The Plateauing of Display Technology



Gaming and entertainment applications are relying on display technology to continue innovation.

Video displays are everywhere, from cell phones to movie screens, and made of many different materials. As computer processors and graphics cards get faster and more powerful, visual media can be created and edited at much higher quality, with more pixels allowing for sharper images. Increasing both the amount of pixels on the screen and the rate at which the pixels are refreshed has been a continual process in the display industry, but there is a limit to how sharp and how quickly displayed an image can be before the user will no longer notice improvement in these areas.

Source: “TV in the 50s,” Evert F. Baumgardner - National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain

Source: “TV in the 50s,” Evert F. Baumgardner - National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain

Larger, sharper displays require fitting more pixels on a screen at once. For the past decade, high-definition screen resolution has been considered to be 1080p, while movies have been projected onto giant theater screens at 2K resolution. However, 4K displays have started to make their way into homes as televisions or computer monitors, and the forefront of resolution technology is 8K.

Table 1: Various display resolutions and their applications. 4K and 8K may vary somewhat in horizontal and vertical resolution due to multiple standards.

Table 1: Various display resolutions and their applications. 4K and 8K may vary somewhat in horizontal and vertical resolution due to multiple standards.

Content: Keeping Pace?

Not a lot of content is available for the highest resolutions. Content is usually created in ultra-high-definition (UHD) in order to make the visual effects and editing easier (they can zoom, crop, and digitally correct errors and still make it look good when bouncing down to high-definition 2K or 1080p). Until recently, 8K has been rare and used only in instances where heavy post-production would be required. It has also been used to digitize high-quality film prints, probably most famously with the 2012 scan of Lawrence of Arabia [1]. In June 2016, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wrapped up production in 8K digital, the first feature to be made in the emerging format [2]. Slowly, more content will come out for 4K, and eventually there will be 8K content, but by that time consumers may realize that an increase to 8K may increase quality only for very large TVs; ones they would not realistically want in their living room.

, via Wikimedia Commons.”]Figure 1: A comparison of screen resolutions for 8K UHD, 6K UHD, 5K UHD, 4K UHD, FHD and SD. By Libron (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1: A comparison of screen resolutions for 8K UHD, 6K UHD, 5K UHD, 4K UHD, FHD and SD. By Libron (Own work) [CC0

Notice that on the Figure 1 [3], one would have to be watching from a distance of 5 feet with a screen of around 90 inches to reach the limits of 4K, which we can assume is the point at which 8K would come in handy. For a lot of people, with their living room set ups and screen size preferences, 1080p is good enough already. Nevertheless, 8K TVs may become commonplace soon enough. Technological progress does not halt easily, but 8K might be the highest resolution one ever buys for their home television.

Speeding up the frame rate is another effort in the world of visual media to push the boundaries and standards. All LCD displays have a certain refresh rate, measured in hertz (Hz), which determines the number of times per second the screen can refresh its image. Frame rate, on the other hand, is the number of times an image is sent to the screen to be displayed. Film has largely maintained a standard of 24 frames per second (fps), but some directors have experimented with higher frame rates. Peter Jackson famously shot his Hobbit films at 48 fps, which caused some criticism from critics who accused the film of having the “soap-opera effect,” with less motion blur than movie-goers are used to seeing on film [4].

Modern LCD screens have motion interpolation built-in to reduce motion blur, which works by adding an extra frame in between frames by “guessing” what an intermediate frame would look like, thus increasing the frame rate artificially [5]. This feature has had similar mixed reactions. Walk into any consumer electronics store to witness the “uncanny valley-esque” look of interpolated frame rate TVs.

Gamers Get Real

The real benefit of high frame rates is in the video game industry. Frame refresh rates in video games are important because the player is responding to visuals on screen. High frame rates feel smoother, but require much more computing power, which is why console games have their frame rate capped while PC games allow adjustment depending on gamers’ hardware. For consoles, 30 fps is the standard, while 60 fps is considered optimal. Frame rates of 90 fps are used by Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the current leaders in virtual reality hardware [6]. When a viewer watches a movie, they are a passive observer to the action; when a gamer plays a video game, they are participating to a certain degree. However, when a person has a virtual world strapped to their face, their brain, thinking that it is looking at the real world, expects a certain refresh rate that keeps up with real life and responds to movement. Inconsistencies with the frame rate have been blamed for causing motion sickness [7]. This is only a theory, as virtual reality sickness and how frame rate relates to it are unresolved and remain a highly studied topic.

Faster processing means potentially faster frame rates and render times, but there is a limit to how fast humans can perceive frame rates. One could compare frame rate perception with game performance: the faster the figures on the screen are moving, the faster the image needs changing. In 2006, a study by Claypool, Claypool, and Damaa tested players’ performances in a first-person shooter at difference frame rates (Figure 2). The study seems to conclude that the improvement in a player’s performance does not increase much between 30 and 60 fps [8]. Of course, this study was also done 10 years ago, so modern games, with more complicated graphics, may affect the results of a study done today. Many gamers would disagree with the spirit of the study. Frame rate is not only about performance but about feel as well. There is a certain clarity, which almost makes the game feel hyper-realistic and three- dimensional at times, which pairs well with high-resolution graphics. However, although 60 fps seems like a good baseline for a high frame rate both in player performance and feel, it ultimately comes down to each individual’s eyes [9].

Figure 2: The effects of frame rate and frame resolution on user performance. Score vs. Framerate (512 x 384 resolution), Source: The Effects of Frame Rate and Resolution on Users Playing First Person Shooter Games, Mark Claypool, Kajal Claypool and Feissal Damaa. 2006, http://web.cs.wpi.edu/~claypool/papers/fr-rez/paper.pdf

Figure 2: The effects of frame rate and frame resolution on user performance. Score vs. Framerate (512 x 384 resolution), Source: The Effects of Frame Rate and Resolution on Users Playing First Person Shooter Games, Mark Claypool, Kajal Claypool and Feissal Damaa. 2006, http://web.cs.wpi.edu/~claypool/papers/fr-rez/paper.pdf

While there is a limit to how fast human eyes can perceive a frame rate, each person is different and there is no universal limit. If we assume that most players start seeing diminishing returns after 60 fps, which seems to be the case with many casual gamers, then display manufacturers are relatively safe when it comes to refresh speeds.On the forefront of display technology is 165 Hz and faster-refreshing 1080p monitors [10]. Previously, 120 Hz monitors use extrapolation to claim faster refreshing capability, but cutting edge displays can finally support the highest refresh rates. Faster monitors are always being developed, but the current spread of display technology can support incredibly smooth gameplay. The next challenge in display technology is making monitors that refresh at these fast speeds but also at higher resolutions. 4K screens require much more processing power and faster graphics cards to refresh the greater number of pixels, while syncing incoming frame rate with monitor refresh rate. This is a matter of communications bandwidth. Since incredible amounts of data need to be transferred to these screens at high speeds, for bigger screens, innovative software and interface hardware will be required to accomplish equally fast refresh rates. DisplayPort is one audio/visual interface used for high-resolution, high-refresh rate transmissions, currently supporting 8K at 30 Hz at its best [11].

Where Will Display Tech Take Us Next?

Modern screen resolutions are already so sharp as to seem lifelike, and refresh rates are fast enough on reasonably sized screens for quick game rendering.

Content may not yet be available to take full advantage of the best displays, but it will come soon, and in great numbers. So, super high refresh rates on ultra high resolution screens aside, where does the display industry go next? In spite of this “sensory wall” the display industry is approaching, innovation will always soldier on. Where will the innovation happen? What is next on the digital media horizon? Maybe no one will care when 16K comes along, but new paradigms will eventually revolutionize display technology. Curved screens and different backlighting techniques are already providing variation in the LCD and OLED markets. TV networks, still catching their breath after the upgrade to HD, are starting to roll out infrastructure to broadcast 4K content while Internet streaming services have been adding 4K content slowly as more people buy compatible TVs.

Maybe vector-based graphics will leave pixelated displays in the past. With the rise of smart TVs, a consumer might be watching a movie and have the iMDB page (an online resource for broadcast and celebrity content) automatically show up on their tablet, as an example of interactivity between entertainment devices in the home.

In a few years, don’t expect to be able to distinguish the leaps and bounds technology has delivered within the pixels and smoothness of displays, but do expect something truly unexpected and novel to come from the industry.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/the-4k-restoration-of- lawrence-of-arabia-is-so-crisp-it-almost-looks-like-it-was-shot-today-a6807691.html
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_Vol._2
[3] http://carltonbale.com/does-4k-resolution-matter/
[4] http://www.cnet.com/news/what-is-the-soap-opera-effect/
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_frame_rate
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTC_Vive
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality_sickness
[8] https://xcorr.net/2011/11/20/whats-the-maximal-frame-rate-humans-can-perceive/
[9] http://www.100fps.com/how_many_frames_can_humans_see.htm
[10] http://www.kitguru.net/peripherals/monitors/anton-shilov/asustek-demos-worlds-first- ips-gaming-display-with-165hz-refresh-rate/
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DisplayPort

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BenMiller01Benjamin Miller is an Electrical Engineering junior at the University of Texas at  Austin and Mouser’s Technical Marketing intern for the summer. He plays guitar with the Mansfield rock band MP3. During the school year he can be found playing with electronics or doing homework outside of the Cactus Cafe, where he works as a doorman.