Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
So, you bought a UHD TV a while ago and are enjoying the increased resolution, as well as the high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut (WCG) offered on many of the more recent models. Maybe you even bought two or three UHD TVs, along with possibly an Ultra High-Definition Blu-ray player or two. But now you're increasingly starting to hear about 8K and wondering if you've been bitten by Early Adopter Syndrome.
The good news is that most of you can pretty much stop wondering about 8K TVs because, quite simply, the vast majority of U.S. consumers simply don't need one... yet. And probably won't need one in the near future either. After all, prices will initially be too high, while content will initially be too low.
However, there is one growing technology that stands to be significantly helped by the arrival of 8K: Virtual reality (VR). That's still a relatively niche market, but if VR manages to significantly take off over the next year or two, the need for 8K could become much more significant.
The 4K to 8K Transition
Anybody who regularly attends CES in Las Vegas has already seen several TV makers show off 8K displays (without providing any specific plans for when they will actually be shipping them). Why? Because the video industry always needs its next "this one goes to 11" technology to: (a) show off what they're capable of creating, (b) better compete against their rivals, and (c) give consumers a good reason to replace a TV they currently own faster than they might have planned otherwise (in other words, before their set dies and the cost of fixing it is too high).
As expected, early adopters embraced UHD TVs quickly. The average U.S. consumer, on the other hand, hasn't exactly been rushing to buy a UHD TV for resolution's sake so much as buying UHD TVs to replace their old sets in steadily growing numbers. One simple explanation why many consumers were more impressed with HD than Ultra HD: The difference between 480i standard-definition and the initial 1080i and 720p HD resolutions was clearly noticeable, so people wanted it badly. The difference between 1080p to 2,160p, on the other hand, is pretty cool, but just not as dramatic.
Regardless, UHD TV shipments and sales to consumers have continued to grow globally. ABI Research projected in early July that "4K" flat panel TV shipments will surpass 102 million in 2018 and account for 44 percent of total global flat panel TV shipments. Meanwhile, it's "going to be hard as we move into this year for panel suppliers to have anything but 4K, and so most of the product that you'll see ultimately at retail will be 4K," Michael Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance, told me at CES in January. That is expected to be the case in all but the smallest of TV sizes.
Prices have come down significantly and fairly quickly on UHD TVs, and there's now a decent assortment of content available via streaming and UHD Blu-ray, even though broadcast 4K--especially live broadcast 4K--is pretty rare in the U.S.
Now, just as UHD TV sales have really started to hit their stride and even before broadcast 4K has become widespread, a growing number of TV and panel makers have started to lay out their 8K product plans.
Sharp has been especially aggressive in recent months, telling reporters at an NAB Show news briefing in April in Las Vegas that it and parent company Foxconn are aggressively investing in the full 8K ecosystem and planned to ship 8K cameras, monitors, and TVs--products that Sharp said will become "the core of our mid-term growth." Some of those products were shown at its NAB booth, and the company has already been selling an 8K TV--the Sharp Aquos LC-70X500--in Japan since late 2017, with availability expected to widen to additional markets in the months to come.
Samsung Display laid out its fairly aggressive 8K plans in June at the Samsung-sponsored QLED & Advanced Display Summit in West Hollywood. Like Sharp, it sees 2020 as a key year for 8K TV, at least in part because that's when the Tokyo Olympics will be held and 8K broadcasting of that marquee event is planned for Japan. Samsung Electronics introduced an 85-inch UHD TV at CES that it said can upscale any content to 8K using artificial intelligence. In early October, the company said that 85-inch Q900 8K QLED TV is now available for pre-order and shipping to select retailers in the U.S. for $14,999.99.
A Samsung Electronics spokesman explained why the company sees 8K as an important next step for TVs, telling me via email: "For many years, consumers consistently point to picture quality as the number one factor when making their decision when it comes to purchasing a new television. A more recent consumer trend is moving towards larger screens. The move toward larger screen sizes coincides with the rapid growth of 4K televisions--which now commands over 50 percent market share.Just a few years ago, a 55-inch screen was considered large. Now as the industry and consumer demand progresses into screen sizes that go beyond 75 inches, or even 82 inches, resolution and the delivery of a pristine image is more critical than ever before. Even as the content industries develop native 4K and eventually 8K content, by introducing an 8K model in 85 inches that features the ability to dynamically upscale SD, HD, and UHD content up to 8K, Samsung is delivering the best possible performance today no matter the size of the screen."
Some Consumers Are Ready for 8K
At least some consumers are ready and eager to get their hands on an 8K TV, according to Mark Sasicki, TV buyer and sales manager at Abt Electronics in Glenview, Illinois. "There are always those customers that are early adopters or have passion for the latest and greatest technologies--it's a tech hobby for so many," he said. But he added, "The obvious objections by the larger mass of consumers are that they're not sure what 8K means, or if they'll ever see it, since 4K content still isn't overly available as of today."
The 8K sets will also be part of "every manufacturer's flagship series," he noted, adding: "They will have the best picture available even when using today's available content; they will offer the most stunning cosmetic designs; they'll feature the most connectability with the easiest installation and integration into your smart home's entertainment ecosystem. This will be where manufacturers get to pull out all of the stops and really show off how great of a TV they can make."
For Sasicki, "the bottom line is that there are always customers who want the best product available and to future-proof their entertainment systems, while getting the benefits of ease-of-use and the best picture quality available."
Continue to Page 2 for more insights...
The Most Important Issues for Consumers
The first question that many consumers might ask before considering the purchase of an 8K TV will be whether they can see a noticeable difference between the large-screen Ultra HD TV they own now versus a new 8K TV. There are, however, much more important issues to ponder, according to Joel Silver, president and founder of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF).
Of all the advances that have come with UHD, "we consider the least important of them advanced resolution because it's not what we really see; what we really see is, first and foremost, contrast," Silver said in a phone interview. He added: "I would say that HDR is, in general, not only far more important, but easily visible from any distance. And, secondly, wide color gamut is also easily visible from any distance and a dramatic step forward. It gets us out of the 1990 color [space] we've been watching for most of our lives."
So, the best question for a 4K TV owner is whether to go to 8K or "just make sure your 4K has HDR, wide gamut and good bit depth - the big three" parts of what makes UHD so compelling today, he said. After all, early adopters who bought an early 4K likely don't have any of those big three features, he noted. So, instead of waiting to buy an 8K TV when it hits the market, these consumers should instead "update to a current 4K [model], which will give you immediate gratification; that's much more important than spending your money on" an 8K TV, he said, pointing out "early adopters always get compromised." In this case, "you had 4K, but you didn't have HDR."
Also important: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) quantified what the optimum viewing distance for the average viewer should be based on, he noted, pointing out that he supports that formula. The optimal viewing distance for a 3,840 x 2,160 TV is 1.5 screen heights, or a horizontal viewing angle of 58 degrees, according to ITU. That's "closer than most people sit" in front of their TVs, but if you sit any closer than that 4K fails and you start to see the pixels and "user fatigue sets in," so you might be better off with an 8K TV at that point, according to Silver. Similarly, if you're closer than 3.1 screen heights away from a 1080p HD TV, or so close that the display takes up more than 32 degrees horizontal field of view, you need a UHD TV or you'll see the pixels, he said.
So, once you factor in all the main issues and figure out the math on how far away you typically sit from your TV, it's highly unlikely that the average person is going to really need an 8K TV. In a nutshell, for the average consumer planning to buy a 75-inch TV, he said: "Unless you're sitting closer than 1.5 screen heights [away], you're fine with 4K"--and the number of consumers in that camp is in the "high 90" percent range.
To break that down into real-world numbers, a 75-inch display has a screen height of 36.8 inches. 1.5 times that is 55.2 inches. So, unless you sit less than 4.5 feet away from a 75-inch display, Ultra HD is almost certainly all you really need in terms of resolution.
There's one big exception, according to Silver: VR or augmented reality (AR) using head-mounted viewing glasses that are only "millimeters away from" the viewer's eyeballs. In such applications, "2K and 4K fail miserably [and] we need 8K or 10K," he said. 8K would also be useful for "very big screens in very small rooms," he noted.
To a lesser degree, video game players who sit unusually close to their TVs might want to consider an 8K TV. Otherwise, he said: "8K is not a reason for buying a new TV." When it comes to HDR and WCG, on the other hand, "you're going to see that from across the room" and just about everybody is "going to say it's a better picture--it's instantly recognizable and superior, where to most people, going from 2K to 4K was kind of iffy because they sat too far" away from their TV, he said.
Silver noted that he has two 65-inch OLED UHD TVs--one LG, one Sony--that he alternates between for testing and calibrating and that he hooks up to a Microsoft Xbox One X video game console in one of his rooms. The two generations of kids (children/grandchildren) who often play games on it are "blown away" by the HDR and WCG--more so than the 4K resolution--so much so that "I have trouble getting them to come for dinner," he said. With his seating in that room, which is "exactly 1.6 screen heights, if I went to 8K there'd be no visible difference" from 4K, he said, pointing out: "I carefully positioned the chair to where pixels are not visible... So, if I went to 8K there'd be zero advantages--and maybe disadvantages because the signal would be more complex. I'd have to spend more on a TV set. I'd have to wait forever for the new Xbox and the new content to be created."
But Silver conceded: "I'd rather have that game in a theater with a 150-inch widescreen, where it'll be completely enveloping, and I can sit as close as 0.75 screen heights, which really gives me an IMAX-plus experience. That would require 8K."
Silver predicted that the lack of adequate bandwidth in U.S. homes will be the "single big reason" why it will be a long time before we get much 8K content in the country.
The other question for consumers will be whether they can afford an 8K TV, he noted. Once you get past those points, consumers will have to see a difference between what they have now--enough of a difference to create "lust"--a need to buy it, he said, reiterating: "If I'm sitting four screen heights away and I go to 8K, I see zero improvement. If I'm sitting four screen heights away and I go to HDR, everyone sees it."
He also predicted that "everything's going to be HDR" eventually. "Just like HD came in with a spotty amount of programs and few TVs, and now we all watch HD, we're all going to be watching HDR," he said. That transition will take "as long as it took for us to go from standard definition to high definition," he estimated, adding: "We do progress in decades.... It took us a long time to go from most people watching black and white to color. SD to HD took time. SDR to HDR takes time. It starts off with expensive sets with very little content. Then, it meanders on down to less expensive sets with more content. That's how we evolve."
Asked how long he thinks it will take for 8K TVs to become affordable, with enough content, he said: "I don't have that crystal ball. But not this year and not next year. Since most people are going to be happy with, let's say, screens 85 inches and smaller, there's no pressing need for 8K this year." In most people's rooms, he said, UHD on an 85-inch TV is good enough.
Commercial applications for 8K are more likely this year, he added: "As we get into mainstream sports being distributed to theaters, if that happens, yep. In movie theaters for live video events there's an application." But, he said: "I would expect the 8K coming out party as far as a live event to be the 2020 Olympics in Japan... Every company I know of of Japanese origin is looking at the Olympics as a status event. And that's going to be a milestone."
In a report earlier this year, Display Supply Chain Consultants (DSCC) and Insight Media predicted the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be a "major driver in the development of 8K infrastructure," with Japanese broadcaster NHK heading the efforts to produce and broadcast Olympic programming to homes in 8K. The recent Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, marked at least the sixth major world event since 2012 in which NHK demonstrated 8K capture and display capabilities, according to DSCC and Insight Media.
Some Additional Issues, Including Cost
Chris Chinnock, president and founder of display intelligence company Insight Media, also pointed to the planned 8K broadcasting of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a likely milestone for 8K, saying: "Everyone's been working in this direction for decades."
But, like Silver, Chinnock said he believed most U.S. consumers are probably not ready for 8K TVs yet.
Chinnock said: "First of all, they've just been introduced to the idea of 4K. They've just been introduced to the idea of HDR. They don't even know about 8K yet. The professional industry [does]. But consumers definitely don't. So, there's clearly a lot of education that has to be done." The biggest hurdle for 8K TV, especially in the U.S., is going to be the need for education, according to Chinnock, who said: "You've got to educate the retailers. You've got to educate the consumers. You've got to educate the influencers. You've got to educate the media. You've got to educate the whole ecosystem for selling TVs. And no one really knows about it at this point. There will be, for sure, plenty of naysayers out there. So, from a TV maker's point of view, you've got to educate them on why all those negative comments are not true or maybe partially true but here's another benefit that may be worthwhile for the consumer."
Lack of content is another "clear hurdle that will have to be overcome," he said. But he said the upscaling of 4K content on an 8K TV is "going to look even better" than the 4K content does on a UHD TV.
Like Silver, Chinnock cautioned not to get too hung up on resolution and pixels with 8K TVs. Whether one can see the difference between 4K and 8K in a side-by- side comparison is "content-dependent," he said, explaining: "If there's not a lot of high-frequency information in the scene, then [there's] probably not going to be a lot of difference. If it's a very busy scene with lots of detail, you can certainly see the difference as you get close. But even farther away, you can often see the difference. It just looks crisper. It just looks sharper."
Another issue to consider, he said: On the content production side, if you "capture content at 8K resolution and then distribute it at 4K resolution, that image is definitely going to look better than if you captured it at 4K and distributed it at 4K." But "there's definitely more cost" involved with 8K--and "that's going to be an issue," he said. Indeed, at the NAB Show, few exhibitors we polled said they were in any rush to move on to 8K.
Another potentially major issue that could drive 8K demand is that 5G usage goes hand-in-hand with 8K, he said, echoing what Sharp said at the NAB Show. There are a "lot of bits" in an 8K signal, "so, traditional cable and networks are probably going to be the last to want to do that," Chinnock said.
Over-the-top (OTT) delivery of video over an Internet Protocol network is "probably going to be first" and "satellite will probably be very close behind because they have bandwidth that can deliver the extra data," he predicted, but added: "What's coming is the 5G cellular network. So, this is the next generation to your cellphone technology.... and the bandwidth makes a big, big leap here. So, you're already starting to see some trial cities" getting it "actually this year."
Many people think that bandwidth "could be very significant in the ability to deliver 8K content directly to a streaming box or directly to your TV or to your phone potentially," he added, predicting that will become a selling point for 8K. "I can easily see in 2022... Verizon marketing 5G service with connection to an 8K video streaming service, he said.
Finally, while 8K TVs will initially cost more than 4K TVs, he predicted that pricing will "come down a lot faster than it's done in 4K, to tell you the truth, because of this tsunami of capacity that's coming onboard here" for large-screen displays, especially at 65 and 75 inches.
Challenges to enable 8K flat-panel displays include a "substantial increase in backlight and driver circuitry costs and the impact on yields," DSCC and Insight Media said, estimating the total manufacturing cost for an 8K 65-inch LCD panel would be $1,000 initially, although that's expected to decrease to $595 by 2021. They also projected that sales of 8K flat-panel TVs will increase from just about 100,000 units in 2018 to 5.8 million in 2022, with China being the top market and accounting for more than 60 percent of the total market during that period.
When it comes down to it, though, do such considerations really matter to the enthusiast community? Are you champing at the bit to upgrade to 8K as soon as the market for such displays settles down, or are you waiting until pretty much all TVs are 8K to make the upgrade? Let us know in the comments section below.