Was Steve Jobs Right or Not? And What it Means for VR

When we do not know what Apple is going to do, we all like to look back at Steve Jobs and imagine how he would have handled the situation? He was the man to make Apple relevant beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The company’s success continues to this day and one has to wonder if this success will continue or not?

After MWC this year, Bob Raikes commented in the Mobile Display Monitor that there was a lot of activity at the conference, just not about displays. He did mention Sony showing off the Xperia XZ Premium with an UltraHD display resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels and with HDR as the most important feature. While the UHD display in the Sony premium phone is not new (this honor goes to the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium from 2015), Sony is still the only phone maker to include a 4K UHD in its offering. This raises the question of why Sony kept this super high end display in its offering even though other makers did not follow immediately? Here is why I think that this announcement could have a very strong influence on the display world in the coming years.

Sony XZPremiumSony’s XZPremium – Image:Meko

When Steve Jobs sold us the idea of a Retina display, he introduced the concept that the limit of necessary display resolution is reached when the eyes of most people cannot distinguish any pixel structures anymore. His argument was that at a pixel density of around 330 ppi for a smartphone most people cannot see any pixelation. One could interpret this as ‘any further ppi increase just raises cost without any marketable advantage in the market’. I know, I am interpreting Apple’s position without any official statement from them. However, if you take a look at the attached graph, you will see that since 2009 Apple has not increased their pixel density in their iPhone line beyond this magical value. In addition, I am focusing in this article solely on the aspect of pixel density and not on other important display characteristics such as brightness, contrast ratio, power demand, color space, color accuracy and others.

You can do your own research in terms of useful pixel density for smartphones, but as a result you will find that Apple’s estimate is more in line with a visual acuity of 1 arc minute, while others are arguing that a good portion of humankind can actually distinguish fine structures down to 0.4 arc minutes. This would cover at least 99.9% of the population. I leave it up to you to decide if this is overkill. Of course you have to keep in mind that the viewing distance is the variable that connects the display resolution in pixels with the visual acuity in arc minutes. The closer you can focus on the display the more detail you can see and the more sense the higher resolutions make. As a guess used by several analysts, this minimum viewing distance is estimated to be about 4” for smartphones.

The other variable is of, course, the screen size. To eliminate the difficulty looking at screen size and display resolution in pixels at the same time, I will refer here to pixel density that combines these two variables into one.

So while other companies may have agreed with the sentiment of Apple that there is a logical limit to pixel density of a smartphone display, they had other ppi numbers in mind than Apple’s 330 ppi. Samsung was aiming more for 500-600 ppi as the pixel density in their higher smartphone line. As it seems, Sony is believing that 800 ppi is an even better target.

The Marketing Message

Another point of course is the marketing message the line ‘highest smartphone display resolution’ creates with potential buyers. Since the beginning, smartphone display quality was an important driver for brand success in the market place. The term Retina display was not only a technical concept, but also a very successful marketing tool. It was supposed to mean ‘this is as good that you will every be able to see’ and it worked so far. However, now comes Sony.

The Sony Xperia XY Premium is raising the bar for this metric once again into the realm, where most analysts would agree that normal people can’t see the difference compared to a 550ppi display in terms of pixel resolution. Again, I am not discussing the total display performance including refresh rates, power consumption, brightness, contrast ratio, color space and accuracy. I am just talking about pixel resolution as stated above.

When we look at the graph we can see that without the red dot everything seemed to settle in at predictable display resolutions. With the red dot we can also interpret this curve as the beginning of a hockey stick. This development is not very likely but it shows that if other phone makers are following suit with Sony, Samsung and eventually Apple will have to play catch up. At this point the influence of the Sony announcement on the display industry becomes apparent. The new standard display solution is not quad HD anymore, UHD is the name of the game.

What About VR?

So what does all of this has to do with VR? I have made the point several times that VR adoption is driven by cost, performance and content barriers. Cost is coming down as a result of the fight over market share. Content is developing at a steady pace, as long as we agree that, at the moment, all we are talking about is the adoption of VR in the gaming space. This leaves performance as the last barrier to be tackled by the various providers. In addition the highest numbers of VR headsets are smartphone-based goggles that have, arguably, the lowest performance.

This possible trend to an UHD smartphone has two effects for VR. Smartphone-based headsets with higher resolution displays will look much better and these display will also be available for the developers of stand alone headsets. With the low numbers of units VR that is selling at the momentum the urgency for display makers to create higher pixel density displays for better VR displays is just not there. Now, if that pressure of higher pixel densities is driven by smartphone displays, its becomes a complete different story. Any adoption in a high end Samsung Galaxy phone would change the dynamics in the display industry. Best not to forget that Samsung is an important display manufacturer itself.

So take a pen and add some forecast lines on the graph and let me know what you think the pixel density for a high end smartphone will be in 2020. – NH