It's a new year, and as always, the progress of technology marches on. Just when you were getting used to 1,080p resolution being the standard, I'm here to tell you that 2012 is heralding the coming of the next big thing: 4K or "four thousand pixel" resolution.
If it seems to you like it's a big leap between 1,080 pixels and 4,000 pixels, you're correct, but it's not as big as you think. For some reason, the unseen powers that control the naming conventions of such things have decided to deviate from the old top-to-bottom method of counting pixels (480p, 720p, 1,080p, etc.) and start to count the pixels side-to-side. So under the old way of doing things, we might call it 2,160p or 3,112p, which are both flavors of the emerging 4K standard, but for now, apparently we're just grouping any format that is approximately "four thousand pixels wide" into the 4K category.
This year, Canon released its EOS C300, which, like the RED One, RED Epic, Sony CineAlta F65, and the Dalsa Origin, can record video in 4K resolution. While, strictly speaking, the C300 doesn't do anything that these other cameras already offered, Canon has a way of brining products to market in a way that opens it up for more users. For example, recording video with an SLR camera was already possible, but it didn't really take off until Canon released a model that could do it, not to mention that handheld camcorders that record in 4K are already in the works (JVC Unveils World’s First Handheld 4K Camcorder).
So this means that we're going to start seeing even more footage being captured at 4K. Combine that with the fact that we already have plenty of projectors that can display 4K, like the Barco Galaxy series and Christie Digital D4K35, with more on the way (Sony's New Home Theatre Innovations For High-End Enthusiasts), we actually can create and display 4K content. We already know that we can display multiple HD streams from a single Watchout computer, so we should be pretty close to displaying at least one, if not multiple, 4K streams from the very same computers.
So that's great, more pixels. Why should we care? Admittedly, I can hardly tell the difference between 720p and 1,080p on my home television, so I certainly do not need to go even higher. For televisions, and LED displays, I think that the need for 4K resolution is arguably unnecessary altogether, perhaps forever.
However, for projections, 4K can't come soon enough. The reason for this has to do with a physical limitation of our eyeballs that Apple has been taking advantage of in its advertisements for the iPhone's "retina display." You see, further than a certain distance, our eyes can't tell the difference between two objects that are close together. I'll spare you the grisly math, but the part you need to know is the number 3,500. If one object is 1" away from another object of the same size, then at about 3,500 inches away, our eyes and brain can no longer tell the objects apart. They blend together and seem to be a fluid continuation of each other. That's why the iPhone retina display works, because the pixels are 78 micrometers apart, and when we look at it from a distance of 3,500 multiplied by 78 micrometers away (about 10"), the pixels blend together. Those of us with better eyesight need to be slightly further away for it to work, and likewise, the trick works even closer for those of us with poorer eyesight, but on average, this equation holds true.
What does that have to do with projectors? The circuitous point that I'm trying to make is that, now that 4K is on the way, we can start to imagine and plan large-scale projections with a "retina display" level of quality. Let's imagine that we have a 40'-wide projection drop, and we have a single 4K projector covering it. That means that in that 40', there are 4,096 pixels when we measure from left-to-right. That means that each pixel is about 0.117" apart, which, if we multiply by 3,500, we get 410", or just over 34'. That means that, beyond a distance of 34', the average viewer won't be able to see the difference between two pixels, and the entire projection becomes perfectly seamless. With multiple 4K projectors, we could reduce that viewing distance even further. This is exciting because it means the end of the "pixel grid" effect where we see the lines between pixels of a low-resolution projection, and it means the beginning of perfectly fluid projected images.