Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but we promise it’ll all be in plain english. Continuing on from his work on the first two issues (let’s call those a beta) is writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Do you recall the last time the globe collectively paused to watch teams of athletic men kick a ball around a pitch? I do, and quite vividly. As Africa’s first World Cup entered its final preparation stage back in 2010, I toured a smattering of facilities at ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut campus. ESPN, as you’re likely aware, is the network to turn to in the United States for World Cup coverage, and the network was planning to showcase the South Africa edition of the tournament in an entirely new way. Broadcasting the planet’s first 3D World Cup was a marketer’s dream, and ESPN (along with its partners) had invested millions in the platform.
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This tale actually feels much older than it is, largely because 3D never managed to grab a foothold in the U.S. market. Pundits blamed the awkwardness of wearing glasses in one’s home, questionable benefits of 3D on small screens, and exorbitant costs. I’d offer that each of those factors likely contributed to 3D being a catastrophic failure, at least within the home. Needless to say, 3D broadcasts of the 2010 Cup were not a success, and the extra dimension has been quietly tabled (and, by all indications, likely killed outright) for the 2014 tournament.
Fast forward four years, and we’re in a similar place: ESPN is about to throw everything it has at broadcasting the 2014 World Cup. And yet the only notable advancement in high-definition television (since the advent of 3D, that is) isn’t even a part of the discussion.
4K TVs, or Ultra HD sets, have been on sale for many months now, offering four times the resolution of the 1080p set that’s likely in your den. Prices are constantly falling for 4K sets as supply chain efficiencies improve and economies of scale trigger lower production costs. But ESPN isn’t boasting about a fancy new broadcasting formula this time around, and it’s a damn shame.
Just three matches will be filmed in 4K, and that’s only to compile footage for a documentary that’ll be released at a later date. The most unfortunate part of this is that 4K actually deserves the attention that 3D received. It feels as if broadcasters, content creators, and television manufacturers are deliberately downplaying 4K for fear of it being brushed aside as gimmicky, just as 3D was.
One might think 4K’s absence in the World Cup signals its lack of importance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The technicalities that surround 4K — from capture to transmission to viewing — are both numerous and nebulous. But what matters to you is this: 4K is not the contrivance that 3D was. One might think 4K’s absence in the World Cup signals its lack of importance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. After viewing everything from 4K studio monitors to vast, bendable 4K televisions, I can firmly say that 4K’s improvement over 1080p is equal parts dramatic and substantive.
I liken the comparison of 4K versus 1080p to high-definition versus standard-definition. Once you’ve viewed 4K footage on a proper 4K panel, it truly is tough to gain pleasure from ogling 1080p content on today’s top HDTVs.
The core difference in 4K compared to 3D is substance. With 4K content, your eyes are genuinely seeing more material — colors are richer, images are sharper, and scenes are more compelling because you are literally able to see more of what the director saw with his or her own eyes. More pixels on your television translate into more inputs hitting your retinas. 3D, on the other hand, simply fooled one’s mind into believing that there was depth. By its very nature, 3D’s calling card was deception.
As it stands, 4K televisions are still too pricey for the average consumer, but the technology won’t soon be swept under the rug. That said, it’s a massive missed opportunity for the platform to gain recognition by not being attached to the worldwide spectacle kicking off this week in Brazil.
There’s always the Super Bowl…right?