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Why 4K isn’t enough: The case for higher resolutions

Why 4K isn’t enough: The case for higher resolutions

A 4K TV gives you more than 8 million pixels. You might think that’s plenty. But other tech needs even more.

We’ve reached the point that nearly every new TV has Ultra HD “4K” resolution. Cheap media streamers output 4K, and more and more movies and games are in 4K too. With the exception of broadcast TV, 4K is basically mainstream today.

But already there are prototypes and rumors of 8K televisions. The new HDMI 2.1 specification supports 10K. And while these resolutions are overkill in actual TVs — even 4K resolution is basically at the limit of human visual acuity at normal screen sizes and seating distances — we do need higher resolutions in other kinds of gear.

Here’s a few examples.

VR

Though the initial hype and hoopla has died down, VR is still a thing. What it needs is to get cheaper and better. One of the main ways it can be improved is with higher resolutions.

The closer a screen is to your face, the higher resolution it needs to retain a seamless image and not look like you’re viewing everything through a screen door. Being able to see individual pixels can reduce the suspension of disbelief that you’re in a virtual world. Better head tracking and directional audio have done a great job at improving the VR experience, but the screen tech has stagnated a bit.

 

What’s needed, actually, is higher resolution phones. The OLED screens in the Note 8 and iPhone X are 2,960×1,440 and 2,436×1,125 pixels respectively, which is plenty for something held in your hand, but still not enough for something inches from your face. Why phones? These screens are still the basis for the displays in VR headsets. Full Ultra HD resolution phones would be great for VR, and even higher resolutions, with larger screens, would be even more immersive.

Perhaps we’ll get to the point where there are enough VR headsets sold each year for their own bespoke OLED displays, but we’re a long way from that.

360

The 360 camera market has been a tiny niche of the overall camera market, but this year saw a number of new and big players that show 360 becoming a far bigger deal.

Here’s a recent 360 video I posted to give you an idea of the potential of the format:

Right now the two highest resolution consumer cameras are the Garmin Virb 360 at 5.7K and the GoPro Fusion at 5.2K. Most of the models released in 2017 do 4K video, which was a huge step up over the 1080p of older cameras.

And even so, these resolutions aren’t enough, for two main reasons.

The first is that with any 360 video, you’re essentially “zooming in” on one part. Your “window” of the 360 world is generally a 16×9 portion of roughly 15 percent of the total image (though it varies a bit). So when the original image is the 3,840×2,160 pixels of 4K, you’re seeing barely better than 720p at any one time. So 4K 360 videos are always going to look softer than “standard” 4K video. That’s the current price of having an immersive 360 world to see.

Here’s an example using a 360 photo, and the field of view you’d see viewing it on Flickr:

This is a spherical 360 image, shown in its entirety, taken with the GoPro Fusion. Shown on websites that can display them, you would be able to view this like you were at the center of the photosphere. It has 5,760×2,880 pixels available for the full sphere, but at any given time you’re “zooming in” on just one portion, seeing roughly 15 percent or 2,000×1,120 (the section inside the white rectangle). That makes the image look soft compared to normal images with 5,760×2,880-pixel resolution.

Now, you might be thinking, who cares about 360 videos?

Fair point, so let’s discuss the other major issue, called OverCapture, FreeCapture and HyperFrame, depending on the company. Nearly all the new 360 cameras this year feature this type of editing mode, which lets you choose what part of your 360 video to highlight, and then create a standard, flat 1080p video using just those parts. The higher the resolution, the greater quality and field of view possible with these videos. These videos are likely to be the biggest use of 360 cameras going forward, so the higher resolution the better.

PCs and gaming

Resolution isn’t everything in games. You can’t just increase the resolution and expect a game to look that much better. A game’s textures, the “paint” used to cover the underlying framework of the game world, have to be created in high enough detail to make the additional monitor resolution useful.

That said, you sit a lot closer to computer monitors than you do TVs, and that added resolution will be quite immersive. There are also benefits to diagonal lines, which appear smoother at higher res.

Then there’s the added usefulness of a higher resolution desktop. 4K monitors have finally reached mainstream prices, and you can expect more and cheaper higher-resolution monitors matching or exceeding the likes of Dell, LG and Apple‘s 5K monitors. More desktop space is always handy, especially on a huge monitor.

If the move is towards greater and greater resolutions in general, does that mean we’ll be seeing TVs with higher resolution? Count on it, regardless of what happens with these other categories.

It’s almost certain that TV makers will show 8K TVs (again) at CES in January, and who knows? Maybe they’ll finally ship one in 2018.

TV companies are in the business of selling you new TVs every few years, and to do that, they have to convince you that the latest gizmo is even better than your current gizmo. Resolution has proved to be one of the easiest ways to convince the average person that the new thing is better. “4K” was a brilliant marketing move. More is better, right? Well 8K is an even easier sell. 8 is more than 4, done and done!

Do we need 8K in the 50-inch-or-so TVs that the most people buy? Nope. We didn’t need 4K in that size either, but here we are. Just as with 4K, the higher resolutions mean we can get even bigger TVs, though those will still always be a small part of the market.

Maybe 10K will mean we can get the wall-sized screens sci-fi has promised us. 10K OLED wall screens? Sure, sign me up.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he’s written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.

Ian Harvey

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