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3D TV? No thanks. More resolution? Yes, please!

You don't need funny glasses to make TV look like real life. You just need gazillions of pixels. Too bad the sets that deliver them aren't ready for prime time yet.

Ceatec attendees
Ceatec attendees line up to see Sharp's 8K4K HDTVs.
Harry McCracken

I rarely root against specific technologies, but I cheerfully admit to actively disliking a "breakthrough" that TV companies have been irrationally exuberant about for the last couple of years: 3D TV.

The glasses are pricey and uncomfortable, the effect hurts my eyeballs, 3D content is in short supply, and the whole idea is dependent on gimmicky effects like stuff flying out at the audience, not anything that improves a movie's ability to tell stories. Basically, 3D doesn't make TV more realistic--it makes it much, much less so. Sorry to be a downer.

But I am enthusiastic about another TV technology that's headed--slowly--toward our living rooms. That would be super-high-resolution TV, with far more lines of detail than the 1080p picture that currently sets the standard for high-quality TV. And so when I attended the Ceatec electronics show in Tokyo last week, I was pleased to see that 3D had a low profile--and that higher high-definition TV was one of the big stories. (The lines for demos went on forever, as you can see in the photo above.)

1080p HDTVs have a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. Sharp was demonstrating an 85-inch 8K4K set--that's 7680x4320 pixels. Toshiba has a 55-inch, glasses-free 3D TV; I wasn't impressed with the 3D, which looked gritty. I did, however, like the fact that it doubles as a 2D super-HD set, with a resolution of 3840x2160 pixels.

Remember how much more realistic HD looked than plain, old standard definition TV when you first laid eyeballs on it? These new sets give you the same sensation all over again. They just look more like reality--more so than 1080p, and much, much more so than any 3D TV I've ever seen. To my eye, in fact, they look more multidimensional than "3D" does.

There's just one catch: the technology isn't anywhere near ready for mainstream consumer use. Sharp's set is just a tech demo, with no news about real products at all. And while Toshiba's set will ship in December, it's not headed for the U.S.--only for Japan and Europe. Oh, and it'll cost almost $12,000.

OK, there are two catches: even if you have one of these sets, it's going to be a long time until there's much in the way of content for it, in broadcast, disc, or streaming form. (Everything being shown at Ceatec was demo footage shot for the purpose.) And given how much stuff still isn't even on Blu-ray, I suspect that the first people who plunk down money for these TVs won't have anything very exciting to watch on them.

I'm not making any predictions about when HDTVs of this sort will be commercialized to the point when you can drive down to Costco and bring home the biggest one you can fit in your car. I understand it might be a while: OLED TV has been a staple of electronics show demos for years, and still hasn't hit the big time.

When 4K and 8K TV gets here, I'll be ready--and when I attend CES in Las Vegas next January, I hope to see some evidence that TV makers are working to bring it to the U.S.

(Full disclosure: I spoke on a keynote panel at Ceatec, and the conference organizers paid for my airfare and hotel.)