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No doubt the exhibition “star” at this coming (2013) CES will be Ultra High Definition Television (Ultra HD) featuring at least four times the number of pixels per frame as conventional HDTV. This means the viewer can be positioned proportionally closer to the screen without seeing any pixel grain. But the increased picture detail improvement effected by the increased pixel density is not lost by those viewing from greater distances either. In fact significant image enhancement is noticeable as much as ten times the picture height from the display (assuming 20/20 visual acuity). To the normal human eye, the roll-off of the image improvement relative to distance is, of course, gradual and dependent on a number of image variables such as contrast, brightness motion content, etc.

The bottom line is: for most home TV viewing applications, Ultra HD is a significantly noticeable improvement over today’s HDTV. However, these improvements with higher definition systems are on an increasingly flattening curve. As the image detail approaches the limits of human visual acuity, further increases in pixel density results in very little noticeable picture enhancement – everything else being equal – in short, diminishing returns.

All of the above conclusions do not require rigorous scientific observations and/or analysis. This has been intuitively obvious at the various Ultra HD exhibitions and demonstrations I have witnessed. However, the one caveat to observed Ultra HD improvements is that the image signal source must also be of the same or higher resolution to observe the full benefits – at any distance.

At this time there is no Ultra HD content available save for some specially produced demonstration software played back with laboratory prototype equipment. Of course, there are in use some digital cinema Ultra HD quality (i.e. “4K”) cameras, recorders and editing suites as well as an abundance of motion picture prints equal to or exceeding Ultra HD specifications, but there is no commercial distribution structure for Ultra HD.

Sound familiar? It’s about where HDTV was 15 years age, except there are no Ultra HD system standards, no national mandate, and no public expectations. Broadcasters and content producers are just now recovering from the financial, structural and technical trauma surrounding the digital transition and thus have little incentive or inclination at this time to indulge in another massive infrastructure upgrade. Such updates will probably await the adoption of the next generation broadcasting standards (ATSC 3.0), which are several years away. Until then, there will be several generations of display technologies, all of which will be more advanced than any Ultra HD system presently available – and may not be compatible with it.

So, “future proofing” is really not a good reason to invest in Ultra HD today. But there is one reason such an investment may be quite compelling – and that is “upconversion.” Upconversion (or up-scaling) technology has advanced significantly over the past few years, mainly being applied to 3D display systems processing lower resolution 3D images. Applying this “very smart” upconversion technology to convert HDTV images to Ultra-HD quality can result in spectacularly detailed images with little noticeable motion artifacts.

Obviously, Ultra HD upconversion quality decreases with lower resolution input material but remains impressive. But not all upconverters are equal. Most contemporary upconverters look good with static images. The real test is how well detail is maintained in moving images without objectionable artifacts.

In my view Ultra HD is an evolutionary attribute – not revolutionary. But since all HDTV can be unconverted to high-quality Ultra HD, this feature is of very worthy consideration, particularly for large front projection displays systems, stadium displays and bill-boards. No doubt the high premium demanded now for Ultra HD capability will decrease rapidly as panel production ramps up and competition increases. As to original Ultra HD content – It may be a fair question to ask whether it is needed. The returns appear to diminish rapidly.


Posted by Ed Milbourn, December 6, 2012 6:59 AM

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About Ed Milbourn

After graduating from Purdue University with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Education in 1961 and 1963 respectively, Ed Milbourn joined the RCA Home Entertainment Division in 1963. During his thirty-eight year career with RCA (later GE and Thomson multimedia), Mr. Milbourn held the positions of Field Service Engineer, Manager of Technical Training and Manager of Sales Training. In 1987, he joined Thomson's Product Management group as Manager of Advanced Television Systems Planning, with responsibilities including Digital Television and High Definition Television Product Management. Mr. Milbourn retired from Thomson multimedia in December 2001, and is now a Consumer Electronics Industry consultant.