Consumer demand for 4K ultra-high-definition televisions, with a resolution four times that of high-definition screens, will exceed 2 million units by 2017, forecasts research company IHS iSuppli. That still represents less than 1% of the global market for LCD screens. However, the trend towards ever-higher resolutions seems clear. The question is not if but when consumers will be demanding 4K TV screens and expect programming to match.

Many manufacturers have recently launched their first 4K screens, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels — four times that of current high-definition displays. The cost sets them apart, with some selling for $20,000 or more, although inevitably the price will come down with volume — if they become a mass market product.

Some argue that anything higher than the relatively low two megapixel resolution of high-definition television is wasted on smaller screens.

While wealthy television executives like to talk about their 60-inch screens at industry conferences, the current market for screens larger than 60 inches accounts for only about 1.5% of total television shipments.

“For most people, 1080p is good enough,” suggests Tom Morrod, director of television systems and technology research at IHS. He says that 4K screens are simply being offered as the next big thing until the arrival of the next generation of active-matrix organic light-emitting diode or AMOLED televisions.

The often-cited argument that higher resolution demands a larger screen may be a distraction, as informitv has previously discussed. The trend towards higher resolutions is inescapable.

An A4 page is over eight megapixels at a conventional resolution of 300 pixels per inch. It works out at 3507×2481 pixels, compared to 3840×2160 pixels for the 4K standard, which has the same 16:9 aspect ratio of high-definition television. It seems inevitable that even tablet screens will reach such densities. The latest iPad already has a 2048×1536 resolution display, which is significantly higher than high-definition television.

The real issue is that there is currently very little programming accessible for consumers to take advantage of the few 4K screens that are available, although material for theatrical release is increasingly mastered in similar formats.

Of course this is the same chicken and egg problem that high-definition television originally faced. Many people then argued that most people did not need high-definition. Many seasoned broadcast engineers argued that 720p resolution was sufficient and that 1080i was adequate.

However, the need for 1080p is now recognised and the benefits of higher resolution and frame rates are demonstrable. The first 4K services could be launched within four years and they could be prevalent by the end of the decade.

Once broadcasters and service providers begin to offer services at 4K resolution, consumer demand will inevitably follow. Initially this will be restricted to more expensive screens but the cost will predictably fall with volume. By then the question will be whether 4K is really good enough or whether 8K would be better.