Sharper, more lifelike resolution, ‘ultrahigh definition’ TVs en route

Jung Jin Bae tests a motion sensor at the LG booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The 2013 International CES gadget show features “ultrahigh-definition” HD TVs. The ultrahigh HDs would allow people to sit closer to the set without the picture losing its clarity. Enlarge photo

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Jung Jin Bae tests a motion sensor at the LG booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The 2013 International CES gadget show features “ultrahigh-definition” HD TVs. The ultrahigh HDs would allow people to sit closer to the set without the picture losing its clarity.

LAS VEGAS – The race to make TVs larger and larger has created a colossal problem for manufacturers: As screens grow, picture quality worsens – unless the viewer moves farther away from the screen.

The issue is playing out in cozy dens and family rooms around the world. To get the full benefit of a large high-definition screen, viewers must move back from their sets. Because the ideal viewing distance is no closer than three times the height of your screen, or about one-and-a-half times the diagonal length, big TVs have forced many families’ backs against the wall.

This year, TV makers are doing their best to give huge-screen fanatics more breathing room. New “ultrahigh-definition” sets were shown this week by LG Electronics Inc., Sharp Corp., Sony Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. at the International CES gadget show in Las Vegas.

Consumers tend to buy a new set every seven years or so, and television manufacturers are hoping the technology will give consumers a reason to upgrade.

TV makers also are making their sets smarter. New TVs from Samsung, for instance, will recognize an expanded range of gestures so people can swipe through on-screen menus in a way that revolutionizes the old remote control.

Samsung President Boo-Keun Yoon said the new features are a response to the increased choices consumers have in what they watch.

“We have developed TVs that respond to people’s needs and lifestyles, TVs that know in advance what people want to watch, TVs that have the power to create the ultimate lean-back experience,” Yoon said.

With nearly 8.3 million pixels, an ultrahigh definition or “4K” screen contains four times more pixels than an HD TV. Because of the higher resolution, viewers can sit close – according to some estimates, as close as the diagonal length of the screen, which is about a third closer than before – without losing clarity. That could be appealing to big-screen fanatics who live in small spaces.

Ultra-HD sets come as small as new models from LG and Sony, which stretch 55 inches diagonally. And estimated prices are dropping from the tens of thousands to below $10,000, bringing these multi-megapixel TVs well within the spending range of early adopters.

“I hope you can see that 4K is not the future, it’s now,” said Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai.

It could be a few years before prices come down enough for the masses to justify buying ultra-HD TVs, especially considering that U.S. TV buyers spent a record-low average of $364 on flat-screen TVs during the recent holiday shopping season, according to research firm NPD Group.

Hampering sales even further, ultra-HD faces another problem: There’s very little content. Since 2004, only about 50 movies have been shot with an ultra-HD camera. They include the James Bond hit “Skyfall” and the Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Only a handful of movies shot on film, including “Taxi Driver,” have been converted to ultra-HD.

There’s also no standard way of getting content to the TV, although Sony took the lead in making movies shot in native ultra-HD make it to market.

Sony Corp.’s 84-inch ultra-HD model, which it unveiled in November, comes with a computer server capable of storing and playing giant movie files. It’s definitely not affordable for most people, however, and the TV unit with the server thrown in has a price tag of $25,000.

Sony also announced Monday it would launch the world’s first ultra-HD movie download service for owners of its compatible sets in the U.S. this summer. The company will launch the service with 10 movies.