HDTV Unchained

Nobody realized the potential of digital TV. Sure, 15 years ago, tech pundits raved about the possibilities of multicasting, and A/V buffs salivated over the thought of high-definition images. But digital technology has affected the world of television in many more important ways besides those.

Once video is in digital form, doing whatever you want with it is just a matter of math. You can blow it up. Shrink it down. Twist it all around. Shoot it down a wire and get the same exact image halfway around the world.

Dumping those old analog cathode-ray tubes for new digital display technologies opened up even more possibilities. Video displays are taking on new dimensions and going places never thought possible. Thanks to digital, HDTV has never stopped improving. This year promises just as many advances as we've seen every year of this decade -- and maybe more.


In the early days of HDTV, everyone thought 1080p video displays were some futuristic dream that might not happen until decades into the 21st century. But here we are, just 10 years after HDTV broadcasting began, and 1080p seems like yesterday's technology. The buzzword now is 4K, which refers to a display resolving roughly 4,000 pixels horizontally and 2,000 pixels vertically. Today's 1080p TVs are considered 2K devices, resolving 1,920 pixels across and 1,080 pixels down -- a mere quarter of the resolution 4K offers.

Video sources with 4K resolution exist only in professional video facilities and digital cinemas. But you don't need a 4K video source to enjoy its benefits. Because the pixel density of a 4K display is so much greater than that of a 2K display, it allows even 100-inch pictures to be shown without visible pixels.

Meridian made a splash last August when it introduced the 810 Reference Video Projector, a $185,000 4K home theater model based on a commercial projector design from JVC. On the 14-foot Stewart screen that Meridian used, it was impossible to see individual pixels even with your eyes just a few inches from the screen.

Of course, few people other than Bill Gates and 50 Cent have the space for a 14-foot screen. Whether or not 4K delivers a real benefit with smaller screens remains debatable. Bill Whalen, director of product development for the Hitachi Home Electronics Consumer Group, is bullish. "Certainly in the 46- or 47-inch range and above -- I think that's where the consumer will recognize the benefit of 4K," he says. "You can sit closer to the set, or get a larger set, without seeing the pixels."

But 4K doesn't necessarily look better than 2K, says Bob Perry, senior vice president of Panasonic's Display Group. "Mapping 1080p content to a 1080p display delivers amazing picture quality, but if you start mapping to higher-resolution displays, you might have the opposite result. Cer- tainly it makes an improvement in very large screen sizes -- say, 100 inches or more. But that's about making a display that doesn't have visible grain [pixels]." So then why would anyone want to own, say, a 60-inch 4K LCD TV? "It'll give them something to boast about."

So, is 4K going to become a living-room reality in 2009? "I think you'll probably see prototypes of 4K flat-panel TVs, maybe at the Consumer Electronics Show [in January], maybe later in the year," said Paul Meyhoefer, vice president of marketing and product planning for Pioneer. "But is it something for the consumer in 2009? I don't think so."