Nobody needs 8.3 million pixels in a one-handed gadget. But the technology at the heart of 4K phones is really important for the next generation of VR headsets.
So it looks like the Samsung Galaxy S8 might actually have a 4K "Ultra HD" display. That's a resolution of 3840x2160 pixels in the palm of your hand. It's also pretty crazy when you consider that just five years ago the cutting edge was closer to 960x540.
But as ridiculous as a 4K display in a smartphone seems, VR fans shouldn't dismiss the technology behind them. For the progress of VR is inextricably tied to the high-resolution, low-latency displays found in high-end smartphones. And even if a 4K screen doesn't make it into your next smartphone, a very similar display might well be used in your next standalone VR headset.
Smartphone screens and VR displays go hand in hand. Ever since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone 4's Retina Display, display tech has been pushing towards — and eventually beyond — that "magic number" of pixels per inch where the individual dots disappear into a crisp, clear image. For a phone held in your hand, that number was supposedly around 300 pixels per inch. For a VR headset strapped to your face, with displays a couple of inches from your eyeballs, it's going to be much, much higher.
Applied to VR headsets, the tech behind 4K phone screens represents the biggest possible upgrade for a VR experience.
Current VR displays come in around 450 pixels per inch — around the same as current 1080p and Quad HD phone displays. A 4K phone screen would almost double that density, with the Galaxy S8's 5.5-inch screen rumored to measure in at a whopping 806 pixels per inch. As we discussed on our sibling site Android Central, such a move would surely be a huge bet on smartphone-based VR, with Samsung able to boast of a significantly sharper Gear VR early next year.
That's a big deal for standalone headsets like Vive and Rift for the simple reason that if Samsung can put it in a phone, it's not far off being able to put it in a standalone headset. There are other technical challenges involved, sure — pushing such a display up to the required 90Hz refresh rate, for instance. But the underlying technology is mostly the same, and that's a big reason to get excited about the next generation of VR headsets. Applied to VR headsets, the tech behind 4K phone screens represents the biggest possible upgrade for virtual reality.
There's also the problem of how you're going to push all those pixels.
It's debatable whether an 800 pixel-per-inch VR display would completely eliminate the "screen door" effect that we see in many current headsets. That would likely depend not only on resolution but also subpixel matrix pattern — the arrangement of the tiny red, green and blue colored dots that make up each pixel.
The arrival of higher-res VR displays only drives up the computing power required to power them at a smooth, comfortable frame rate. Doubling the number of pixels you're pushing means you'll need a significantly beefier PC to run that experience — particularly when you throw gaming into the mix. Existing PC-driven VR setups are already limited to high-end gaming rigs, and while a huge resolution bump would dramatically improve visual quality, it would also significantly narrow the potential audience. You could argue either way whether that's a good thing for what's already a niche product.
The same applies to performance, battery life and heat dissipation in a smartphone-driven 4K VR experience, where there's an even smaller battery-powered device pushing all those pixels. There's certainly a balance to be maintained between VR resolution and computing power, whether it's in a phone or a PC.
Nevertheless, the momentum behind VR right now is going to push both forwards rapidly in the coming years. The result for everyone else? Hopefully less fancy, entry-level VR that's just a little bit more compelling.
Excited to double the resolution of your VR experience? Shout out in the comments and let us know what you think!