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Dismiss UltraHD at Your Peril

3/25/2013 7:01 AM

By now, you’ve probably heard the long list of reasons why UltraHD television is hobbled, even as it dazzles its way to the starting line. Some already liken it to 3DTV, in terms of nonstarters.

This week’s translation examines why it’s a bad idea to dismiss UltraHDTV so soon. Why? Because we’ve seen this movie before. Think back to when HDTV began — very similar obstacles.

Let’s start with price. Right now, buying a 4K television means finding $20,000 in spare change. But 10 years ago, the MSRP for a 40- inch HDTV was $30,000. The one constant in consumer electronics is the race to low prices.

And then there’s the matter of an UltraHD signal being too big to move over the digital HDMI cables that connect peripherals (Blu-ray players, set-tops) to HDTVs today.

Ahem. HDMI cables started lightening our wallets $50 at a time when HDTV began.

Speaking of Blu-ray players: The concern is real that UltraHD will outstrip the technical capabilities of optical-disc technology, which would create a need for another form of packaged media.

This one should seem doubly familiar, because of what happens next: Format wars. VHS vs. Betamax in the olden days; HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray in the most recent chapter.

Then there’s the distribution riddle: How to move an UltraHD signal that’s four times as big as a “regular HD” signal, through wired and wireless networks that are already seriously space-challenged.

Remember? HDTV contains six times the picture information of standard-definition digital TV. Bandwidth concerns were (and still are) real. Ten years ago, cable engineers debated whether they’d ever be able to carry 25 HD channels. Better compression and bandwidth management are your best friends (forever!) on that one. For content creators, UltraHD cameras don’t yet exist that can be deployed at scale. Ditto for editing suite components.

If the upcoming National Association of Broadcasters show is any indicator, the vendor marketplace for UltraHD cameras, production gear and editing suite paraphernalia catch up. It just will. It’s a huge business.

So, don’t dismiss UltraHD just yet. Its barriers are not unique, and will very likely resolve themselves.

If there’s one thing that will block the success of Ultra- HD, it’s wall space. One only notices the gorgeousness of UltraHD displays when they’re huge, 85 inches and up. At the 2013 International CES, for instance, two displays — one “regular” HD, one UltraHD — were shown on side-by-side, 55-inch screens. The difference in picture quality was difficult to discern.

This means we have about eight years to figure out where to move the bookcase, to free up a wall for that much better — and much, much bigger — UltraHD TV.

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