New Video Technology Rings the Bell(curve)

At this year’s NAB convention, there were two new video technologies that dominated the show: 3D and 4K. They are soon to be touted at CEDIA as well. Let’s look at both and see if we can pick a winner for Home Theaters.

You remember the “bell curve”, right? It’s low on the right and left, with a bell-shaped peak in the middle, and is used to show that the average always falls between extremes. While we home theater owners and fans like to stay to the right of the curve, industry basics, like video formats, distribution methods, and even TV screen sizes, fall right in the center peak of the curve. With that in mind, look for a moment at the new technologies.

3D could hardly be called new, though. It’s been lurking around since at least the 1950s (way before, if you’re picky), when it and wide screen processes where the desperate grappling hooks the film industry was using to try to snag the audience already wandering away from the box office to TV. There are so many 3D and wide screen processes, that each has filled its own rather substantial hard cover book (click HERE, and go to Technology Books to buy a copy). While widening the screen was fairly easy to do, and even worked better in existing theaters, 3D has the nasty and annoying demand of having two of everything, except the screen. And that’s where the problem has always been: how do you project two images on one screen, then separate them so that only one image is seen by each eye? Those darn glasses. Nobody likes them. They are usually cheap, scratched, don’t fit right, darken the image, and make you look silly.

Today’s 3D has come a long way. The issues of intraocular angle, alignment and convergence have largely been solved, and once you get past the camera, editing and post production are now computerized, making 3D easier to create. Even digital projection solves the issue of two projectors, as one can do double duty. And for all the advancements all the way up to the light leaving the projector, you still have that problem of two images on one screen, and glasses to separate them. But that’s not really what kept 3D from being a success historically. Sure the old processes were less than ideal. But it’s not a technical issue. 3D lends itself well to a very few films, mostly big action or animated features, and becomes a distraction in simpler films. Star Trek films might be great, but imagine what benefit or annoyance 3D would have been in “The Notebook”, for example. Or even “Benjamin Button”. The technology can actually get in the way of the story, and as we all should know by now, the success of entertainment is always content. It can be aided and abetted by technology, but take away the content, you’ve got a demo piece only, not an involving story.

When producing a 3D film, it’s very hard to resist exploiting 3D. Shots with extreme perspective, things flying at the camera, the camera whizzing forward over a set or landscape, etc., all because you’re working in 3D, but wouldn’t use otherwise. It’s a hard line to walk, and very few films are able to do it right. 3D must add to the shot, not dictate the shot. But why would you down-play 3D when it’s a marketing strategy? The results are mixed, but the more 3D work is done, the better they’ll be at it.

Special effects are the same. You can load a film with them, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a blockbuster. And the films that achieve average success mostly are not effects films. 3D is more an effect, than a format. It’s great to see it, but those images are NOT reality, no matter how tangible they may seem, and our brains know this. 3D will probably never support the bulk of all films, for the same reason that film narratives are better supported by 24 fps than something higher. 24p puts a distance between the entertainment and reality. Something in 60p, for example, is too real, too smooth for fantasy, though technically more able to accurately capture motion. Hyper smooth, hyper sharp 3D may always be “too much reality” for story telling.
Then throw in the darn glasses, and you’re asking a lot from a casual viewer, much less a home theater owner who must now spend more money to play 3D content, which makes up growing, but as yet still tiny fraction of the available content.

3D is fun, but it’s not for everyone or every type of entertainment. Watch for it to establish a solid niche market, but probably not penetrate the main stream for quite some time, if ever.
4K is another story. Right now, our highest available display resolution is really 2K, otherwise specified as 1920 x 1080 pixels. Keep in mind that this refers only to screen resolution, the displayed content may be lower. Flat-screen TVs and monitors as well as projectors for home theater use come in two basic resolutions: 1080p and 720p. Depending on the size of your screen and how far away you sit, you may not notice the difference between a 720p and 1080p screen, given both are fed from a real 1080p source . And that’s not as easy to come by as you might think. Some TV stations limit themselves to 720p so they can jam more channels into their allotted spectrum. Others max out at 1080i, the right number of pixels to fill a 1920x 1080 screen, but not the maximum progressive frame rate. TV will likely be stuck there for the foreseeable future. They simply don’t have the bandwidth to fit a 1080p signal on the air, cable, or satellite. So far, the solitary source of 1080p content is found on Blu-ray discs. That’s un-scaled content, now. It’s possible to up-scale other resolutions to 1080p quite successfully. The excellent and affordable DVD players from Oppo, for example, do such a good job of up-scaling standard video to all flavors of HD that they might quench your desire to own a Blu-ray player at all.

Other sources, like downloaded or streamed video might be called HD, but land at 720p or even less. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The convenience and impulsive nature of download systems more than makes up for slightly under 1080p, and still looks great. But let’s return to the screen for a moment.

If you’re “average”, your new flat-screen TV is a 42” LCD, 720p set that internally scales up to some other real screen resolution. That’s what most folks purchased in the last year, both because of cost and size. If you have a 50” plus screen purchased in the last year, it stands a fair chance of hitting a native 1920×1080 (1080p) resolution, but if it’s a budget model, might end up a native resolution of 1366 x 768, with internal scaling to make up the difference. And, unless you sit closer than 6’ away, it looks darn nice. A native 1080p set might look a shade better in optimal conditions, but the difference won’t blow your sox off. If you have a front projection system, you will benefit from a real 1080p projector, though, and you’ll be most sensitive to other than 1080p material, scaled or otherwise. Sadly, you’re in a very small elite group of viewers, though.

So along comes 4K, more than double the horizontal resolution of the best we have now. And what does this get us? Sharper movies? Better contrast? Higher detail? A bigger more thrilling entertainment experience? Well, yes and no. We’ll put an emphatic “NO” on the contrast thing right now. 4K projectors so far can’t beat a good 2K for contrast, though in all but the darkest rooms where everyone watches movies wearing head to toe black leotards and tights (sorry for the mental image), you can’t ever hit the current contrast specs anyway, because your clothes reflect to much stray light back to the screen. Sorry, there’s no 50,000:1 in real life. Commercial cinemas are quite happy at 2000:1, and most don’t do even that. So “no” to contrast.

What about sharper movies? If, and this is a big “if”, film production becomes completely digital so that the entire chain right down to you remains digital and at high resolution, then yes, you’ll have sharper movies (assuming the focus puller has done his job, and they sometimes don’t!). So far, the film industry is clinging to film as the acquisition media. But analysis of the resolution of a “release print”, the film they show in theaters, shows it down around 700 – 900 lines, with losses occurring in film, negatives and printing the release print. However, film resolution is not the same as digital resolution. You in fact need nearly double the digital rez to match a given film rez, because film’s resolution falls off slowly, where digital’s just stops. 700 lines in film will actually still show a bit above that, where 700 lines in digital takes 1400 pixels, but that’s a hard limit. So, we’re kind of at “film” now, with 1920×1080. To exploit 4K, we need to shoot in 4K digital (just staring now in some productions, but not common), digitize the original camera negative (being done now), or do some deft up-sampling. So sharper movies is a qualified yes.

So why the interest in 4K at all? It’s huge in terms of data size. A 4K feature, even with today’s compression algorithms, won’t really fit on a Blu-ray disc, so 4K features might be a download-only proposition, except for the already overloaded Internet infrastructure. But what if we started with today’s 1080p and up-scaled to a 4K display? Hmmm! Now that could work nicely. It sure does right now, scaling from 480p standard to 1080p HD, so why not? Up-scaling is tricky, but if done well, is spectacular. After scaling, the bottleneck is the projector. We’re going to blow right past flat-screen technologies here because if you don’t sit 6’ from your 50” set now, you can’t even appreciate 1080p, and we have to assume nobody’s going to sit closer than 6’…ever. So, back to front projection systems that fill the peripheral vision. Big requires bright. Bright requires power, and big and bright requires money. Big lenses, lamps and image chips. 4K won’t be cheap, but will it be worth it?

I think you see where we’re going here. Ideally, money is no object. If it isn’t in your case, call me at once, we’ll work up a home theater for you like none other. But if money is an object, and you’re on a budget at all, you’ll want to weigh the cost of 4K home projection (when it’s available) against other budget line items that have equal or higher impact on the total experience. Things like acoustics, light control, sight lines, speaker placement and choice, etc., and make an informed choice. All the while keeping in mind that you probably aren’t seeing 4K in a film theater, and even in a 4K digital theater you may not see the full 4K resolution. Duplicating a theatrical experience at home is less about 4K, more about basic image and sound quality.

4K projection is a fine goal to aspire to. But don’t limit your enjoyment now because you’re waiting for 4K to become available or affordable! Today’s projectors are amazing devices capable of immersive entertainment. Tomorrows 4K projectors will be even better, but the step is a small one, not a quantum leap. And of course, if you haven’t though of it already, stand by for 4K, 3D! Yikes!

As always, our recommendation is: “Hurry up and wait”. But remember the “bell-curve” at the beginning of this post? The center of that curve is what really drives things, particularly content. Very few, mostly indie producers, ever make a movie intended for a small audience. It’s counter to the financial constraints of the movie making process. The only reason 3D has made recent in-roads animated and action films is that it’s become easier to make it downward compatible with 2D for the bulk of the audience. And, while we probably will see 3D capable TVs at big box stores soon, the content is limited, and you still gotta wear the goggles. That all places 3D at one end of the bell-curve.

4K home theater projection will get here, and eventually penetrate the projector market well. But 4K flat screen TVs may never become a reality for the center of the curve, because the benefit won’t be visible enough to justify the cost.

If you’re up on the top edge of the curve, you’re in for some fun. If not, don’t feel bad. We can still build a system for you that will be visceral and imersive with current technology. Remember, this is all about the fun!