the business of displays

Technology Asymptotes

by Aris Silzars

Recently, I read an article about an exploratory effort by NHK in Japan to develop a new higher-resolution television system.  The NHK Super Hi-Vision system is designed to deliver images with 8K × 4K resolution with a 16:9 aspect ratio.  As explained in the article, the objective is to be able to have a 100-in. display and not have the individual pixels be visible from a distance of 1 m.  Wow!  Will we really be able to appreciate such spectacular images given that the current HDTV system is already better than the  practical resolution of film images we have become so accustomed to seeing in movie theaters?  This led me to contemplate the broader question of whether there are limits when we no longer have the need or desire to push for further improvements – or  perhaps the product is already so good for its intended purpose that we will not pay for anything better.

Perhaps we can gain a useful insight or two by taking a look at what has happened in other technology areas.  Film cameras reached their practical limits of resolution many years ago.  Some of the lenses from the 1930s and 1940s achieved resolution levels as good as anything that is available from “modern” optics.  Instead of pushing for further refinements in resolution, lens designers found a more-receptive market for added features such as variable focal lengths (wide angle and telephoto “zoom” lenses), larger apertures, and auto-focus.  In trying to balance between versatility and resolution, it was not uncommon to actually have the resolution get sacrificed to some degree.  The camera makers learned where the optimum balance was between film resolution, lens versatility, and manufacturing cost.  That led to many years of products being introduced that continued to be improved in many aspects, but lens resolution was not one of them.  Thus, today, most images taken with professional-quality 35-mm-film cameras fall short of the equivalent of HDTV resolution.  For those professional photographers who need to produce higher quality photographs for use in glossy magazines or for art-gallery displays, a niche market developed using larger film formats such as 2
1⁄4 square or 6 × 7 cm.  A technology asymptote was achieved and sustained for many decades.

Let’s now look at a more recent but closely related example.  Some years ago, I wrote a column in Information Display predicting that 2-Mpixel imagers would be sufficient for digital cameras since they would produce images of comparable quality to 35-mm film.  Clearly, I was too conservative in my prediction.  To get to the  2-Mpixel number, I was trying to balance what I estimated to be acceptable picture quality with the capacity of storage devices available at that time.  I did not anticipate that the camera makers would get into a “horsepower” race to see who could introduce a camera with the next higher megapixel number.  Fortunately, the cost of storage  continued its rapid decline so that the huge image files that result from today’s 5–10- Mpixel imagers are no longer all that difficult to manage.  But the pixel count race is also finally reaching its technology asymptote.  We seem to be settling on 10 Mpixels – or a bit more – as the magic number for “good enough.”  That is sensible since the lenses that are sold with those cameras are marginally adequate to fully utilize this image resolution.

In other areas of electronics, we have seen similar technology asymptotes come to pass – often with frustrating results for product manufacturers and resellers.  Consider, 

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