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4K TV: Theater quality in your living room

4K could be the next big leap for TVs. But do we really need a "higher definition" picture?

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Looking for ways to resuscitate TV sales

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As "Avatar," "The Social Network," and the digitally remastered "Blade Runner" all reached theaters in full 4K, TV manufacturers took notice.

Television sales have slumped in the past few years. "Our forecasts show that, really, the party is over for the upgrade to HD and to flat panel," says Mr. Koenig.

Companies have tried to resuscitate sales by pushing features such as 3-D, yet with such a small catalog of 3-D movies and the need for expensive, battery-powered glasses to view them, Koenig doesn't expect a turnaround anytime soon.

Groping for anything that will get Americans excited about buying TVs again, Sharp, Toshiba, and LG hollered: Bring in the 4K TVs!

Offering a theater-quality picture on a living-room-sized screen addresses two problems at once. First, it appeals to consumers' proven love for better-quality video – although this may be a specious argument. In a missive titled "Why 4K TVs are stupid," home theater expert Geoffrey Morrison explains that at a normal seating distance of 8 feet from a TV, the human eye cannot tell the difference between a 720p, 60-inch television and a 1080p, 60-inch set. You can only distinguish the two by scooching the couch closer or by buying a larger TV. If that's the case, he says, why bother with 4K?

The second pitch holds more water: 4K solves several of the problems with 3-D TVs. Manufacturers already make 3-D televisions that do not require any glasses. Most pull off this effect by aiming half the pixels at your left eye and half at your right. But by splitting up the screen, such TVs chop their resolution in half. Cutting up a 1080p TV leads to distracting lines and image problems. With 4K, though, these quirks are imperceptible.

Improving 3-D technology is the one case where Mr. Morrison says 4K TVs are "a good idea; one could say it's even a requirement."

When the first crop of 4K TVs goes on sale this year, early adopters will face a familiar dilemma: What can I watch on this thing?

Blu-ray players will soon "upconvert" 1080p video to look good on a 4K screen, but true 4K discs won't arrive until later this year, if not next year. Sony, which offers a 4K home projector, plans to make its upcoming movie "The Amazing Spider-Man" into the first 4K Blu-ray.

With these complications – plus the price, which few manufacturers have yet to announce – Koenig says that 4K TVs will need to simmer for a while before they're ready to serve. Don't expect to factor in 4K right away – but maybe by your next TV purchase.

For more on how technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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