UHDTV: A wish or a waste?

Recently SMPTE has expressed interest in Japanese broadcaster NHK's project to develop an ultra high-definition television system (UHDTV). Much as HDTV was conceived as a way to add realism to TV reproduction, UHDTV aims to add further to the viewing experience by extending the viewing angle to an arc of 100 degrees while providing 22.2 channels of audio.

A noble aim perhaps, but where is the public demand? You would need an ultra high-definition crystal ball to predict future consumer trends. In many territories, there is currently more interest in mobile television, a product going in a different direction from HD. The key driver here is convenience; watch what you want wherever you are.

Existing HD receivers are designed for fixed installations, although there is no reason why a handheld device could not have an HD display. I calculate that a screen diagonal of 8in would give the required viewing angle for a handheld device at arm's length, so a small laptop or tablet PC could provide mobile HDTV. Clearly, a handheld UHDTV device would be impractical, but head-mounted displays could provide the necessary viewing angle.

Twenty years ago, the public showed a lack of interest in HDTV, and it has only been the recent price drops of flat-screen displays that have made HD receivers a viable consumer product. For many, the purchase is not for improved picture quality but as a piece of high-tech furniture. Witness those who watch SD on large flat-screen displays. Such leaps in technology bring many spin-offs, from improved imagers to developments in compression.

The road map for the development of UHDTV extends beyond 2020, with initial consumer products around 2018 and broadcast transmissions following four years later. This is a long period to spread out the necessary investment. That investment can also be amortized across other sectors outside entertainment, with remote imaging for the medical and healthcare industries being prime candidates.

Will UHDTV be seen as an extension to TV or as a new experience? Conventional SD television uses extensive camera movement, pans and zooms, and a great deal of picture editing between different shot angles, with a cut every few seconds. Close-ups are used to show detail that cannot be seen in a wide shot. With a wide field of view, will such production artifices still be necessary? The viewer's eyes can roam around the scene. I feel that UHDTV will not be an extension of television but a new medium that will sit alongside live theater, live events and cinema (with variants like IMAX), as well as a medium aimed at the home theater buff.

The requirements for a huge display and so many loudspeakers may limit the market to a niche for enthusiasts. However, it could represent an alternative to digital cinema that would break out of the legacy standards defined by 35mm film projection. The display of remote events by a super-realistic imaging system opens the use of the cinema to more screenings of live events, not just traditional movies. As digital cinema focuses on the recent revival of 3-D and new distribution models, it's going to be an interesting future for the consumer who looks beyond what HD offers today.

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