8K Looks Sharp, But Questions Remain

NHK’S Super Hi-Vision system promises nothing less than the future of television. Having seen a couple of demos recently, I can say that the future looks pretty sharp. But as always, the devil will be in the details. The company has been conducting broadcast demos in the U.S. en route to full satellite broadcasts in 2018 and a 2020 Tokyo Olympics push.

One demo in June, during the Women’s World Cup, and another at Yankee Stadium on July 17 left me convinced of the aesthetic potential, but dubious of some practicalities. First, the positives. The baseball game, a nighttime tilt between the Yanks and the Seattle Mariners, brought a giddy element of science fiction, as if the eye doctor had cranked up the dial to 11. The level of detail, with 8K being 16 times sharper than current HDTV, is extraordinary.

Features that are usually blurry brush strokes become hyperreal: sunflower seed shells on the warning track; ripples in pitchers’ uniforms; fans’ tattoos. (OK, maybe there’s such a thing as too sharp …)

The sound is also dramatically more immersive than traditional 5.1 channel systems — Super Hi-Vision is full-on 22.2 multichannel. The crack of the bat, the ball hitting leather or anything properly miked on the field grabs you. Watching Hope Solo boot a ball two-thirds of the way downfield seemed all the more impressive when the kick thudded in my chest cavity.

Now for the challenges. How likely are most viewers to install 22 speakers into their home-viewing environment? My wife balked at five. (NHK said it is researching solutions.) Also, while the higher frame rate and greater bit depth are killer in demos, how likely will “true 8K” be when delivered through the current distribution pipes? Plenty that’s billed as HD falls well short of 1080p in the current ecosystem.

Plus, even 4K TV sets and programming remain in a fairly nascent stage, with some on Wall Street bearish on their chances. The Consumer Electronics Association has said unit shipments of 4K Ultra HD displays will hit 4.4 million in 2015, up 210% from ’14, with revenue more than doubling to $5.3 billion. Not chicken scratch, but hardly revolutionary — and if 4K doesn’t pop, can 8K?

As spectacular as many game sequences were, I can’t imagine paying another premium on top of what I do to get HD. And the bumpy migration to HD came in a world before OTTs and skinny bundles. Today, technical upgrades might rank below access to items, whatever their resolution, from the burgeoning menu of à la carte programming choices.