Recent years have brought scant good news for Taiwan’s LCD panel makers. Once the vanguards of the industry, they have ceded that ground to South Korea and, increasingly, Chinese competitors. Yet the launch of 8K resolution television sets represents a glimmer of hope for the Taiwan panel-making industry.

8K resolution is currently the highest resolution display in digital television, with 32 megapixels per frame compared to the 8 megapixels of 4K. “The images are so sharp that they look like moving printed photographs; there is absolutely no evidence of pixelation even if your face is an inch from the set,” wrote Tim Moynihan on the Wired website during last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where 8K TVs were on display.

In July 2016, Innolux, Taiwan’s No. 2 panel maker, became the first manufacturer to be approved by global television makers to supply 8K TV panels. Innolux began mass production of the panels in the second half of last year.

To a certain degree, “Innolux has a first mover’s advantage,” says David Hsieh, senior director of displays at IHS Markit. “They have many customers based in China, and Chinese TV brands need something unique to make themselves stand out.”

At the Touch Taiwan 2016 exhibition in Taipei last August, Wang Jyh-chau (王志超), chairman and chief executive officer of Innolux, said the company began to ship 65-inch 8K TV panels in small volumes in the second quarter of the year to three existing customers.

In an August 2016 research note, market intelligence firm TrendForce noted that Taiwanese panel makers must “push out novel products” to stay ahead of their aggressive Chinese rivals, while not engaging in a capacity race with the Chinese, whose resources are far greater. In addition to competing directly with Innolux, China’s top panel maker BOE will launch larger panel sizes in the future, TrendForce says.

Market observers say 8K TV’s future may well lie in China, with its huge number of monied and tech-hungry consumers.

Meanwhile, Samsung and LG, South Korea’s two main panel makers, launched 65-inch flat-screen products and 98-inch curved-screen products at the end of 2016.

TrendForce notes that there is little support for 8K broadcasting at present. Current solutions use 4K technology enhanced with a video processing technology called motion estimation/motion compilation (MEMC) to convert 4K broadcasts into 8K.

Japan is currently the only country where 8K TV broadcasts are being tested. From last August, the Japanese national public broadcaster NHK began to air TV programs in 8K resolution at its broadcasting centers throughout Japan. The Japanese government says that it will begin large-scale 8K broadcasting by 2018 to ensure that it is ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

A pioneer in the development of high-definition TV, NHK been working on 8K for 20 years. It first demonstrated the technology in 2002, before most people watched high-definition TV in their homes, according to an August 2016 report in PC World.

Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review reported last August that Panasonic and Sony will work together to jointly develop 8K technology. Sony plans to launch 8K-compatible televisions in 2020, the report said. Panasonic and Sony are also likely to install 8K technology in other electronic devices like digital cameras.

The PC World report notes that 8K presents major engineering challenges. Studio gear must be able to process uncompressed 8K video in real time — data rates may reach 100 gigabytes per second. The signal must then be encoded for broadcast into more efficient streams by compression equipment. That results in a satellite signal that is “several tens of megabits per second.” Finally, consumer receivers and televisions decode the signal.

Analysts say the 8K market will need time to grow, as there will be little content available right away. “Hardware always comes before software,” says IHS’s Hsieh.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

(Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)

TNL Editor: Edward White