Like all technology, television needs a "next best thing" - something, anything, to make your current TV look woefully inadequate and drive you back into Best Buy (or Amazon) to part with even more of your hard-earned cash.
Yet ever since the advent of HDTV and flat panels, the TV industry has struggled to find what that next "thing" could be. Hopes had been pinned on 3D, but despite a well-financed marketing boost from the likes of Sony and Samsung, 3DTV just hasn't taken off (the transparent cynicism of the 3D effort surely hurt: there was no consumer groundswell for the technology, but there was a desire on the part of TV makers to spur another round of upgrades). Sure, millions of 3D TVs are selling, but mostly because manufacturers have made it an impossible feature to avoid if you're buying a TV at a certain price.
Internet-connected "smart" TVs have been slowly gaining traction, but usage of the full panoply of "smart" features remains modest and isn't a reason consumers make a purchase. An Apple iTV, if it arrives, may energize the smart TV category in ways that various attempts at a Google TV have not, but an iTV remains in the realm of pure speculation.
Enter 4K. Where 3D failed to excite, 4K is sure to wow. At least, that's the theory. Briefly, 4K refers to the resolution of the television or how many pixels it contains. The more pixels, the sharper your image (although other factors, such as contrast ratio, weigh heavily here as well). Where high definition delivered 1920 x 1080 pixels to your screen, 4K promises to double that, to 4096 x 2160. The result, if the prototypes I've seen at the Consumer Electronics Show are any indication, is an almost unbelievably crisp image. It actually looks three dimensional - without the clumsy glasses and nauseating sense of warped perspective.
Though 4K is still in its infancy, excitement is building. At the Consumer Electronics Show, LG and Sharp displayed working demos of a 4K TV. Several high-end video cameras from Canon and Red now record in 4K which means 4K movies won't be too far behind.
So is 4K a revolution? The next big thing? Maybe, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to arrive. It will be years, if not a decade or more, before you'll be kicking your flat panel to the curb for its 4K successor.
At the recently concluded National Association of Broadcasters show, many encoder manufacturers said they saw little demand on the horizon for 4K. Their insights matter, because no TV content reaches your home without first being encoded into a file for transmission over a cable, satellite or IPTV network. Encoders are the basic building blocks of our TV broadcasting world and, as such, their manufacturers can offer a glimpse at what's around the bend. And to reiterate: 4K is not around the bend. At least, not for your home (the movie theater is a different story).
The biggest reason is bandwidth. Today, most video is delivered to consumers homes via either MPEG-2 or MPEG-4/H.264 compression. While the MPEG-4/H.264 standard is newer and more efficient (i.e. it can compress video to smaller files, enabling TV broadcasters to offer a greater number of HD channels) it's not even fully deployed by cable, satellite and telco TV providers. Moreover, most consumers haven't even had a taste of full, uncompressed (or less compressed) high definition. And MPEG-4 is probably not even up to the task of carrying 4K video to your home as those 4K files would be enormous bandwidth hogs.
"It will probably require a next-generation codec," said Fabio Murra, senior product marketing manager at Ericsson. In other words, carrying 4K video over a cable TV network would require the evolution to an "H.265" at a time when only a fraction of TV broadcasters have fully-installed H.264 infrastructure. While video compression technology is constantly evolving and a successor to H.264 is inevitable, it's not a near-term thing.
Then there's the viewing experience. As Geoffrey Morrison has painstakingly documented, the human eye cannot even resolve the pixels in a 4K screen unless you're sitting uncomfortably close to the TV or you opt for a set that's over 77-inches large. Suffice it to say that neither option is all that appealing. 4K makes sense in a movie theater, in other words, but not so much in the average home.
Ironically, the next "big" thing TV isn't big at all. Now that tablet and smartphone ownership is soaring, TV broadcasters are far more concerned with ensuring their content is viewable on these smaller, lower-resolution screens than they are about jamming an unseemly amount of pixels through their pipes to feed an ultra high-resolution display. "TV Everywhere" is the goal and while it may be a depressing statement about the cultural proclivities of our modern age, it's at least one tech trend that won't require you to drop thousands of dollars to enjoy.