Friday, 8 January 2016

CES: 170" TVZilla (probably) won't save the screen

Let me get this out here right now: there are some awesome TVs  at CES this year. Never has the industry been bigger and bolder. Slim, sexy, 4K affairs drip from every surface of the megabooths at Sony, LG, Panasonic and others. But one OEM is the boss man of TV bling. You want OLED? You want SUHD and QUANTUM DOTS? You want 170"? Samsung's got that, yo!

"The World's Largest 170" TV" screams the advert for TVZilla, which looms on one entire wall of a darkened, reverential space in their city block-sized temple to screens. The colour from all of those independently-lit pixels is so bright that it leaves afterimages when you break the trance and look away. It's a monster; a poster giant for the industry's latest acronym: HDR.

HDR, for the uninitiated (read: well adjusted) is all about luminosity. It stands for High Dynamic Range and basically means that the pixels on the screen are able to stretch from true black (i.e. the absence of brightness, or 'off') to very bright indeed. This enables screens to replicate the full range that the human eye can see, necessary because our eyes have evolved to be able to function in both very low and very bright lights, rather than in the narrow range delivered by screen technologies up to this point. Breakthroughs in OLED technology means that this year the major manufacturers are able to offer super-size 4K HDR screens that produce stunningly realistic visuals across the whole of the human visual range. In English, these are TVs with four times the resolution and at least twice the brightness range of the HD TV you probably have at home today.

But there's a problem. Although some shows are available from YouTube and Netflix, the first mass market 4K signals aren't likely to be broadcast into homes until 2018 and in any case, none of these TVs or the current generation of set top boxes have a tuner that will support 4K. And when it comes to HDR, no one is shooting using the technology yet so all of the content is remastered for the new technology. It still looks great, mind you: Maze Runner, the Scorch Trials really pops on LG's latest OLEDs... running off a pre-release Vidity box that's streaming raw, uncompressed video from a gigantic Western Digital hard drive via HDMI. 4K Bluray is still coming 'next year'. An important milestone for the mainstream audiences, who are yet to embrace ultra-high definition streaming services and only really want that resolution for their football game (both codes accepted).

I fear for the TV industry in all of this. With their hand forced by the rise of Retina on tablets and smartphones, they've launched the 4K ship way too early. The technology will be more than 5 years old by the time that meaningful content is available for it. By this time all of the value will have gone from the market due to the incessant price-based competition that endures despite the profitability challenges of the players involved. By the time mass market buyers are persuaded to part with their HD LCD and plasma screens (the latter firmly for the purists), the ability of the industry to profit will be gone. And as with everything, complex technology concepts like HDR attract only the attention of the hyper-nerdy band of film buffs who understand and care about this tech. This is a few percentage points of the market at best so all of the money will have gone from 4K/ UHD by the time that demand catches up with supply.

Are there any hopes left for the TV industry? Not in my book. 8K screens have become more prevalent at shows over the last two years, but the need for those outside of the cinema is precisely zero. Unless there is a radical change in the efficiency of compression codecs in the next few years, 8K is a decade away in the domestic market, even if Red make a full frame 8K movie camera and have shot a major film with it (Guardians of the Galaxy 2... so excited!).

Glasses-free 3D TV, made possible thanks to the latency and range of 4K is total rubbish, so forget that.

And now the TV industry has a looming new threat to deal with in the emergence and rapid hyping of VR... but that's a whole other story. Apologies for the negative post. I desperately want to love OLED 4K and HDR. The geek in me totally does, but my rational business brain tells me that it's a bust. Sad times.

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