Tom Coughlin is an IEEE senior member and founder of Coughlin Associates. Coughlin has over thirty years of experience in the consumer technology industry, with a vast engineering background in digital entertainment. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Today's viewers watch a variety of video content on a number of devices. With the proliferation of mobile technologies, consumers continue to push the boundaries for that content, specifically for video quality. The recent introduction of 4K tablet computers and an iMac computer with a 5K Retina display is an indication of the interest in high-resolution images, even in smaller screen environments. With the introduction of these higher-resolution formats for a variety of devices, will displays arrive at a resolution where our vision deems all the extra pixels unnecessary?
Picture perfect: the case for pixels
All of the heavy-hitting technology companies have one thing in common when releasing new devices: resolution is a focal point as one of the selling features. And why shouldn't it be? One of the main attractions of laptops and mobile devices is for entertainment purposes, such as watching shows or movies on Netflix.
As a result, video streaming has become a standard activity for consumers. For example, within the last few years, the concept of "TV everywhere" has exploded. This has caused service providers to upgrade network capabilities to offer the best possible viewing experience for their customers. High-definition viewing is no longer a benefit, but a standard for consumers. [A Snapshot of High-Speed Photography (And How To Do It) (Op-Ed )]
Higher resolution content lets users see smaller features, and can lead to new games and other entertainment experiences where small features may be important. That capability is also valuable for amateur and professional video and still-image editors who may need to make edits at close to the pixel level.
4K and 8K: pixel overload?
4K technology is steadily making its way into entertainment channels, but it is not the limit for high-resolution video. Currently, NHK in Japan is leading development of the infrastructure for 8K by 4K video. The 8K video platform will have about four times as many pixels as 4K video, since the pixel dimensions are roughly doubled in each dimension. In addition, as the resolution increases, the frame rate of the captured (and displayed video) will likely go up to prevent certain video artifacts. Thus the total size of an 8K video movie could be 100-times larger than today's HD (about 2,000 by 1,000 pixels). As a result, this will impact the storage capacity sizes of future consumer devices. This is already becoming evident with the launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which offers up to 128 gigabytes of storage. We will see this in other products as the demand for space continues to rise.
8K video demonstrations with large-screen displays at trade shows provide amazing details that are lost or blurred in lower-resolution technologies. Today 8K video is experimental and very expensive, but there are several 8K video projects in development, with 8K TV broadcasts beginning in Japan by the start of the next decade. In another 4 to 5 years, 8K by 4K displays may be the next big thing, like 4K displays are today.
Putting it together: What the future holds
But what is the limit of video resolution that a user could want? Well, what this higher resolution is all about is creating a more immersive user experience. Ultimately we want an all-encompassing display that is hard to distinguish from reality itself — what we want is a holodeck (for you "Star Trek" fans). A totally immersive artificial reality will require at least 8K video content, and possibly 16K by 8K video resolution. This video content would be projected in an area rather than a surface. Essentially the viewer will be surrounded by the images, creating an immersive sense of "being there."
This immersive content would be captured by multiple, synchronized cameras surrounding a field of view or generated by 3D rendering equipment that then must be projected in a free-floating format. The technology required to make such immersive experiences is likely more than 10 years away, and when it is ready, consumers will want to have it. As a result of these continuous technological advancements and video format qualities, I don't believe the current concept of TV and the use of single displays for experiencing content will remain for long. A single fixed display can only hold so much resolution. Therefore, new and innovative devices will need to be created until we reach the point of commercializing free-floating holographic display technology.
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.