I spent my lunchtime Wednesday watching highlights from the Olympics opening ceremony that I'd already seen the Friday previous. But the flat-panel screen I gazed upon two days ago had more pixels to spare: 31,104,000, to be exact.
Instead of the "1080p" resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) of my own 40-inch LCD, this test 85-inch screen packed in 7,680 by 4,320 pixels, for a total of 33,177,600. Called "8K" (for the almost 8,000 lines of resolution), "Ultra High Definition" or "Super Hi-Vision," it goes well beyond 4K video and its 8 or so megapixels of resolution in attempting to transcend HDTV.
The demo at Comcast and NBCUniversal's Washington offices was only my second look at 8K video. And unlike the highlight reel I watched on a Sharp LCD at this January's CES, this time I could compare the results with footage I'd watched in HD a few days earlier.
So I can reliably say that the higher resolution looked great. (And with 22 channels of surround sound, plus dual subwoofers, 8K sounded impressive too.) From five or six feet away, the picture had the perfection of a new iPad's Retina Display, but it appeared every bit as sharp from three feet away — at which point I could no longer see the entire screen. I had to close to within two feet before individual pixels emerged.
Practically perfect resolution did not preclude other visual defects, however. The night sky over London and darker areas of the stadium looked as grainy as they would have in a lesser broadcast. Moving objects such as the swimmers in a few races that I watched after the opening-ceremony clips showed slight blurring.
The 8K video also demands a frightening amount of resources. The combined audio and video stream alone eats up around 350 million bits per second (finally, a use that comes close to maxing out a gigabit Internet connection) and requires substantial processing power to decode. Nine months of work by partners NBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation and Japanese broadcaster NHK preceeded this test, with Washington being one of only seven viewing sites worldwide.
For those reasons, Comcast and NBC reps noted that this technology was years from commercial reality — a flyer cited 2020 as the earliest retail debut. But you should expect to see chatter about 4K sooner. Manufacturers and developers seem to think it has more in-home potential, and the Consumer Electronics Assocation (disclosure: a freelance client of mine) is readying a marketing push for that standard.
(Discovery Communications, this site's parent company, has not committed to either 4K or 8K on its TV channels; a publicist passed on a comment from Discovery's R&D department that "this is under review.")
Both 4K and 8K will face an extra obstacle among viewers who, like me, cannot fit an 85-inch screen in their homes: The extra detail may disappear from a typical viewing distance. The math I'd seen before confirms that from the average couch, many 1080p HDTVs already count as retina displays.
Meanwhile, some frustrated sports fans are willingly sacrificing resolution for real-time access. Instead of waiting on NBC's limited, tape-delayed coverage, they've been tinkering with proxy servers and Virtual Private Network setups just to tune into the BBC's geographically-locked online streaming.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery