MADISON, Wis. -- I wasn’t surprised by ESPN’s tweet earlier this month, in which they subtly mentioned their plan to drop their costly 3-D TV channel later this year. Hey, who could be surprised?
I was a little surprised, however, by the industry’s dogged insistence that the yet-to-be Ultra High Definition TV market won’t at all resemble the fate of 3DTV. “Chances are the lessons from 3-D’s broken promises will lead to a brighter future for 4K,” wrote Sweta Dash, senior director, Display Research & Strategy, IHS, in her commentary post at www.electronics360.net earlier this year.
Wait a minute. What lessons did the consumer electronics industry exactly learn from their fatal 3-D TV push?
Did they learn not to ignore the consumer’s natural reluctance to put on “equipment” (those uncomfortable 3-D glasses) just to watch TV?
Do they now know that it’s tough — regardless of the industry’s well-orchestrated marketing machine — to change consumers’ basic behavior?
Or do they understand now that new TV technology (be it 3-D or UHDTV) demands rich, abundant, varied, appropriate and affordable “content” (thus giving the consumer the impression that his purchase is worth the money) to be truly ubiquitous? Premium content that can be viewed on a few selective channels and Blu-ray disks won’t cut it, because as long as these devices are called “TV” sets, consumers expect 3-D or UHDTV programming to be freely available over the air.
But above all, I wonder if the industry really gets this: TV manufacturers’ desperation to grow their business (and not lose money on every set they sell) doesn’t justify their optimism that consumers, too, will buy into it.
Setting aside my own prejudices, I set out to ask market analysts what they thought the industry has learned from 3-D’s latest nosedive. Then, I asked them to make the case for why they believe UHDTV is a whole different story.
Why 3-D failed
IHS’s Dash summed it up by pointing out “a lack of content, high pricing and inconvenient technology” as the reasons why 3-D never emerged from a niche status.
Ben Arnold, NPD Group’s director of industry analysis, agreed.
Wearing 3-D glasses “was getting in the way of consumers’ content consumption,” he noted. Further, “it was confusing to consumers where they can get 3-D content. The availability of content was very fragmented.” Consumer education and marketing was another issue, he said. “Many consumers did not understand that you can use 3-D TV for everyday TV viewing without using 3-D glasses.”
I saw a 4K display while passing a showroom in a mall and had to stop. It was, indeed, stunning.
And I've seen these charts spread around the Internet showing optimal sitting distance for screens of various resolutions. That's probably where this '4K would look best on a TV screen at least 60 inches in diagonal' comes from. After looking at this screen I'm convinced that these charts are complete hogwash. I don't think the screen I saw was 60", and the clarity compared to the 1080p screen nearby was amazing even from pretty far away. My kids, with much better eyes than I have, noticed it without my prompting (and without me telling them what a 4k screen was).
Netflix has announced that they are planning on including 4K videos. And I don't know why our over-the-air broadcasters don't put out a 4k signal. Many people don't realize that in addition to the digital television standard, there's an MPEG4 standard for portable television that many are broadcasting, but I don't think anyone is receiving. They could repurpose these channels for an HEVC 4K signal and over-the-air broadcasting could be revitalized.
Just to add that the idea that apparent screen resolution goes down with distance isn't hogwash, just that I think the charts that get sent around the Internet suggesting sitting distances for various screen resolutions severely underestimate human perception.
Heck if you follow these charts then you shouldn't be able to read the text on a 1080 21" screen on your computer.
Junko, I think you're onto something with your "might win by coincidence" comment. As you said, many older HDTV sets in that 7-10 year age range will soon be replaced. It's not necessarily that they no longer work -- there is also the phenomenon of moving the older, less feature-rich but still working TV to a bedroom or a kid's room and buying a fancy new TV for the main viewing room. A lot of those older HDTV might not do 1080p or aren't "smart" or connected, but are still useful as secondary TV sets.
So when a consumer is thinking about upgrading the main TV set and shuffling the old one off to another room, he or she will soon be faced with the option to go with UHDTV instead of settling for "only 1080p." The difference in quality might be subtle to some viewers, but not so for many others. The sales & marketing machine will emphasize the picture improvement and use words like "future-proof", and if the price premium for UHDTV vs. 1080p is not too stratospheric, the sales volumes should ramp rather quickly -- assuming that UHDTV content availability also ramps quickly, as I believe it will.
I would say that the biggest difference between 3D TV and UHDTV is that with UHDTV, the consumer doesn't have to do anything different or act any different. It's a passive upgrade.
I think it also falls into the bigger number syndrome. It's pretty easy to promote something based on having an easy to define "bigger number." It's easy for the TV marketers to suggest value and its easy for the purchase to feel value (whether it's real in practice or not)
Other than a cost curve, I can't really see any negatives with UHDTV either. 3D had headaches and limiting viewers to the number of available glasses as clear negatives. UHDTV doesn't have that. My assessment is that there will be an adoption curve similar to regular HDTV, but faster.
The price of the set and the availability of content are critical to most consumers to consider upgrading their TV set.
To content providers - movie makers, the ease of deliver might become the top consideration. UHDTV is aimed at delivering in theaters. It means printing hardcopy (e.g. Bluray) will be as simple as writing the 4k content to the disc. Logistically speaking, a couple steps are eliminated. Time to market will be shorten.
On the other hands, streaming a 4k video might be a challenge and yet, ISP will enjoy the challenge and the thriving of the business.
I agree with Junko that not every family needs a 4K TV. Similarly, not everyone can "afford" to stream 4K. For 4K to thrive, I believe backward compatibility shall be available to viewers. For example, bluray disc player shall be able to downconvert the 4K video to 1080. Similarly, streaming video provider shall allow user to stream 1080 content.
The 4K sets being sold today (except for the Seiki) cost an order of magnitude more than the 1080p sets. That alone could account for a lot of the difference. Couple that with content that's very lightly compressed to show off 4K in the best light...
A more realistic test would to be broadcast a good quality 1080p signal, from a Blu Ray let's say, into two identical 4K sets sitting side by side and letting it one upscale it and one run at 1080p (every 1080p pixel as a 2x2 block of 4K pixels)
That's how almost every 4K set will be used in the next few years, and even after that there probably won't be all that much 4K content. Maybe one HBO and Showtime channel, possibly ESPN for broadcast. If it doesn't noticeably improve the experience via upscaling, it isn't worth the money until the cost premium is almost nil.
There is hope for 4K TV (in contrast to 3D TV) if walking past a 4K TV can cause a consumer to be impressed by the quality. No special glasses, no special position, no special instructions, just an impressive image. The big issues then become the pricing and displaying legacy (standard format) programming whose blurry images just scream at the viewer.
Anyone thought about video game? That is another big factor pushing people to buy bigger TVs. But to support 4K native resolution by game console, it requires a lot more upgrade, both hardware and software wise. I am sure MS or Sony will be happy to see the adoption of 4K TV but the whole package of 4K experience may be very expensive in the next few years. It is a chicken and egg dilemma again. Until the package cost is on par with regular 1080P TV,4K TV will not thrive IMHO.
For the smart TV to remain relevant in the growing strength of second screen devices, it must engender an applications development community that will provide as rich a selection of apps as is available on smartphones and tablets.