updated 7/11/2013 7:18:22 PM ET 2013-07-11T23:18:22

Americans may be switching to smaller cars, but their appetite for big screens continues to grow. The average size of TVs sold in the United States jumped from about 32 inches in 2006 to 38 inches in 2012, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The reason for the growth is simple — prices are dropping.

"People are stepping up. As they can afford more, they are buying more screen real estate," said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at CEA, in May during a presentation in New York City — the cramped metropolis where the concept of ever-growing TVs may be hardest to fathom. But tight apartments (or more likely, tight luxury condos) could be the perfect place for the bigger screens of new TVs, known as 4K or UHD, with four times the resolution of current HDTVs.

Just going on sale, the high-cost TVs aren't remarkable for what you can see — native 4K content is scarce — but for what you can't see — pixels. Until now, bigger screens required bigger rooms so people could sit further back from them — kind of defeating the purpose. Once people are close enough to see the pixels on a screen, the magic of television breaks down to an experience like looking through a grating. But a fourfold resolution increase means smaller pixels that are harder to see up close. With four times the pixels, the screen can grow without people having to run away from it. [See also: 4K TVs Highlight Fuzzy Video ]

(Until more content appears, 4K TVs will mainly enhance HD video to fill in the additional pixels, as HDTVs did with DVDs before much HD content was available.)

The International Telecommunications Union, the U.N.'s technical standard organization, released a report on 4K TV technology in 2012. Included are recommendations for distances to sit back from a TV screen to get the best visual effect. For today's 1080p TVs, the ITU recommends sitting back a distance equal to about three times the height of the screen. As an example, 32-inch (diagonal) screen is about 15 inches high, putting the optimal viewing distance at 45 inches.

For a 4K TV, the ITU recommends sitting 1.5 times the screen height away from the screen. That would put a 60-inch screen in the exact same comfort zone that the old 32-inch screen required.

"So that's the key to 4K for consumers. You can have a big TV without having a big room," said Joel Silver, who trains TV calibrators and evaluates TVs for manufacturers through his company, the Imaging Science Foundation. "A room that used to take a 37- or a 42-[inch screen] now comfortably takes a 65 or a 70," he said. [See also: 5 Steps to Cut Cable and Enjoy TV for Half the Price ]

For now, however, that scenario is largely theoretical, as 4K TVs are rare and dear. Prices are steep: One of the cheapest models (if that word even applies) from a major manufacturer is Sony's 55-inch 4K TV model for $5,000. And CEA expects just 1 percent of the TVs sold in 2013 to be 4K. Even by 2016, CEA expects 4K sets to climb to just 5 percent. But that may change if prices drop faster than expected.

Already, Chinese manufacturer Seiki has introduced relative budget 4K models, a 39-inch TV for $699 and later a 50-inch for about $1,100. Many reviews of the 39-inch TV have been scathing, however. And Silver, who has been evaluating that model, agrees that the picture quality was abysmal. But he said that new software for the TV that allows better screen adjustment has already seen a big improvement. In other words, the problem may not be the inexpensive 4K screens, but the failure of Seiki to properly tune them.

It will take some time for prices to drop to the point that average buyers would consider a 4K TV, but Silver expects the price drop to be faster than it was for HDTVs in the past decade. He recalls back in the mid-aughts when a 42-inch LCD cost about $10,000. "[Now] the 42 is a commodity item," Silver said. "It's trash."

Follow Sean Captain @seancaptain. Follow us @TechNewsDaily, on Facebook or on Google+.

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