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Why You Should Care About 4K Video (Hint, it's our future)

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4K_logo.jpgThere's much ado about 4K these days, thanks in part to Sony's unveiling of the world's first, consumer grade, 4K projector at CEDIA 2011. While Sony's $24,000 4K front projector won't be calling many of our humble abodes home anytime soon, its release is important in that it has begun to shape the conversation that this publication and others like it are most assuredly going to further engage in - 4K isn't a feature, it's our future.

Additional Resources
• Read more original commentary like this in our Feature News Story section.
• See similar stories in our Industry Trade News section.
• Look for a 4K projector in our Video Projector Review section.

Unlike 3D, which seems to be a mixed bag when it comes to both consumer and manufacturer reaction, 4K isn't a feature that can simply be turned on or off, it's a whole new format. Now before you go jumping off your roof over the idea of having to endure yet another format war, hear this - we're prepared this time. You see the powers that be have quietly been implementing their 4K plans in preparation for this day. In fact a lot of the technology we currently enjoy such as Blu-ray discs and players, as well as HDMI are all largely 4K ready. Will you have to buy a new display? Sadly yes, but herein lies the rub. While the powers that be may have had, for once, the foresight to see into the future, it doesn't mean they've done their job in explaining what that future will be and how it will impact and hopefully benefit you, the consumer.

I'll be honest with you. 4K is not a feature that will wow you in quite the same way as, say 3D, or smooth motion processing or even vivid picture modes will. 4K is all about increased resolution, which is a selling point few consumers understand even in today's modern HD or 1080p world. I'm not joking, for there are scores of people out there, arguably the majority, who still believe that plugging anything into their newly purchased HD set will automatically make said device HD in quality. Start breaching the topic of 1080i versus 1080p and I promise you these same folks will look at you much in the same way your dog does when it hears a high pitched sound. It's not that these people are stupid; it's just we haven't done our jobs in bringing them along in the conversation, something we have to remedy as we prepare ourselves for the dawn of 4K.

So what is 4K exactly? In a nutshell, 4K is a name given to a particular resolution that is, at a minimum, 4,000 pixels wide, though the widely established and accepted 4K resolution is 4,096 x 2,160. Obviously there are going to be slight variations for not all content has the same horizontal or vertical width, which is why I said 4,000 pixels at a minimum. Believe it or not, 4K's actual resolution is NOT the topic we should be focused on, for much like with HD and 1080p, numbers tend to scare people. Instead we must look at the advantages 4K brings us and why we already have an immediate need for it in our everyday lives.

4,000 horizontal pixels is a lot, in fact it's more than double what we currently have with our HD formats at 1,920. What this means for the average consumer is simple: more pixels means you can now sit closer to your TV or projection screen than ever before. For example, I recently was at my local big-box store and was able to take a peek at Sharp's new 80-inch LED HDTV display. The $4,000-ish display was nothing if not larger than life. Displayed right next to it was Sharp's own 70-inch display. The differences between the two, in terms of size, were not what I would call subtle. The same was true when it came to their appropriate viewing distances. Now, traditional wisdom would say that the optimal viewing distance for any HD set is somewhere around one and a half times the diagonal length, so for the Sharp 80-inch HDTV that would be somewhere around 10 feet (80-inches x 1.5 = 120-inches or 10 feet). For the 70-inch Sharp that distance is closer at eight and three quarter feet. Now, at eight and three quarter feet away the 70-inch Sharp was still very large in my field of view, thus resulting in that immersive experience we cherish so much. At 10 feet the 80-inch Sharp was still quite large, though it didn't appear or feel any larger than the 70-inch at eight and some feet away. Furthermore, when I attempted to sit closer in order to have the image fill more of my field of view, the image quality fell apart due to the fact that I became aware of the individual pixels themselves. Much like the dreaded "screen door effect" in reference to older LCD front projectors, the 80-inch Sharp simply didn't have the resolution it needed to facilitate closer viewing, which is why I (or any professional will recommend) you place your primary seating position at least 10 feet away from such a set in order to maximize your enjoyment. But like I said, from 10 feet away the added 10-inches of real estate afforded to you by the 80-inch Sharp didn't seem worth it considering it felt no bigger than the 70 from eight feet away.

Now with 4K the adage of one and a half times the diagonal can be fudged a bit, for thanks to the added number of pixels (more than four times the pixels actually), the perception of detail, clarity and focus will be increased, thus allowing you to sit closer to the screen, provided it isn't too bright as to cause eye strain or fatigue. This is huge, for with an ailing economy many of us are looking to downsize, though that doesn't always mean we're willing to sacrifice on our entertainment. With more and more people buying smaller, more affordable homes, and/or moving into rental properties, our need to maximize space is paramount for less space often equals less money. 4K is great in this respect for you could feasibly buy a 4K display that was 80-inches or so in diagonal size and sit perhaps seven to eight feet away from it and have an enjoyable experience, whereas with today's modern 1080p sets the viewing distance may be prohibitive.

Another problem that HD has that 4K doesn't is that most cinematic content is filmed and/or scanned at 4K (or greater) resolution. This means that every time you buy your favorite film on Blu-ray disc it has had to be converted to HD or 1080p, a conversion that comes at some expense for Blu-ray's 1080p is not only lesser in terms of resolution, it also is encoded/compressed in a different file format: H.264. These adaptations cost the studios and content creators (not to be confused with job creators) money; thus they cost you money. In an ideal 4K world, these conversions would be mitigated or better yet - eliminated. I say mitigated only because the theatrical 4K standard uses a different compression format than Blu-ray, which may or may not get worked out. Still, not having to down-res everything is a huge cost-saving measure. Now, does this mean that 4K content is somehow going to be cheaper than Blu-ray? Not at first - in fact, I would expect them to cost way more, but over time it's a format that should be less expensive to bring to the consumer marketplace than even, say, DVDs. But that is in the hands of the studios and their bean counters.

So far so good. 4K appears to be a format with no foreseeable downside. Sign me up, right? Well, unfortunately we've become a bit entrenched in our HD world, so much so that 4K is still going to be a leap for many in the broadcast space. The other hurdle is streaming, which despite Netflix's best efforts to torpedo their own company, is still hugely popular and not the type of source material you're going to want to watch on a 4K display - hell, you don't even want to watch it on a 1080p one. Like music downloads before it, streaming has become the go-to staple on Friday night for many, due to its convenience. Will we get to 4K streaming? Sure, eventually, but out of the gate it will be a format relegated to a physical disc or drive, which means the education and selling to John Q Public has to be all the more sound and focused if 4K is going to combat streaming.

Make no mistake, 4K is coming and will be upon us sooner rather than later. What's most important is that we recognize its potential and benefits and embrace it versus rally against it, for being something new and different. Will there be other formats beyond 4K? In the consumer space one could argue no, which is all the reason we should need to ensure we get 4K right so that we can enjoy it for the long haul.

Additional Resources
• Read more original commentary like this in our Feature News Story section.
• See similar stories in our Industry Trade News section.
• Look for a 4K projector in our Video Projector Review section.
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