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4KTV at SMPTE: Consumer Update

HOLLYWOOD — The debate about whether or not 4K resolution will be detectable by the human eye in the average living room situation is immaterial. Here it comes, ready or not. So please, at least get the color right, Pete Putman said to a room full of applauding engineers at the SMPTE Technical Conference in Hollywood.

Putman, the walking encyclopedia of display technology, said 8-bit color should be “outlawed” for 4K.

“Eight-bit color isn’t sufficient for 4K, 10-bit and 12-bit must be used,” he said.

The lower color depth yields abrupt borders on color fields that look a little like a paint-by-numbers kit painting. It’s a waste of resolution.

Putman gave a sort of speed-talking rundown of the state of 4KTV, otherwise dubbed “Ultra HD” by the powers that make and sell TV sets. He noted that regular old HD was only 15 years old. TV set sales exploded with the advent of high-definition, digital TV, and went seriously south after just about every household in the First World bought a set.

China is now taking up the slack. Putman said all 2012 global TV shipments, minus China, were down 4 percent for the year. With China, shipments were up 4 percent.

“They’re going straight to 4K,” he said.

4KTVs hit U.S. stores in 2012, with models from Sony, LG, JVC and Toshiba, priced between $20,000 an $25,000. With Chinese manufacturers in the game, the price wars have begun in earnest. Guangdong-based manufacturer TCL is offering a 50-inch 4KTV for $999.

The size range is also expanding. Putman said that 4K desktop monitors were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, as well as 110-inch screens.

Putman hit on screen types as well. LCDs dominate—with an 87 percent market share last year and a 90.4 percent so far this year. At No. 2 last year, somewhat incredibly—CRTs, with 6.9 percent of the market followed by plasma with 5.7. Plasma overtook CRT this year, 5.2 to around 4.

OLED remains the perpetual debutante of the market. The technology continues to elicit admiring whistles at trade events with its deep velvet black, but it still suffers from an abysmal fab yield and differentiated pixel death. Blues kick the bucket starting at 5,000 hours. Putman waved his smartphone and said it would be the perfect vehicle for OLEDs, because people generally trade them out before 5,000 hours of use.

Manufacturers are nonetheless persevering with organic light-emitting diode TV sets. Samsung introduced a 55-inch curved OLED TV in August for $9,000, with 2K res scalable to 4K. Samsung doubled up on the blue pixels to accommodate them aging out. LG showed a 77-inch OLED 4KTV at IFA and is also selling a 55-inch curved 2K OLED for $9,000.

A couple of new technologies on the horizon sound decidedly sci-fi: Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide, or IGZO, and quantum dots. IGZO is a coating that makes for a smaller aperture ratio, lower power consumption, faster switching speeds and reduced electron leakage. It can be scaled to any display size. Sharp is using IGZO with OLED and LCD monitors. Putman said it will come to market quickly. Quantum dots are crystalline structures that give off light when stimulated by photons.

As with all emerging technologies, there’s a chokepoint, and with 4KTVs, it’s the interface. The maximum data rate minus the overhead for HDMI 1.4 is sufficient for 8-bit, 3840 x 2160 4K at 30 Hz, but not 10- and 12-bit at 60 Hz. HDMI 2.0 can handle a higher payload, but it still can’t handle 10-bit color, Putman said. DisplayPort 1.2 supports 60p, 10-bit 4K, but is not as ubiquitous as HDMI.

There’s also the pesky matter of producing and transmitting 4K content.

“4K is a four different system,” Putman said. “3840x2160 is a lot of pixels How fast can you switch them?”