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Spicy Ideas: The 15-Year Itch

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This article first appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

I’ve waited 15 years to say this … This installment of Spicy Ideas features something I learned in my high school AP English class. My apologies to the two teachers who suffered through wrangling a wiry, bespectacled geek in his formative years, but they did manage to instill a few lasting nuggets of wisdom. It was the ’90s, and ADD medication was just coming into fashion (so I was obviously not a candidate), but the classics of high school literature had not changed for years. That’s why they call them classics, I suppose.

One of my favorite books was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It contained all the things a teenage boy needed for entertainment: burning things, mechanical hounds, really fast car wrecks, giant televisions, and social commentary on media consumption. (OK, so maybe I didn’t understand the last one back then.) So what can we learn from a science fiction book published in 1951?

My buried thoughts on the giant "parlor TV" walls in Fahrenheit 451 were resurrected this week when I received the latest analyst press release on ultrahigh definition (UHD). Yes, you read that correctly. UHD is also known as Super Hi-Vision, Extreme Definition Video, or 8K. I’m guessing that Massively Mondo Video and Behemoth Gargantuan Video sounded too over-the-top. The analyst report, which you can purchase for an arm and a leg at In-Stat (www.instat.com), says, "UHD formats provide between four and sixteen times the resolution of Blu-ray or 1080p high definition as well as 22.2 multichannel three-dimensional sound." Wikipedia further explains that UHD video "has a resolution of 7680x4320 pixels, four times as wide and four times as high (for a total of 16 times the pixel resolution) as existing HDTV." To put this into perspective, imagine taking 16 50" HDTVs and stacking them together against the wall. This is what UHD will look like.

This is awesome, right? The visions I had reading Fahrenheit 451 came flooding back. The three walls in Mildred Montag’s parlor were full-screen TVs on which she watched and interacted with modern soap operas and game shows. What could be wrong with full-screen video walls in our living rooms? I would have the lolcat videos on one wall, YouTube live concerts on another wall, and Hulu classic movies on a third. But after a few moments of elation, I began to have some doubts. Will UHD really become the next big thing in video?

If you ever swiped the office projector for the weekend to play life-size Wii tennis on your living room wall (and who hasn’t?) you probably noticed a few problems that arise from massive screen sizes. The bigger you make the screen, the farther back you have to be to actually view it. I can watch Jackie Chan on Crackle with my projector and a bedsheet in the backyard, but I have to be sitting halfway across the yard to actually enjoy it. Trust me, pixel size is the least of your worries when you watch life-size kung fu from 3' away. It feels like I’m watching dueling eyebrows on a Tilt-A-Whirl. Thankfully we actually have some numbers we can use to tell us how far back we are supposed to be from our screens.

Bernard Lechner, a pioneering engineer with RCA, created the Lechner Distance chart, which calculates the optimal viewing distance for HDTVs. According to his chart, a 42" 1080 HD TV should be viewed from 5.5' away. So lets take it a step further. The optimal viewing distance for a 120" 1080p HD TV is 16' (and yes, you can currently buy a 108" Sharp for $129,000). But what would the dimensions for a Fahrenheit 451 TV look like? The average American living room is 16' x16' with 8' ceilings, so a full wall would be about a 220" screen. That would mean that you would need to sit almost 30' away for optimal viewing. Watching your screen comfortably would require you to be in the next room or at your neighbor’s house. Let’s knock down a wall or just build a new house so we can watch our latest TV.

Now I realize some of you are crying foul. Pixel ratio does not always correspond proportionally with size, but we all know the only way we could notice any difference in this new format is to make it huge! Besides, the trend has always been to build bigger screens and viewing devices for our ever-increasing media capture size. I’m sorry Mr. Bradbury, but the parlor TV walls and UHD will probably remain science fiction for the foreseeable future. I realize that In-Stat analysts are predicting 28.2% UHDTV household adoption by 2025, but they were also saying that I would have a flying car and antigravity boots 15 years ago. Besides, we all know paper burns at 842 degrees Fahrenheit. But according to Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 sounded better as the title. And you can bet I didn’t learn that one in high school English—that’s Marketing 101.

I’ll see you in 15 years …

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