As CES 2013 heads into its fourth day, spirits are not yet flagging. The exhibit halls are still packed wall-to-wall with press, buyers, and an ocean of blinking, whirring machines. My primary concern is with the perusal of display technologies, and ultra high definition is this year's poster child—the powerhouse resolution continues to strut before thousands of eyes. It's very easy to get caught up in a sort of mathematical lust over UHD: "Twice the vertical and horizontal resolution of 1080p!" "A more vividly saturated color gamut!"
A display I saw depicted an image of a Vegas Casino, literally bursting with color. If Vegas ever came close to looking like that, I'd live here and objectively review casinos for a living. It makes the surrounding world—even the glitzy booth-maze of CES—look downright dull. To the uninitiated eye, it can seem unnatural, a little eerie, a little too perfect. So while the morning sun divorces the evening mist from the now-dark spires of Las Vegas, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on ultra high definition: where it's coming from, where it may be going, and what it means for all of us.
It's Just Another Resolution, Right?
To really get into the nuts and bolts of where ultra high definition (UHD) differs from past upgrades to resolutionary prowess, we need to take a brief look back in time: a look to the televisions of yesteryear, and back further still, to crudely scrawled paintings upon the walls of ancient caves. What purpose does display technology serve, if not to foster an ease of expression and communication from one human to another? The history of television shows that its purpose has always been the imitation of real life. The breakthrough of high definition displays into the consumer market was the first time that many consumers found their TVs to be visually pleasing enough that—on top of allowing them to stay at home—the more expensive live experience of sports games, rock concerts, and even the Olympics didn't seem quite so tantalizing.
Consider this—even cave paintings were meant to illustrate, from the creator to the viewer, some idea: whether that idea is as complex as the visually diverse, chronically inverse filmography of Cloud Atlas, or something as simple as "elk are food and are near," the full range of perceptual and conceptual display incarnations has always been built upon the imitation or embellishment of human activity.
For many less tech-obsessed consumers, HD still feels "new." My parents just got their first 1080p capable HDTV over Christmas, and are still blown away by how their cable programming looks "on the HD." The bright, crisp introduction of flat-panel HDTVs made for a massive jump away from standard definition: HD TVs were superior in their contrast ability and signal intensity—not to mention richer and more accurate in their color spectrum—to such a degree that, by 2012, their display abilities were a given expectation upon purchase. Consumer attention then turned to the possibilities of 3D viewing, internet capability, motion-based remotes, and cloud processing.
UHD is different—it isn't just imitating or even matching the visual appearance of life, it is fully capable of surpassing it. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at how digital color works.
Rec. 2020: A Space Odyssey
UHD uses a color gamut called "recommendation 2020," which dictates the exact X/Y/Z axis placement of its red, green, blue, and white points. As you might know, digital displays use "additive" color to create gradations of RGB and white, meaning they add colors together—rather than take them away from one another—to create the panoply of shades and hues on screen. The HD color gamut, called rec. 709, has remained relatively unchanged (save for certain niche circles) since 1971. It triangulates the "ideal" placement of red, green, and blue on a map of possible placements—and the edges of the gamut's shape represent the extent of human vision. See where this is going?
More simply, this means that digital color display is now on par with the most vivid colors human beings are capable of seeing with the naked eye. That's part of what makes UHD so appealing as a consumer option—it is pushing the envelope for what displays, like televisions and monitors, are capable of showing us.
Imagine spending 6 hours watching the most vivid colors your eyes are capable of seeing. How is the world outside your window going to look? Think back to your first HDTV: were you blown away by how bright and colorful it was? How realistic it looked? The human eye is something like a sponge for light—and it quickly grows used to what it sees repeatedly. The digital display industry has long since moved away from presenting "realistic" colors: the oversaturated reds and greens of high definition Christmas specials are now par for the course.
With UHD, the display is passing beyond an appreciable imitation of real-life beauty, and into a realm that's gloriously rich, with endless possibilities—one we may not want to come back from.
Fear of a Planck Planet
I'm in no way attempting to rain on anyone's UHD parade. After all, despite how impractical (and expensive) UHD televisions may be, they can put the opulence of the Vegas strip to shame, and that's just remarkable. The massive resolution capability of 4K and 8K content is nothing to sneeze at, and the creative capabilities it affords are undeniable. Whether you're excited about the next ultra-colorful, ultra-crisp iteration of Transformers, or lusting after a giant 4K tablet to serve as a digital drafting table, the technology is all here.
My concern lies more with the unrelenting pursuit of bigger, brighter, more colorful display tech, and its inverse relationship with the human ability to "keep up." With the vivacity of colors threatening to outpace the efficacy of human vision, and the potential size of devices (such as Panasonic's massive 20-inch 4K tablet, or Samsung's ridiculous 110-inch 4K TV) threatening to dwarf our heights and hands, the practicality of employing further display upgrades begs the question: When will this technology outgrow its target audience's ability to appreciate it?