"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Television and Cinema Revolution: Virtual Reality and Holograms to Sideline UHD Curves

Ultimate high-definition, or UHD, which refers to television screens sporting at least four times the number of pixels as “mere” high-definition, goes beyond the capacity of the human eye. Hence, the potential problem in going beyond ultimate is moot; we could not visually discern any difference. Even so, I suspect this inconvenient detail would not stop people in marketing from primping the product as “beyond ultimate.” One unfortunate byproduct of such inventive marketing may ironically not be visible at all. Specifically, the illusionary distractions, or marketing mirages, come with an opportunity cost; that is, being suckered into seemingly exciting innovations can distract us from noticing other technological advances whose applications could alter entire industries and transform our daily lives.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, 2014, Sony and Samsung showcased UDH televisions with curved screens. The “more immersive viewing” is possible only on larger screens; John Sciacca, an installer of audio/video, reports that at the small-screen level, the curved shape “has no advantage.”[1] Accordingly, the televisions with the option on display at the electronics show in Las Vegas, Nevada range from 55 to 105-inch screens.[2] The verdict there was mixed, the usual suspects playing their expected roles.

The 105-inch UHD television. Paragon of the 21st century?  (Image Source: Forbes)

Kaz Hirai, the CEO of Sony, insisted in an interview that “some people actually like [the curved screen] very much.”[3] He went on to add, “I personally think it’s a great experience because you do have that feeling of being a little bit more surrounded. . . . After you watch curved TV for a while and then you just watch a flat panel, it looks like, ‘What’s wrong with this panel?’”[4] In the midst of this vintage self-promotion, he did admit, as if as an afterthought, that the curved feature is “not for everyone.”[5]

John Sciacca would doubtless call the matter of preference an understatement. “For displays, at least, curved is a ‘marketing gimmick.’ I know that research has gone into finding the ideal curve for the ideal seating distance, but I think that it is still limiting its best results for a much narrower viewing position.”[6] That is, the curved shape can be counterproductive in settings where more than two or three people are sitting close together straining to capture the sweet spot of ideal viewing. To be sure, at that “dot” on a room diagram, Sciacca admits that the curved shape on big screens (i.e., 55-inch and up) “has real benefits for front projection as it has to do with how the light hits the screen at different points, and a curve helps with brightness uniformity and geometry.”[7] Granted, but who wants to do geometry in order to figure out where to sit?

Accordingly, the curved screen “seems like a marketing thing,” rather than anything “substantive,” says Kurt Kennobie, the owner of an audio-video store in Phoenix.[8] Kaz Hirai would doubtless disagree, at least publically. The usual trajectory of public attention would simply follow this debate back and forth, treating it as though it were a riveting tennis match. The fans getting their adrenaline fix would hardly notice the progress being made in a potentially transformative rather than incremental technology applicable to television and cinema. This invisible cost in chasing after minor points lies, in other words, in missing the big picture, which in this case involves a developing technology that leaps over the “curved” controversy entirely.

What exactly is this so-called revolutionary technology? It already exists, in gaming, which incidentally already merges movie and video-game features, and here’s the key, applied as “virtual reality.” Lest the philosophers among us just caught a whiff of metaphysics, the “reality” to which I refer is simply a novel way of viewing visuals such as video games. The viewing is provided by a headset. 

For example, Avegant’s head-mounted Glyph sports a “virtual retina display.” The devise “makes use of a couple million tiny mirrors—similar to the technology found in DLP projectors—to project a 720p [pixel] image straight onto your retina. The result is a stereoscopic 3D display that has almost zero crosstalk and no noticeable pixelation.”[9] In other words, suddenly the “curved vs flat” debate is obsolete, or trumped, as though by an interloper.

Moreover, the application of Glyph to watching television and movies could marginalize (though I suspect not eliminate) screens, whether in homes or movie theaters. That’s right, the cinemas would face a stiff headwind, and therefore likely be forced to concentrate on their comparative advantage—the “ultra” big screen. I suspect that experience would survive, for people would probably not want to confine all viewing to one mode. Indeed, even the “virtual reality” means of great immersion might have to contend with an even newer mode of viewing—that of the hologram. 

Needless to say, both means would mean changes to how films are written, shot, and edited. Perhaps a given film would have screen, virtual reality, and holograph versions, which at least in the case of virtual reality might involve alternative storylines allowing for viewer choice. A person could ask, for example, “How would the narrative play out were this or that character to die rather than live?”

With the increasing modes of viewing, the world as we know it in the 2010’s could change in such a marked way. In fact, people living in 2100 might look back on 2014 akin to how people in 2000 looked back on the automobile, telephone, and electric light dramatically changing daily life in the 1910’s.  The new viewing applications, along with the development of the internet and mobile devises, could distinguish the 2010’s in retrospect, and, moreover, the twenty-first century from the previous one. Known in its day as the century of technological change, the twentieth century could yet lose its mantle to a century in which mankind is cured of death, barring an accident or natural disaster. Change is relative, which is precisely my point concerning virtual reality and curved screens. Perhaps human perspective is itself curved in a way that only the most transient and titillating image lies in the “sweet spot.”

[1] Mike Snider, “Finding the Sweet Spot of Curved Displays,” USA Today, January 10, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] USA Today, “Editors’ Choice Awards,” January 10, 2014. I should note that I have no financial interest in Avegant or the Glyph. I am merely using this product to make a broader point.