MILPITAS, CALIF.—When high definition was introduced in the late 1990s, this viewing format completely revolutionized picture clarity and changed our expectations of how video content should look. For the past decade, we’ve come to expect HD resolution when viewing videos—whether on our televisions or mobile devices. But the next era of picture quality is coming in the form of Ultra-High Definition, or UHD, which has four times the resolution of full HD.
Today, in many areas, consumers have the option to purchase UHD TVs. The challenge, however, is that our favorite TV shows and movies are not yet being broadcast in UHD. Most broadcasters are not expected to start offering UHD content until 2017. However, technologists have already found viable ways to prepare the market for UHD content.
Here are four technologies making UHD possible today:
• Upscaling Technology:
Today, your satellite provider or Blu-Ray player isn’t equipped to deliver UHD content. Even if the content did exist, the file would be massive, and storage and transmission capacities are limited. However, UHD TV manufacturers have developed an “upscaling” method of placing standard or high definition content onto a UHD set. With upscaling technology, the industry has been able to “obsolescence proof” your next TV set. Consumers can purchase a UHD TV and, when UHD content and broadcasts become readily available, those first adopters will already have the ability to view the latest content through updated software.
Here’s how upscaling works. Upscaling is a video signal conversion process that takes a lower quality video signal--from DVD, HD, SD content, for example--and reproduces it on a higher definition TV. This processing might include zooming, stretching, cropping or other methods to optimize video playback. Typically, the user can select their preferred scaling through the TV’s on-screen menu options, depending on the type of program they are watching.
The good news is we’re getting closer to UHD broadcast. The recent standardization of a new video compression standard, High Efficiency Video Coding or HVEC, will permit broader UHD distribution using current transmission infrastructure. But until this becomes mainstream, upscaling technology will allow users to view UHD content now.
• Clear Motion Rate Technology:
Remember when your parents used to warn you not to sit too close to the television? The blurred images up close would hurt your eyes or give you a headache. But with the advent of Clear Motion Rate technology, even up-close, the pictures on a UHD display remain smooth, without pixilation or distortion.
This technology essentially doubles the frames you see per second of the content you’re watching. So, for example, the standard output frame rate of a Blu-Ray player is 60Hz, or 60 frames per second. Clear Motion Rate technology essentially alternates between a frame of content and a black frame, creating at least a 120 Hz frame rate. This creates a “smoothing” visual effect on your screen, which makes a huge difference when watching high-speed images, like sports events. A hockey puck soaring across an ice rink will whiz by smoothly and seamlessly on a UHD screen.
• Micro Dimming Ultimate Technology:
With a conventional LCD panel, a backlight unit is always on. Then LCD panel acts as a grid of little shutters that, by opening and closing, adjusts the brightness of the colors on the screen. The limitation here, however, is that the screen is never fully black. But high-end UHD panels will rely heavily on Micro Dimming Ultimate technology, which provides the set with the ability to display crystal-clear pictures in vivid detail. Direct LED backlighting with Micro Dimming Technology essentially divides an 85-inch UHD screen into 1,152 LED “zones,” each of which individually adjusts images by maximizing the contrast, color and detail. This allows the set to manage very small zones very closely.
Imagine an image of a candle flickering against a black background on your screen. With an LCD panel, the LEDs that light the picture run along the top and bottom of the set. They aren’t able to adjust in the middle, creating a brighter band closer to the candle. But with Micro Dimming Ultimate technology, a UHD set can manage small zones on the screen very closely--given a seamless black contrast around that flickering candle.
• Color Depth Advancements:
Technological advancements in UHD panels now allow TV sets to reproduce a broader range of colors than ever before. Whereas a typical set can produce 16.7 million colors, Samsung’s new generation of UHD panels can reproduce over 1 billion colors—a nearly 6000 percent increase! The real world benefit to the increased color depth is noticeable smoothing of color gradients, like a blue sky or dim shadows, which can have a banded appearance.
UHD panels have more than eight million picture elements, or “pixels” on the display. By sending signals to each of the red, green and blue “subpixels” the panel can accurately adjust the color and brightness of each pixel. In doing so, the panel can finely tune how each point of color opens and closes, carefully adjusting and readjusting the gradients you see on the screen. This provides the broadest possible range of the richest colors imaginable. So when you’re watching a scene from the Amazon, the pictures will appear more lifelike and true to their original color than ever before.
With all of these significant advancements in UHD technology, we’re beginning to see a high degree of consumer interest as more and more people are made aware of UHD technology. Already, Google searches for “4K” have been increasing dramatically in the United States since the beginning of 2013. Further, DisplaySearch’s forecast of Ultra HD TV sets is around 11 million in 2016. And Samsung predicts that UHD should become mainstream before 2017.
Even though we’re still a few years away from mainstream adoption of UHD TVs, market first adopters are eager to start enjoying UHD technology today, and the leaders in TV technology have found ways to make that possible.
Steve Simons began his career in commercial displays in 1993 when Powerbooks had 16-color panels, and professional 17-inch CRT monitors cost more than $1,000. He now markets Samsung LCD panels ranging in size from 7-inches to 85-inches, with a focus on mobile computing, digital signage, point of sale integrators and television manufacturing.