, and as such carries a higher price tag than standard HD display. For example, an 65-inch LG UHD 4K display screen on the market now comes with a suggested price of $7499.99. A comparable 65-inch 1080p HDTV by LG will only run you $2099.99. With a difference of 5400 dollars, it’s a steep price to pay just to upgrade resolution and provide a better viewing experience. Even if 4K is four times better as far as resolution is concerned, is that worth a 350 percent increase in price? It will be hard to convince the financial department that it is.
The good news is that the price points will not remain this low. According to a report by CNET, 4K TVs will get inexpensive quickly. Panasonic predicts that 40 percent of 60-inch-plus TVs sold in 2016 will be 4K. This is because LCD TVs are not complicated to manufacture at 4K resolution. Affordable 4K TVs are already becoming prevalent in China. Companies like Seiki and TCL are entering the US market with cheaper 4K TVs (between $1000 and $2000 for 50 inches).
“The typical display now is about 1080p native resolution,” says Niel Wittering, Director of Product Marketing, Corporate AV for Barco. “The next jump will be to 4K or UHD resolution. That’s what comes into that market.”
Much like the HD boom, which began with expensive TVs, saw the market flood and technology increase to bring prices down, and bottomed out at the affordable options we have today, 4K will not remain at the outstanding price points it currently demands. The market will saturate as more companies produce more affordable options. When the price drops to an affordable option, companies and homes alike will go with 4K.
As 4K is such a new technology, content providers have either not yet caught up, or are unwilling to make the switch until it becomes more prevalent in the industry. Many 4K displays that you will see at trade shows and in-store feature customized content that has been rendered in 4K for that exact purpose. Take the same display to your office and run your HD content on it and, while the picture will be clearer, the system will not be utilized to its full potential. There are companies that sell software that will allow you to create custom 4K content, but that is going to add to the overall price.
“Based on conversations that I’ve had with dealers and everything I saw at InfoComm, 4K is coming on strong,” says Brian Rhatigan, Business Development Manager for Almo Professional A/V. “We’re going to have adoption in both the consumer and commercial space, I’m certain of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if 4K is the new standard a few years from now.”
Unfortunately, content manufacturers exist in an industry where the market determines the movement. Most cable providers didn’t convert to HD until it was prevalent in homes, the same way that most cable providers have not and will not make the switch to 3D, as most homes won’t pay for the product. The same goes for digital content management software providers. Until digital signage systems begin warranting the need, they will not provide as much 4K content. As we mentioned before, however, price will drop on 4K screens, and when it does content providers will take advantage. In fact, Crestron is going so far as to create a 4K UHD certification to ready the industry for the eventual conversion.
Justin Kensington of Crestron talks 4K and certification at ISE 2014.
By now you understand the possibilities of 4K, what it can do and where it might go. You’re wondering if it is worth the price and effort to install a 4K system into your office. The answer, tentatively, is yes. It is always a good idea to future-proof whenever possible. Readying your system for 4K content, even when there is little of that content available now, is a process that will save you a headache later on when the switch has been made and you’re forced to upgrade anyway.
“I’m of the mindset that, if the budget permits, you should try to get the latest and greatest and future-proof yourself,” says Rhatigan.
How many companies do you see with standard definition televisions even in their recreational rooms? HDTV has completely taken over, and it took about ten years. If we can expect the same sort of progression from 4K, then a 4K solution will last you longer than a brand new HD system likely will. You may want to wait for the prices to drop, but if you’re getting a new system, I see 4K in your future.