Switched On: A 4K in the road

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On A 4K in the road

The past decade has now seen at least three industry-wide technologies vie for the future of television -- HD, 3D and now 4K or UHD. The first of these -- HD -- represented a massive change for television that affected nearly every aspect of the TV experience from how it was captured to how it was consumed. A decade later, it is nearly impossible to purchase a TV that does not support high-definition. The second -- 3D -- was a mixed bag. While the technology became commonplace on high-end TVs, it has remained relevant for only a small fraction of programming. The question, then, is which of these paths, if either, 4K will follow.

HD, 3D and 4K have all sought to overcome high prices and a dearth of optimized content by counting on the "pull" of consumer demand. Indeed, once the HDTVs became more affordable, consumers flocked to them. However, two factors came into play beyond the increased resolution. First, the government's push to digital helped convince broadcasters to offer digital programming. As they made the transition, they added HD. Second, as TVs were transitioning to HD, they were also migrating to flat-panel technologies. Indeed, while many early HD buyers chose bulky rear-projection sets to save money, many of the early flat-panel TVs sold were less expensive "EDTVs," 480p televisions. Many flat-panel buyers cared more about the slimness of the TV itself rather than HD programming.

As long as the price delta is not too great, consumers can be sold on specs and future-proofing.

However, consumers were happy to embrace both flat-panels and HD as soon as both became available together in an affordable product, and America's TV landscape was forever changed. The industry moved on to smart TV and 3D as the one-two punch to get consumers to upgrade. However, most of the functionality of the former was relatively easy to add with an inexpensive device from the likes of Roku, Boxee, TiVo, Netgear or Apple. From the technical side, 3D was the stronger draw, but the reliance on glasses, mitigated somewhat by passive technology mostly supported by LG and Vizio, has stifled 3D content consumption. In addition, the percentage of 3D content remains limited and lopsided, heavy in mostly kid-targeted animation, and bleeding into horror, sci-fi, action films and sports.

Where will 4K land? In the short term, as was the case for early HDTVs, the question is moot for most consumers until the price comes down. Once that happens, there is some concern that sets may need to be too large for 4K to really make a discernible difference. However, the triumph of "full HD" that helped to catapult LCD televisions beyond plasma sets showed that, as long as the price delta is not too great, consumers can be sold on specs and future-proofing. In addition, while physical constraints might be an issue in some apartments or with some furniture, Americans have shown a willingness to embrace ever-larger displays on their TVs, just as they have on their smartphones.

Unlike 3D, 4K has no barriers to enjoying its full benefits every time you turn on the set.

Unlike 3D, 4K has no barriers to enjoying its full benefits every time you turn on the set, and a growing percentage of films that make sense for 4K should extend far beyond the corresponding number for 3D. Years down the road, virtually all high-end TVs will likely support 4K and the consumer electronics and content industries will figure out some way of delivering such content. However, TVs, more than any other mainstream consumer electronics product, remain furniture. While TVs have slimmed down even further from the initial flat-panel displays, there isn't the dramatic physical shift from tube to LCD or plasma that accompanied the HD transition or a government push acting to accelerate sales. It looks like the correct path for this 4K in the road will be right down the middle.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.