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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 7, 2015 at 8:51 AM

CES: Turning point for ultra high-def TVs?

LAS VEGAS — You have to shoulder past thousands of people swarmed around the dazzling array of new TVs on the CES show floor to find the gadget that Kazuhiko Kouno is showing in the back of Panasonic’s booth.

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But it’s worth the trek if you’re wondering when “better than high def” TVs are really going to take off.

With prices falling into the somewhat reasonable range and exciting new models tapering to the width of cardboard, sales of next-generation 4K TVs are expected to grow 50 percent this year, according to research firm IHS.

The sets have about four times more resolution than “plain old” high-definition, 1080p sets. They are referred to as 4K because they have about 4,000 vertical lines of resolution.

TV makers have moved toward the broader term “Ultra High Definition” which covers sets that are more or less 4K. Ultra High Def might also be easier to follow now that TV makers at CES are showing off 5K sets — with an extra 1,000 rows of pixels because they are widescreen format. (The image above is of a 65-inch UHD TV on display in Samsung’s booth.)

But it’s pretty academic until you can get movies and TV shows with this much resolution.

That’s why the gadget shown by Kouno is so interesting. An engineer at Panasonic in Kadoma City, Japan, Kouno brought a working prototype of a new Blu-ray player and disc format that can store a full 4K movie.

Current Blu-ray discs don’t have enough capacity for a 4K movie so a new format is needed. So far 4K content has so far been distributed on pre-loaded hard-drives and some streaming services.

After lots of haggling, industry players expect to complete a specification for Ultra High Definition Blu-ray Discs this summer. The discs and players should be available later in the year. That should broaden the appeal of UHD sets and give people confidence that UHD isn’t another passing fad like 3D.

Kouno said the UHD players will be backwards compatible, so you can play today’s Blu-ray discs as well as the new ones. The discs will come in two versions – a 66 gigabyte “double layer” version that will store around two hours of 4K video and a 100 gig, three-layer version that will store around 3 hours of material.

Meanwhile streaming video services operated by Netflix and Amazon are stepping up and offering a selection of 4K video to those who already have taken the plunge on a next-generation TV and broadband fast enough to handle the load.

Here’s the prototype player displayed by Kouno:

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