Design Con 2015

Ultra HDTV: A Complete Waste of Consumers' Money

-January 30, 2013

I've had a case of cyber-whiplash for nearly a month now. It began when I started perusing the coverage coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. And I haven't stopped shaking my head ever since, as the manufacturers (along with the "media" outlets in their pockets) have strived to extend and amplify the CES-started announcements of this year's industry-anointed "hot technology." However, I seriously doubt that consumers will go along for the ride this time ... as has unfortunately been the case for the past several iterations of this longstanding hype pattern.

First off, here's a history lesson. I've been going to CES for around 15 years ... with the (thankful) exception of the past several. What I've noticed over and over again is a consistent product-introduction pattern:

  • Year #1: A few leading-edge companies show prototypes, sometimes publicly, other times behind closed doors, in either case cultivating public press coverage
  • Year #2: The demonstration trickle becomes a flood, with products hawked in the booths of companies big and small
  • Year #3: The hype machine has moved on to its next gaudy bauble. Regardless of whether or not the aforementioned product has become mainstream, it will no longer receive notable vendor emphasis. And if it's failed in the market, it will have also have disappeared from Las Vegas, never to be seen again.

This same three-year cadence has repeated itself over and over again, with the following (and other) product case studies (in no particular order save for my brainstorming output):

  • HDTV
  • 3-D TV
  • eBook readers
  • Tablet computers
  • DVD players
  • Blu-ray disc players
  • MP3 players
  • Portable video (i.e. multimedia) players
  • Digital still cameras, and
  • Digital video cameras of various form factors and formats

Last year, we began seeing the first prototypes of then-called "4K" TVs. This year, they were everywhere at CES, and have been re-branded as "Ultra HDTVs", reflective of the two possible supported format options (quick aside: I'll be curious to see if "Ultra HDTV" will only be allowed for displays with "4K" and larger native display resolutions, or whether the marketers will end up associating the tagline with displays that accept "4K" and higher resolution video inputs but downscale them to a lower display pixel count):

  • "4K" i.e. 2160p: 3840x2160 pixels (8.3 megapixels), 4x the pixels of 1080p, and
  • "8K" i.e. 4320p: 7680x4320 pixels (33.2 megapixels), 16x the pixels of 1080p

In the not-too-distant future, reflective of the "unsuccessful year 3" scenario, I suspect that "Ultra HDTVs" will disappear from CES...though it may take longer than one year for this to occur. The reason for the "4K"-death-delay has everything to do with the display manufacturers' increasingly desperate attempts to convince consumers to regularly upgrade their hardware, which may encourage the vendors to sell "Ultra HDTV" way past its expiration date. Samsung has a clever alternative take on the concept, by the way, with their "Evolution Kits" which enable regular upgrades of the processing hardware inside a display ... but I digress.

Some analysts have bullish forecasts for "Ultra HDTV." Clearly, I'm not one of them. First off, the lingering worldwide economic malaise will squelch any serious motivation that the bulk of consumers might have to replace their existing sets, particularly considering the multi-thousand (or more likely multi-tens-of-thousand) dollar price tags being touted for Ultra HDTVs. Remember, this is consumer electronics ... prices can dramatically drop with sales volume increases, but they won't begin to drop until (or in this case, unless) there's a sufficient-sized early adopter population to kick off the cost efficiency treadmill. Analogies to the molasses-slow (and still-underwhelming) adoption of the Blu-ray disc format are apt.

Pricing aside, and speaking of Blu-ray, there's also the issue of the dearth of "4K" content. As with 3-D material, games will probably lead the "Ultra HDTV" charge, followed by proprietary streaming video formats. But although Blu-ray has belatedly embraced H.264 (as one of three possible supported formats, along with MPEG-2 and VC-1), ATSC is still firmly in the MPEG-2 camp. Therefore, although the successor H.265 format has recently been standardized, I'd wager that it'll be a long time (if ever) until this low-bitrate "Ultra HDTV" transport vehicle is adopted by either the broadcast or physical media industries.

And even if the content does show up, in sufficient quantities and specifically associated with a sufficient number of blockbusters, there remains the unfortunate fact that the supposed quality improvements will be imperceptible to viewers. Let me qualify that statement ... they will be perceptible, but only with enormous-sized screens, and then only with viewers' noses pressed against them. In more realistic viewing scenarios, as I've written about many times before, individual pixels' boundaries blur together and resolution differences become irrelevant. I made this point in the DVD-versus-Blu-ray days, particularly considering the intelligently upscaled DVD alternative. And it's even more relevant when potential resolutions beyond 1080p come into play.

I've seen lots of comparisons and contrasts between this year's "Ultra HDTV" hype and the "3-D TV" promotion of the not-too-distant past. 3-D TV has been hampered by a dearth of Hollywood-sourced content, coupled with the necessity of wearing glasses to view the material (and the vendor-versus-vendor and display-versus-display proprietary nature of the glasses implementations). And I realize that for a small segment of the population, 3-D is at minimum a ho-hum, in some cases a negative (causing dizziness, headaches, and the like). But at least it's a perceptible variation from the 2-D HDTV norm, for the masses.

"Ultra HDTV," on the other hand, won't mean a darn thing once you get out of the electronics superstore showroom and move your face more than a few inches away from the display. If you can persuade your significant other that a substantial incremental investment with no tangible return on that investment makes sense, I commend you on your sales skills. And I wish you the best of luck in bankruptcy court.

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