13 April 2016

Ultra HD Content Is Coming

With yesterday's announcement that DirecTV will carry 25 MLB Network games in Ultra HD (also known as 4K), it might be time to evaluate whether this format will be a paradigm shift (as was high definition) or not (as was 3D).

HD benefited from the following:

  • Clearly better pictures
  • Development of flat panel set technology allowing for big screens without the big bulk of earlier HD sets (rear projection or very heavy tubes)
  • Digital transition, requiring stations to stop broadcasting analog signals in July 2009 and greatly increasing the amount of high profile native widescreen HD programming
HD was no more convenient to use than standard definition television before that.

3D, it is clear in retrospect, was more of a mixed-to-bad bag. The 3D effect could be compelling at times (like in Avatar), but, 3D had some considerable negatives:
  • 3D effect did not work for many people or actually gave them headaches
  • Glasses required for 3D made it less convenient to view
  • No new desirable set technology was associated with 3D
  • 3D content did not benefit by a change in the law regarding television broadcasting
  • 3D content was difficult to produce -- it required more than simply higher resolution cameras and other equipment
Ultra HD avoids the 3D negatives. However, it is less than clear that Ultra HD's benefits are worth the cost to consumers. To a significant extent, all new television formats face an uphill climb. It is a very rare consumer who wants the obligation to buy a new set or other equipment.

Ultra HD feels more like the transition from DVDs to Blu-Ray discs, a technically better format that consumers are willing to buy as long as there is little cost premium associated with it. If Ultra HD catches on, expect a much slower adoption curve.

Early HD sets:

2004 65 inch Sony rear projection HDTV set is 27 inches deep
Sony KV-40XBR800 FD Trinitron - weighs 325 pounds
Update (25 May 2016): This report from John Archer on forbes.com notes that Ultra HD sets have become the de facto standard for 50+ inch TVs, more because manufacturers are not making non-Ultra HD sets in that size, rather than consumers paying a premium to get UHD sets.

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