4K vs 8K resolution: can you tell the difference?

A super closeup of an eyeball. The iris is light brow and blue.

With all of the buzz surrounding 8K resolution, consumer technology sites are regularly weighing in on the latest in home media merchandise, recommending the best televisions, cameras, and more to get the most out of the new format. But for those who are hedging their bets on 8K, concerns about the consumer market play a substantial role.

8K is already proving to have a wide array of applications for advertising, film production, and even medical science, but the majority of the conversation seems focused on that consumer market, and understandably so. But the reason that 8K is succeeding in other areas might be precisely why it doesn’t take off in households the way that some seem to be betting on.

For instance, if you were to buy a brand new 8K TV, would you actually be able to tell the difference?

The visual experience of 8K resolution

When it comes to perceiving 8K resolution, there are a number of factors, especially size and distance, that matter.

The viewing display size and the distance from the display impact a viewer’s ability to see the maximum resolution. Experts cite the Lechner distance (named for former staff vice president of advanced video systems at RCA laboratories Bernard Lechner) to determine the optimal viewing distances for different resolutions — HD, 4K, 8K, etc. 

For a person with 20/20 vision, while sitting 10 feet away, one would need about a 75-inch display-diagonal for HD, 120-inch for 4K, and a whopping 280 inches for 8K to be able to distinguish the resolution!

At the recent 2020 Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat, Michael Zink, vice president of technology at Warner Bros. presented, “Tested Perceptual Difference Between 4K & 8K,” a double-blind, visual perception experiment to gauge if 8K proved to be a better quality experience than 4K on an 88” 8K OLED consumer display. 139 participants rated seven different 8K and 4K clips from three different viewing distances and determined that 8K “did not result in significantly improved visual difference” in the testing environment. 

In short, for 8K to be noticeable to the average viewer, it requires massive screens, which may make the technology a good investment for theaters, stadiums, and signage, but more complicated and unlikely for the average viewer at home.

Will this slow 8K down?

Despite all of this and the fact that it would really take an 80 or even 100-inch television to get the best experience, it’s likely that 8K will still have reasonable consumer impact, even if it’s not as large as some would like. After all, if a viewer thinks they can see the difference, that might be enough for them.

Perceived improvement can be a larger consumer force — if it’s 8K, it must be better. Industry publication Streaming Media suggests content producers have long thought High Dynamic Range (HDR) has a far bigger impact on the viewing experience than resolution. But average consumers may believe more pixels equal a better picture, which makes it harder to convince them of HDR when higher resolutions like 4K or 8K are offered. Consumers might buy 8K televisions as status symbols or simply convince themselves that they can absolutely make out the difference in the picture.

Ultimately, 8K televisions are being sold. In a survey, conducted in concert with IHS Markit, Statista forecasted roughly 1.4 million 8K televisions will ship from China alone by the end of 2020. In a corresponding news release, IHS Markit writes, “China will dominate 8K shipments as its early-adopting consumers are likely to be eager for new features. 65-inch will be the dominant 8K size, driven by affordable pricing in China.”

8K makes the most impact outside of the living room

8K definitely has the potential to thrive in areas where the size of the screen isn’t a problem, or large screens are already the norm. Stadiums, museum theatres, and planetariums don’t face the same viewing and size limitations that the average household does. In these situations, the resolution actually has the chance to flex its muscles and distinguish itself from what came before.

It’s also likely that, even with the aforementioned limitations, 8K will still make its way into living rooms. There will always be debates about which resolution — 4K, UHD, etc — is the best for consumers, and 8K televisions can probably coast for a while on the thrill of the new.

Still, consumer usage is far from the most vital or interesting story when it comes to 8K adoption, and — from what we’ve seen — the diversity of applications for the resolution make it worth the attention from organizations across the industry, even if it doesn’t become a new household standard.

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