Monday, April 21, 2014

What Good is a Curved Screen?

Cinema technology meant to reduce distortion is making its way into TVs and smartphones. Here's why you'll want it.

I've noticed a lot of curved displays appearing on phones and televisions. Why are big-name manufacturers investing in this feature, and why should I even want it?

Curved-screen technology started in movie theaters, and the rationale is simple. When you throw an image onto a flat screen from a projector, the light has to travel farther to reach the edges of the screen than it does to reach its center. This creates a distortion known as the pincushion effect—the picture appears bowed inward, toward the center. Incorporating curvature counteracts this deformity, bringing the edges of the screen closer to the projector to produce an image that the audience perceives as flat. What’s more, people discovered that when they sat in the theater sweet spot—in the central section of the row of seats level with the middle of the screen—they benefited from a more expansive field of view.

Television manufacturers claim that putting curves on TV displays replicates this field-of-view widening effect in the living room, giving spectators an immersive IMAX-like perspective. The problem is, your living room’s sweet spot is much smaller than a large movie ­theater’s. Only people sitting on your couch directly in front of the TV, with the middle of the screen at eye height, perceive a widened field of view. People sitting off to the sides won’t benefit from the curve—in fact, they’ll actually get a distorted picture. And if you sit beyond a certain point at a wide enough angle, the image cuts off completely at one edge.

Besides all that, TVs simply don’t need the curvature that theaters do, because they emit their own light. Curvature does accomplish one other thing, though: curtailing ambient light reflection. When living room lighting hits a curved screen, it’s reflected away from viewers instead of bouncing straight back at them. The same advantage exists in a curved smartphone display. If you turn your cellphone screen off and look at that glass display, you’ll see a lot of reflected light. That light washes out the digital image your phone produces, making you enhance screen brightness and drain your battery quicker.

So, no, curved screens aren’t just a gimmick. But with the cheapest curved TV costing $3000 (­Sony’s 65-inch LED TV), and LG's G Flex smartphone selling for $300 with a carrier contract (the Galaxy Round, from Samsung, is even more expensive), the value manufacturers have assigned to curves may be too high for consumers, at least for now.

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