It might be 10 years before it arrives in your living room, but Comcast offered journalists a peek at the future of television on an 85-inch backlit LCD screen at their Washington, D.C. headquarters on Wednesday. Dubbed "Ultra-HD," the new technology offers resolutions 16 times as detailed as those on ordinary high-definition TV.
To give an idea of what this might mean, Comcast presented excerpts from the Olympics' opening ceremonies and a swimming event. To get the feed from London, Comcast had to transmit the signals on fiber capable of handling the massive 360-megabytes-per-second load. This is far beyond the reach of ordinary household broadband -- only a relative handful of residential customers have access to such speeds, which are available only over fiber, not conventional cable.
Engineers guiding viewers through the new technology said that while it's not really known whether current cable and broadcast systems can handle the signal at its current size, part of the purpose of the experiment with Ultra-HD is to stimulate the development of new compression technologies that will allow for over-the-air broadcast or transmission on cable and fiber lines with lower capacities.
The level of detail visible on the new standard is astonishing. At a swimming event, the water in the pool feels almost present -- shimmering and undulating, and appearing to have substance and depth. In the opening ceremonies, even the tiniest faces can be seen in full resolution. The flames on the iconic torch dance and flicker; the trails on the fireworks can be distinguished from one another, rather than blending into an amorphous mass of light.
Ultra-HD requires a new generation of cameras, audio recorders, and other transmission equipment, and it remains to be seen whether manufacturers will follow suit. There are also programming considerations -- currently a lot of TV is being produced with small screens in mind, as viewers watch in small bites on tablets and smartphones. This means lots of close-ups and short scenes. Producers might have to rethink this approach if there is more demand for household large-format, high resolution screens.