LAS VEGAS – After attempts to hawk 3-D and OLED televisions fizzled in recent years, television makers are taking small steps toward making a new technology: Ultra HD.
More viable for mainstream consumers, it’s the first TV format to be driven by the Internet video-streaming phenomenon. At the International Consumer Electronics Show trade show this week, major streaming players Netflix and Amazon said they’ll offer movies and TV shows in the format and Sharp introduced a relatively inexpensive television with near-Ultra HD quality.
The moves are meant to coax consumers to pedal faster on their TV upgrade cycles. Most Americans now buy new televisions about every seven years. Manufacturers would love to create another wave of buying like the one that sent millions of people to stores a few years ago to upgrade from standard definition, tube televisions to flat-screen HD models.
Unlike the 3-D TV trend, which quickly eroded into a tech fad, analysts said Ultra HD might actually catch on. With screens that house four times more pixels than regular HD televisions, Ultra HD is a simple enough upgrade to gain widespread adoption in the next few years. Aside from being visually jarring, 3-D required sometimes pricey special glasses and gave some people headaches. Because Ultra HD content can be delivered over a standard high-speed Internet connection, it also isn’t likely to get bogged down in a format war that plagued the Blu-ray disc standard.
“You see it, you get it. It’s a big, awesome picture,” said Ben Arnold, who follows consumer electronics for NPD Group. “Consumers will be interested in it as prices come down. Consumers are also moving toward bigger screens. All of this is good news for (Ultra HD).”
In side-by-side comparisons, Ultra HD is remarkably crisper than HD. It displays richer skin textures, finer details and less pixelation. The extra resolution becomes more important as consumers spend more money on bigger screens that amplify images.
But Ultra HD, or 4K, is in its very early stages. Although prototypes and demonstration models have been around for years, the first sets for consumer use didn’t hit the market until 2012. Prices ran in the tens of thousands of dollars. Only about 60,000 Ultra HD sets were sold last year in the United States, with 485,000 estimated this year, the Consumer Electronics Association said.
Today, the lowest-priced Ultra HD television being sold on amazon.com is a 39-inch model from Seiki Digital for $500. The cheapest name-brand manufacturer’s model, a 58-inch screen from Toshiba, sells for $2,750. LG also announced this week it would sell an Ultra HD set as small as 49 inches diagonally, which could bring entry level prices closer to $2,000 for top brands. Sharp’s new Quattron+ brand, which brings near-4K resolution to sets by making better use of HD pixels, plans to price a 70-inch set around $3,200.
While those price tags only likely will appeal to early-adopters, they’re getting closer to prices people currently pay for big screens running only HD.
But that still isn’t close enough, said James McQuivey, principal analyst with research firm Forrester.
“These TVs won’t actually sell well as long as they are priced high, something TV makers already know because in the last year they’ve dropped prices considerably,” he said.
To entice consumers even further, a handful of content companies promised to make more movies and shows available for the super-sharp screens.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said Monday that the streaming video company is working on distributing 4K video over the Internet. All Netflix original series are being shot in 4K, and the company is working with studios on formatting movies and TV shows in 4K, with one of the first series being Sony’s “Breaking Bad.”
Both Amazon and Hulu are shooting original series in 4K, and Amazon said it was working with major content producers Warner Bros., Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox and Discovery to make 4K content available.
The emergence of Ultra HD marks the first time a major TV standard is being pushed forward with the Internet.
“It’s a chance for the Internet to really shine,” Hastings said.