For most of us, game resolutions increase fairly slowly, one periodic monitor purchase at a time. Ten years ago, 1080p was the new hotness; I was personally using a 22-inch Acer with a 1680×1050 resolution, and wondering what all the fuss was about with 1080p compared with 720p. Now, 4K displays are becoming more common, with additional support for features like HDR, upcoming support for FreeSync, and even a whisper of a promise OLED technology might finally go mainstream in such panels (though to date, no OLED panel we’re aware of has qualified for the Rec. 2020 standard).
In short, it’s not just game resolutions that are improving. We’re seeing measurable improvements in display technology as well. OLED, FreeSync, 4K, and HDR? Sign us up.
But for those of you who prefer to game on sheer resolution alone, Linus Tech Tips has put together an astonishing video of how they managed to build a 16K game rig with $ 10,000 in GPUs and 16 4K displays built from 16 27-inch Acer Predator panels, in a massive 108-inch diagonal pattern (not counting bezels). The GPUs were powered by a four Quadro P5000s with 16GB of RAM each and based on the GTX 1080, but with additional RAM resources, which are kind of required to make this kind of thing functional.
This feat of engineering and power consumption–just the monitors consume 1100W of wall power–is an impressive look at what may be possible in the future, and the sheer chutzpah of building a rig this enormous is impressive in and of itself. At the same time, however, the results demonstrate just how difficult it is to push the envelope in this fashion. Downright ancient games, like Half Life 2 and Minecraft, were able to play in the 40fps range, but even a game as recent as Civilization V bogs down at 20fps. Modern games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, are stuck in the 2-3fps range.
The problem here, I suspect, is two-fold. First, and most obvious, the same display technology that keeps all of the Quadro cards synchronized and the 16 4K panels stitched together means the entire game’s working set has to fit within the 16GB of RAM aboard each GPU. The problem with increasing resolution is you’re slamming the gas pedal on how much data must be stored in memory when rendering over 5 billion pixels per second, with all the textures, lighting, shading, and detail that goes into the process. Given 16K is 16x more data than 4K, and 64x more memory than 1080p, 15260×8640 is a monster resolution for even the most aggressive GPUs.
When Will We See 16K on the Desktop?
Ideally? Never. And no, I’m not just being a sourpuss. The bottom line is this: The human eye is only capable of resolving so much detail at any given distance. There’s a literal, biological limit to the minimum feature sizes we can resolve at any given distance. Typically, the very, very best of us hit around 20/8, meaning the eagle-eyed among us can see at 20 feet what the rest of us can distinguish at eight feet. Our maximum resolvable feature detail increases as objects get closer to us, which is why higher resolutions are still useful for VR, even when they can’t be seen at longer range.
This chart shows the distance of televisions and screen sizes as a function for whether higher resolutions are actually useful. Typically we’ve used it for 4K, but there’s no reason you can’t deploy it for monitors as well–just assume vastly shorter viewing distances than the typical 6-8 feet. And even at such high resolutions, there’s just not going to be much use for them–and that assumes GPUs can manage to drive the hardware at all. If it takes 1100W to display the 16K image, you can imagine what the GPUs and system are consuming.
The effective end of conventional Moore’s Law scaling means the chances we’ll see 16K resolutions, even in VR, exceptionally unlikely. That doesn’t mean video technology can’t continue to advance. We’ve seen a number of impressive technologies come to market, from OLEDs to HDR to FreeSync/G-Sync, none of which put huge burdens on the GPU and all of which improve the experience of gaming. GPU frame rates and RAM buffers will continue to increase. But I expect the largest gains over the next few years to be from improvements to color fidelity, ghosting, larger color gamuts, and game play smoothness, not just relentless focus on higher pixel counts.