A revolutionary television technology that promises pictures four times sharper than high definition is expected to take top billing this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the nation's biggest annual showcase of tech gadgets and products consumers are likely to see in stores during the coming year.
TV manufacturers this year will be highlighting a technology dubbed "4K" or "ultra-high-definition." Analysts expect more than a dozen 4K models to be on display at the show, including sets from all the major TV makers and many of the second- and third-tier brands.
Ultra high-definition TVs "are going to be all around the show," said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES.
But the technology could face a muted reception by consumers. The new sets are costly and there's little to watch on them that takes advantage of their extra pixels. And substantially more 4K content is unlikely to arrive anytime soon.
The technology's name -- "4K" -- refers to the approximately 4,000 pixels such TVs can display in each horizontal line on their screen. That's about double the number of pixels high-definition, or HD, TVs can display on each line. And because 4K TVs also offer double the number of pixels in each vertical column, they have four times the resolution of HD sets.
The added pixels aren't easy to discern on smaller sets or from a distance. But they can help jumbo-sized TVs -- a fast-growing segment of the market -- display much crisper images.
"4K TV's are glorious," said John Pinelli, a San Francisco resident who saw some of the first 4K sets when they were on display at last year's CES. "They are so good, it looks like you could lick them," added Pinelli, an executive at Entyrian, a consumer electronics company.
While the technology is likely to be hyped heavily at this year's CES, analysts predict modest sales -- at best -- in the near future. NPD DisplaySearch, a market research firm, forecasts that TV manufacturers will ship a half million 4K sets worldwide this year. That is expected to grow to about 7 million in 2016, a sizable increase but still a small fraction of the 250 million TVs that get shipped globally every year.
"It makes sense that that type of trend extends to TVs as well," said Gagnon, adding that he thinks 4K TVs "could be reasonably successful."
If that seems a halfhearted endorsement, other analysts and consumers are even less enthusiastic about the prospects for 4K TVs.
The demos of 4K TVs at CES "will be fantastic, and there will be a lot of hype and buzz. But in the end, it will be much ado about nothing," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst with IDC, a technology research firm.
One reason the public may not embrace 4K TVs is cost. The first models hit store shelves last year with prices starting at more than $10,000, and prices aren't likely to fall below $2,000 for another two to three years, analysts say.
"I definitely don't have that type of budget," said Michael Chu, a public relations professional who lives in San Francisco.
An even bigger problem could be the lack of 4K video to watch. Sony is shipping a hard drive packed with 10 4K videos with its new ultra-high-definition TV, and you can find a few ultra-high-definition videos on YouTube. But there's not much else. Blu-ray DVDs don't yet support the format and no broadcast or cable channels offer any 4K video.
And there won't be much more 4K content coming in the foreseeable future. To show extra pixels on a screen, you need to be able to store or transmit extra data. With existing technology, broadcasters would require more spectrum and cable TV providers would have to replace consumers' set-top boxes and rejigger the way they deliver content in order to offer live 4K broadcasts.
"None of infrastructure is really in place" to deliver ultra-high-definition video, said Colin Dixon, a senior analyst at The Diffusion Group, a research firm that focuses on the broadband video market.
Even if prices come down and more content becomes available, some analysts doubt there will be sizable demand for 4K televisions. At typical viewing distances, most people can't notice a difference between ultra-high-resolution and HD video on screens that are smaller than 50 inches.
Televisions 50 inches and larger currently represent only about 20 percent of sets sold in the United States, according to DisplaySearch. And the recent trend toward ever-bigger screens is likely to slow because many consumers simply can't fit them into their living rooms.
Still, at CES, the new TVs are likely to make for a good show.
"People want to see things that are interesting and cool at CES," said O'Donnell. "That's always been the bread and butter of CES, and people are always interested in seeing what's new with TVs."
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.
CES at a glance
The Consumer Electronics Show gets underway this week in Las Vegas, and this year promises another jumbo-sized show.
Space. The Consumer Electronics Association expects the show will occupy more than 1.87 million square feet, more than three time the square footage of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco.
Crowds. The CEA expects more than 150,000 tech insiders to attend.
No Microsoft. This will mark the first show in 14 years that doesn't feature a kickoff keynote presentation by a Microsoft CEO. Instead it will be given by Paul Jacobs, the CEO of Qualcomm.
No Apple. As usual, the iPhone maker won't be attending CES. But show organizers say CES will feature hundreds of companies offering accessories and apps for Apple products.
Source: CEA, Mercury News research.