After HDTV, what's next?

So-called 4K technology takes us to the next level in videography.

One of the last things I did at Siggraph this year was to spend about 20 minutes enraptured by the best video I've ever seen. It's called "4K" (after the number of pixels on each horizontal line), and you'll be seeing it in theaters within the next few years.

The Siggraph Computer Animation Festival included one session of video driven by a Sony SXRD SRX-R105 projector displaying 4,096 by 2,160 pixels at 24 frames per second with progressive scan (or 2160p24 for short).

That's four times the number of pixels you'll see on a home HDTV set-- or in most digital theaters.

I sat about 12 feet in front of the screen, which was about 12 feet tall, just to get the best idea of the system's actual resolution. (Ordinarily, you should sit between 1.5 and 2.5 screen heights away for the best overall viewing experience.)

I first saw this technology at Siggraph in 2001, but back then, there was hardly any content and it was tough to appreciate the quality of it. This time, there was no trouble. In a series of videos ranging from "Flight to the Center of the Milky Way" by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to "Crossing the Line," a new short film by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, the quality of this technology was simply stunning.

In the "Milky Way" video, individual stars were just pinpricks of light, not big blurry things like you'd see on a TV show. Straight lines and text were crisp and sharp, just as they ought to be. From the front row, the edges of text characters were very slightly jaggy, but this effect was not apparent from twice the distance. Sony's SXRD technology-- more generically known as LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon)-- is inherently free of the "screen door" effect you see in DLP and LCD projectors. I've always been a big fan of LCOS for that reason.

In "Crossing the Line," which tells a short story about a soldier and a pilot in World War I, the higher resolution made details visible that could never have been seen on a mere HDTV presentation. Even in medium shots, slight scrapes on the pilot's leather jacket and the texture of the soldier's clothing dramatically enhanced the film's sense of presence and authenticity.

The film was shot on two prototype 4K cameras from Red Digital Cinema, a new player in the professional videography business. Red has generated a lot of publicity with its unique technology and memorable style. The cameras that Jackson used, for example, were nicknamed "Boris" and "Natasha." An article on the making of "Crossing the Line" is available here in PDF format.

The other thing that caught my eye was the wide range of colors that could be displayed by the projector. This effect is usually not visible in live-action video, but was very impressive in some of the computer-generated animations. The NCSA video in particular made great use of this wide gamut, showing deep brick-red and violet colors you just can't get on a regular TV or computer monitor. The result was comparable to what can be achieved with some of the newest LED-backlit LCDs, though software support for wide-gamut color is still lagging on those.

Anyway, the Animation Festival is a lot of fun each year. In addition to the special 4K material, there's several hours of content in standard and high definition. You can buy DVDs of almost all this content from Siggraph's website here, though this year's three discs aren't listed yet.