Upscaling Might Be 4K's Savior
ICC Purios may provide adequate enough upscaling abilities to save UHD displays in a market bereft of 4K content
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Yesterday, we trekked down to the show floor to check out Sharp's Integrative Cognitive Creation engine, a valiant stab at making UHD a more viable choice for the common consumer. We spoke with Sharp's Mitch Pelikoff, Mark Viken, and Chris Loncto concerning what Sharp is doing to set its UHDTVs apart from others on the market. We recently got some hands-on time with Toshiba's impressive new CEVO Engine, a system that upscales non-4K resolution content to near-4K quality; Sharp is following suit, and its THX-certified ICC Purios engine might be just what 4K needs to get off the assembly line and into the market.
Sharp is introducing two UHD series this year. The first, simply called "AQUOS Ultra HD," is a 4K-capable TV targeting the late-market, once it is more populated by native 4K content. In short, there's nothing too special about that series just yet. On the other hand, the aforementioned ICC Purios series has the potential for greatness.
What Makes It Work? Apparently, Your Brain
Here's the skinny: Sharp has partnered with I-cubed Research Center Inc. to develop the Integrative Cognitive Creation engine. The goal is to produce a UHDTV with an upscaling process so powerful that the lack of native 4K content won't sway consumers from making a purchase. We've heard plenty about upscaling—Toshiba's solution, for example, consists of two separate processors—but we haven't heard of this kind of tech before, and while it sounds fairly hit-or-miss, it could really make a difference if it works.
UHDTVs upscale through a process that involves activating individual pixels—in many cases, millions at a time—and reading their mesh or texture design. Tighter bands are "popped out," giving more gradation along their edges than looser bands, which helps boost the depth of field of say, a native 1080p Blu-ray, thus enhancing contrast, sharpness and color, all at the same time. Sharp describes its ICC process as reproducing "the 'cognitive' process by which the human brain interprets light stimuli. Employing this unique process provides a similar sense of depth, texture and perspective to what people experience when looking directly at an object for a lifelike viewing experience where everything is in sharper focus."
The image above is a zoomed, cropped version of the first image. While it's not perfectly clear (an image sourced from native 4K would be), it is one example of the way Sharp's ICC tech is working to boost the clarity and color integrity of its 1080p source. We spoke at length with a few of Sharp's reps, and discovered that the ICC Purios UHD's upscaling engine makes use of a complex light sensor—more complex than the reps we spoke with could explain.
How it seems to work has a lot to do with how human beings perceive depth. The sensor determines the placement of light along the edges of objects. Imagine something simple, like a basketball. As the basketball recedes into the background, its edge begins to darken into shadow. The ICC engine senses this, and then boosts the sharpness and light signal around the shadows accordingly to accentuate the edge detail of objects, and the clarity or darkness of white/black areas of the screen.
So, Why Does It Matter?
ICC Purios is poised at an important position for the onset of UHD TVs to the market. As we've been saying all week, the ability to upscale non-4K content is, for now, the most important capability that manufacturers need in order for their new UHD line-ups to compete with the whole market. In other words, UHD TV manufacturers must justify the price of these very expensive line-ups, and that means making consumers forget that their favorite movies and TV shows aren't being sourced as native 4K.
Jumping from 1080p HD to UHD is pointless without proper upscaling, and the ability to do so gracefully is what will determine who wins the 4K/UHD race. Be it monitors, tablets, or televisions, the device in question must be able to skillfully handle content thrown at it, no matter the resolution. We want to see 480p, 720p, or 1080p looking better than ever on an ultra high definition TV. Sharp's ICC Purios line (due around summer 2013) looks to be a solid contender in the race to bridge HD and UHD.
Every brand-name television manufacturer (and even some lesser-known companies like Westinghouse) have put a UHD TV on the 2013 market. A few days at CES have proved that, while UHD TVs may be very expensive, they're also unbelievably rich in color quality, and capable of lifelike renderings. In short, they boast a "wow" factor not seen since the introduction of high definition TVs. However, it is very clear that what matters right now is how well a UHD TV allows the user to forget that they've upgraded to an intense resolution; the product must absolutely make the most of the content available to it. Sharp's ICC Purios line promises to deliver in that area, and we can only feel an apprehensive excitement until we're able to test one of them out.
The THX certification—which requires over 400 tests—is a subtle proof of Sharp's efforts. Stay tuned in the coming months to see just how capable Sharp's ICC Purios line really is.