The Next Big Thing

Their future seemed so very bright. The SACD format, with a bit rate four times that of CD, was designed to lead the CD to new heights. DVD-Audio, sibling of the wildly successful DVD-Video format, offered audiophile fantasy surround at 96 kilohertz/24 bit. Hard on the heels of Avatar, 3DTV promised to change TV viewing forever.

Now SACD and DVD-Audio are dead and gone. They join a long list of failed technologies that never caught on, did not respond to attempts at resuscitation, and ultimately had their plugs pulled. 3DTV, although still alive, is hardly the blockbuster that everyone hoped for. What happened to these promising technologies, and what lessons can we learn about tech prognostication?

It is the job of technology companies to invent the future. They must develop products that are sufficiently better than their existing products so we are persuaded to dump perfectly good stuff and buy new stuff. The intriguing question, the one that haunts the companies spending millions to develop new technologies, is this: Why do some new products live long and prosper, while others are just flashes in the pan?

The worst scenario for a product launch is when it triggers a format war. In a two-horse race, consumers don’t want to risk betting on the second-place horse. VHS versus Betamax, LaserDisc versus VHD, MiniDisc versus DCC, Blu-ray versus HD DVD—the list is endless. Format wars may produce a winner and a loser or, if it’s sufficiently confusing, two losers. Remember SQ Quadraphonic and QS Quadraphonic? Neither does anyone else.

The bitter war between SACD and DVD-Audio probably mutually assured their destruction, but their obliteration was complete when MP3 players arrived. MP3s were the perfect storm of greater convenience, cooler tech, and opportunity to amass, through piracy, a free and gigantic music library. File formats put the whammy on optical discs, and headphones put the hurt on surround sound music playback. RIP.

3DTV at the 2010 CES was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, but its potential misfires are many: Many consumers have recently purchased a flat-screen TV and are reluctant to buy another one. The viewing angle is limited. There are questions of eye strain and headaches, and warnings about kids watching 3D. Most significantly, it’s the glasses, stupid: Active glasses are relatively expensive and often incompatible among manufacturers. Passive glasses halve the vertical resolution in each eye. Active systems are incompatible with passive systems. People wearing prescription glasses are inconvenienced. Finally, one word: dorky.

Although 3DTV will soldier on, its future is as murky as its images. As with 3D ventures in the past, it has failed to shake the labels of “novelty” and “gimmick.” Content providers like the BBC and ESPN, who never provided sufficient quantities of 3D, are shutting their 3D spigots. Maybe glasses-free 3D will prove more popular, and maybe a universal standard will be embraced, but the smart money is already betting on 4K Ultra HD and OLED.

So, what does the future hold for 4K and OLED? Clearly, if a format war develops, consumers will sit on their wallets until a winner is announced or until the technologies merge. Another obstacle is what I call the linear extrapolation fallacy of tech development. It says, for example, that a six-cylinder engine is better than a four-cylinder; therefore, eight is better than six, 12 is better than eight, etc. Except that a 16-cylinder engine is a truly dumb idea. Similarly, SACD and DVD-Audio bet on higher sampling frequencies and better sound quality, and lost. Will the better images on 4K and OLED screens fall into the same trap? How apparent will the improvements be on normal-sized screens at normal viewing distances? Sufficient to persuade consumers to dump their current screens for very pricey new ones?

Are technologies like 4K and OLED rising stars or footnotes in the making? I have absolutely no idea. But one thing is certain: Ingenious engineers have already moved beyond them, and are working on the Next Big Thing.

javanp's picture

"So, what does the future hold for 4K and OLED? Clearly, if a format war develops, consumers will sit on their wallets until a winner is announced or until the technologies merge." That's not a format war, I don't doubt that you know this, but 4K is, yes, a new format, but OLED is simply a new type of TV technology. They are not opposing formats. Unfortunately, because of that, I really don't see OLED surviving. As you pointed out, just because something is better quality, that does not mean that it will find a sustainable niche in the marketplace as the vast, VASY majority of consumers aren't going to shell out top dollar just to get the best quality. Hell, I consider myself a home theater aficionado, but even I don't get the top dollar plasma or receiver each time I upgrade. Even if OLED manages to get production down to obtainable levels, LCD is just always going to be that much cheaper. If KURO couldn't survive, I don't see how OLED can. (and I sure hope I'm wrong on that.)

4K, on the other hand, I do see that as becoming commonplace... for a while anyways. Of course you'll have those people that will say, "oh you can't even tell the difference" or "I don't NEED that" about ANY new format, but new formats are the top ways for studios and hardware manufacturers to make money and they will force a new format on us whether or not we necessarily want it. Now WHEN it becomes a new format, or even a survivable one, is a different story, but can you imagine TV technology 50 years from now STILL just being 1080P? Psshh... yeah, right. It's going to happen sooner or later. And if it's not 4K, it's going to be something else, but to me, I definitely think 4k is going to happen, and a big reason why is: it's in theaters already. The technology and the shift to move everything that way is already there. And when it comes to flat panel TVs, it's not exactly a paradigm shift to go from 2K to 4K.

mvision7m1's picture

While I agree that OLED and 4K are not competing formats, I disagree that OLED will fail but that could be because I really want it to succeed. Especially at the moment I think OLED has the greater potential to be successful if it could be priced more competitively against LCD in a few years time. 4K is lacking support for the most part. Who knows how long, if ever, it will be before television broadcasts are 4K, if greedy cable providers will up-charge for 4K service, 4K compatible equipment is readily available and relatively inexpensive to obtain etc. etc. etc. Also, to fully realize the benefit of 4K you’d need at least an 85” television but more likely even bigger than that. I’m (maybe in the minority) willing to pay a relatively, modestly higher price for a product that is truly better at whatever it was made to do. I thoroughly enjoy my Panasonic ZT60 every day in spite of it’s premium price tag and happily paid that premium for what I consider to be a better performing product. I’d do the same with OLED if the tech proves itself and becomes much more affordable than it is today. Again however, I know I’m likely in the minority there.

dnoonie's picture

I wouldn't call SACD a dead format since I can still find superb, exceptional recordings in the format. Not everyone purchased virgin vinyl records in loose wrapped plastic in special sleeves and played them on a KM turntable with an SME tone arm with an Adcom cartridge...just because something isn't popular doesn't mean that it's dead...on the other hand there are new download audio formats that aspire to be equal or better than SACD, I haven't tried them yet. Has anyone else? I've got young buddies buying vinyl records because they sound better than MP3s! Well of course they sound better, a vinyl record MUST be mastered properly or it just won't even press, someone can make an MP3 from some overly compressed crappy master and there you have it...bad just became that much worse. MP3s are okay for background music if they're not overly compressed but I can't stand sitting down and listening to MP3 audio, it sounds soooooo bad. With massive flash memory so cheep and high speed internet everywhere I really don't see the point of MP3 any more, I hope it dies soon so we can have more audio that sounds decent.

4k, my house just isn't big enough for a screen that would be large enough to really make a difference. I hope 4k finds a niche market for those that can afford it. It's good to have something around to inspire (show people what really great is in the high end demo room) and aspire too (I really doubt I'll have a house that size).

OLED. I hope to, aspire to, get an OLED (or whatever might be better on down the line) when the time comes. It will likely be within reach.

Popular/mainstream home electronics will always be around. I always try to get something a step or two better than simply the popular item.

Vance8412's picture

I like 3D, but was never satisfied with the quality of 3D on standard 1080p HD sets (ghosting on all, either dim images w Plasma sets, or poor black levels with LCD sets, etc.). That all changed when I saw one of the first commercially available ultra HD sets (Sony's XBR-65X900A) - gone were the dim images, gone was the crosstalk and other anomalies, and black levels were far better than any movie theater I've ever been to, including IMAX. So I bought one, and never looked back. For sure, if you want to benefit from the increased resolution of ultra HD you need to (1) have genuine "4K" source material and (2) sit very close to the set. I do neither. However, I enjoy virtually perfect reproduction of 3D movies. No one visiting me has ever complained about the super light passive 3D glasses - the 3D picture is so compelling and beautiful. It should be noted that my set is fully ISF calibrated. As far as OLED sets, when they become affordable (and proven to be reliable) I'm sure I'll get one, but certainly not now. I definitely DO NOT like the curved screens - unless you're sitting at exactly the "focal point" of the screens curvature, to me the image is unacceptable distorted. For those who only watch 2D then get yourself a good plasma HDTV - it's what I would have done if not for my love of good 3D movies.

Grizzled Geezer's picture

It's just that Ken Pohlman doesn't like classical music, so the format is of no interest to him.

DVD-Audio apparently died because there weren't enough titles, and the prices were appalling. (Turnabout recordings that sold for $3 on LP were reissued on DVD-Audio for $25! *)

SACD didn't die, it simply found its niche. Its acceptance by some classical labels seems due to three factors:

>> It appears to have slightly better sound than Red Book CDs.
>> It permits discrete surround recordings of audiophile quality.
>> It appears to be a "universal" mastering format, that can be converted to any other format, thus making a label's library essentially obsolescence-proof.

Note that Blu-ray Audio offers advantages similar to SACD, and is used by a few labels (notably 2L).

Oh, yes... I have hundreds of SACDs, and continue to purchase them. Maybe I'm crazy, but I've had surround sound for 43 years, and have no intention of abandoning it.

* This is really surprising when you consider that the per-minute cost of expensive new CD or SACD recordings is only a little higher than the cost of phonograph records of 40 years ago. And in terms of disposable income, they're /cheaper/!

Dssquared's picture

My opinion regarding 4K and OLED is something the electronics companies seem oblivious to. Do people really want it? Obviously their agenda is to SELL the technology to us but do we WANT it? I have built my movie collection of Blu-Ray titles. Now you want me to start over with 4K movies? Not likely. The picture and sound are stunning with Blu-Ray. What will 4K bring? Movies a little more stunning(er)? It's not always about resolution and better. Look at iTunes for example. It killed high resolution formats. The audio engineers are still scratching their heads on that probably. 'How could people possibly WANT a lower resolution format over SACD? That's crazy talk!' If I can download a 4K movie in a minute to a hard drive I might go for it. Right now, 1080p movies are pretty nice and I can click my remote and stream them. I love high resolution music, but clicking on iTunes and having that song I just heard seconds ago can't be faulted either.
Pushing a format no one really wants (and 99% don't need)is a recipe for failure. And then add a competing format on to the top of it. I'm no Ivy League MBA (I do have a business degree however),but this seems like common sense to me.