Are We Ready For 4K Gaming?

This is an auspicious question to be certain but a question loaded with complexity as well as ambiguity: not the least of which is concerning the prospect of actual console games functioning in any realistic measure with high levels of graphical fidelity at full wack 3840 x 2160 (aka “4K”, or 2160p) resolution. This is a goal that Microsoft seems to have become hell-bent on achieving with their forthcoming behemoth, the prodigal Project Scorpio, touted to be the supreme master of all console-dom. This remains to be seen. It also begs the question of whether or not 4K gaming is even a relevant avenue for the mainstream console market or if this is just another buzzword intended to sell hardware and high-end televisions.

To be clear, specifically from a technical point of view: 4K is better than 1080p. And for gaming it’s even more so…as long as you have deep pockets. And excellent eyesight. And a well-controlled viewing environment… And a big enough display, or can comfortably sit close enough to the display to discern the differences. You see: even though 4K displays a much higher resolution image than 1080p, at least 4 times the pixels, the quality of the image is subjectively less dramatic of an upgrade than the leap from 480p to 1080p. This is called the law of diminishing returns. For every technological leap forward we take, the distance from our last leap is substantially smaller by comparison. When we first witnessed the magnificence of 1080p and compared it to it’s ugly 480i/480p cousin we could absolutely and immediately see a noticeable difference. But with 4K we are almost literally splitting hairs to see anywhere near the same kind of dramatic differences at anything other than fairly close inspection. I’m not saying that they aren’t there, it’s just that these differences are in the fine details as opposed to being glaringly apparent.

When we consider the horsepower that a computer requires to achieve steady, smooth 4K resolution graphics we can begin to understand why it has taken so long to incorporate this technologically challenging feat. The necessity of extremely fast calculating graphics cards capable of pushing massive amounts of polygons with advanced filtering and graphical effect enhancements applied is absolutely crucial to 4K gaming.  Technology seems to have finally moved forward enough to allow for this to now be achievable if not necessarily affordable, and Microsoft’s Project Scorpio looks to be taking a direct aim at trying to bring this kind of experience into the home in a big way. With PC’s as illustrated above it gets expensive very quickly, but can be achieved. The real problem is that you begin to question whether its all worth it when you are used to running your favorite first-person shooter at 1080p and 120 frames per second with all graphics settings maxed out, yet struggle to get the same game to hit 4k and 60 frames per second in medium to high settings.

But what about VR?

Sadly, the processing power required to perform the calculations necessary to track 60+ frames per second of head-tracking and rendering in full 4K far outstrips the capabilities of even the most recent high-end video cards on the market, and the 3 biggest VR hardware manufacturers today, Sony with their PSVR, the Oculus Rift, and the HTC VIVE, only have headsets with maximum resolutions of 960 x 1080 per eye for PSVR and 1080 x 1200 per eye for both Oculus and VIVE , far below 4K’s maximum output. Couple this with the fact that you then strap a pair of distortion magnifying lenses only inches from your eyes, you begin to see that VR, from strictly a noticeable resolution standpoint is quite sub-par when compared to 4K or even 1080p. Yes, the 3D immersion of VR is really what that format is all about, but the cost for getting into VR is also rather staggering compared with what it will take to achieve 4K console gaming glory. Admittedly these are factors that haven’t all been set in stone yet.

As for broad support, with only one confirmed 4K-capable home console, Microsoft’s Project Scorpio,  and rumors that the forthcoming PS4 “Neo” may be capable of running some games in 4K it really seems premature at this moment in time to believe that 4K gaming will realistically become the standard for the market in the very near future. That could quickly change, though. We do not have any more solid details of Project Scorpio at this time including the all-important price of the system, and it is likely that the PS4 “Neo” will not be as powerful as that system, making 4K games less capable of running at modern frame-rates with higher graphical details enabledon it. The price and availability of 4K displays will definitely play a large part in the demand for 4K games, but without the broad adoption of a capable game console and prevalent 4K gaming content, I believe we are at least 1 to 2 years away from seeing any significant shift to 4K over 1080p. And with both Sony and Microsoft keeping the PS4 and XB1 consoles central to their overall strategies as core systems that are meant to remain fully compatible with their “4K-capable” mid-cycle system upgrades, that will only lengthen any potential shift from the current standard.

These are very interesting times for the video game industry. So many questions remain unanswered and so much potential for achieving incredible things that a very short time ago were believed to be unattainable with consoles. Just another reminder of how technology can keep companies from these goals one minute and then all of a sudden push them right past the next. But are we truly ready for 4K gaming? I know I am!

As always, game on gamers!

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