It was a common refrain from visitors to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. “It’s like looking through a window,” we told each other as we stood in front of Samsung’s 110-inch ultra-high-definition TV set.
It showed a serene lush valley that could have been the view from a cottage in the Swiss Alps. I felt as though I could reach through the screen and feel the cool alpine air brush my fingers. Across the cavernous hall of the Las Vegas Convention Centre, Toshiba left nothing to the imagination – it built a window frame around its own large screen TV.
TVs stole the show at the world’s largest technology fair this year. They are getting bigger and smarter and incorporate a video standard known as Ultra High Definition – this boasts four times the resolution of the current generation of high-definition TVs.
Resolution and size go hand in hand. The TV makers want us to buy bigger TVs. But once the screen is bigger than 80 inches, you can start to see the pixels. Ultra HD sorts out that problem and makes 3D images look better too.
The result is that the new sweet spot for TV screens size-wise is 85 inches. Sony’s 85-inch Bravia TV is already on sale here – for $34,995. That may be a small fortune, but consider how quickly the prices of big-screen TVs have fallen in recent years. Soon it will be within reach of the average family – even if finding space for it will involve reconstructing the lounge.
Many of these new TVs will upscale older content to Ultra HD. But the issues posed by the new format are clearly evident. At the moment, there is no way to squeeze the bigger file format into a HD TV broadcast; some TV makers are selling the new TVs with small servers that carry the massive Ultra HD movie files. That’s a clunky stopgap.
There is no word yet on when you’ll be able to download an Ultra HD movie to play or when pay TV operators will switch to the format.
But as pretty as the big screen TVs are, they don’t represent the revolution going on in the TV world. For that you need to look at the new generation of smart TVs that merge elements of the web and social media with TV watching. You also need to look at the TVs that attempt to do away with the remote control, letting you speak to your TV or control it with hand gestures.
The first wave of these TVs will hit the market this year. The TV industry is pursuing these technologies with an urgency, because Apple is working on a TV set. If it can make an impact the way it did in the mobile-phone area when the iPhone debuted in 2007, it will turn the TV world on its head.
That’s partly why we are seeing a major revamp of smart TV interfaces from the likes of Samsung, LG, Sony and newer players such as Google and even chip-maker Intel.
All are showing off impressive innovations. Samsung has S-recommendations, which learns from your viewing history to suggest programmes to watch and lets you personalise your TV home page with your preferences. Voice control will handle full sentences to bring up shows or channels, and it actually works most of the time.
US satellite TV operator Dish introduced Hopper, which lets you easily shift content you’ve recorded to your iPad or smartphone. Dish also monitors social networks to let you know what TV shows are trending. If there’s something on TV that Facebook and Twitter suggest is more interesting, Dish will let you know it may be worth changing channels.
The intelligence and flexibility we enjoy on the web is coming to the TV screen this year. That’s the true big picture change going on in the TV world.