MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Ready or not … Ultra HDTV right around corner

April 24, 2006
LAS VEGAS – There are times when I feel as if I’m the Grim Reaper of Digital Technology. Because part of my job – such as it is – requires me to attend as many industry-related conventions as possible, I’ve not only been able to alert readers to several new digital wonders, but also to caution them about the impending demise of previously lauded miracle appliances.
That mission carried me to Las Vegas again this week for the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. Bad news, boys and girls, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are only now dribbling into retail outlets, and NAB attendees are being invited to see the next generation of hi-def.
First, though, a look back in time, from the Ghost of NABs Past.
By now, most consumers have learned that the home-entertainment and personal-computer dodges have relied on vastly different business models than those applied to manufacturers of cars, steel, washing machines and lawn furniture. It was as if no one in Silicon Valley had ever been introduced to “planned obsolescence,” a concept that had ensured vast profits for several generations of Rust Belt moguls.
In Detroit, auto makers calculated that their products would work extremely well for five or six years – slightly longer in California and other dry climes – but collapse in a heap of rust soon thereafter. Refrigerators, stoves and water heaters tended to last a bit longer, but they, too, ultimately would succumb to wear and tear. The manufacturers timed the introduction of their revolutionary new models and technologies to coincide with both the upward mobility of their customers and the necessity to replace worn-out appliances.
This strategy tended to work swell for everyone, except consumers who wanted their cars and TVs to live as long as their Barcaloungers. When German and Japanese interests began producing cars that lasted longer and required less care and feeding, American consumers flocked to their showrooms. The migration not only forced Detroit to make better products, but it also forced the companies to offer extended warranties, just in case.
By comparison, when the home-computing and home-entertainment industries evolved to the point that they were important sectors in the American economy, product lines were upgraded and sent into the marketplace at warp speed. Even as first-, second- and third-generation appliances continued to perform beautifully in the home – and already were more powerful than they had any reason to be — Silicon Valley firms continued turning out and marketing new, only slightly improved models. Meanwhile, retailers had yet to clear their shelves of the previous inventory.
Designers of software, particularly those products licensed to Mr. Gates and company, would wait a while before introducing new operating systems (not all of which were embraced by the public, either). It not only allowed time for R&D, but also for trips to the bank. Hardware providers forgot to build into their business plans a period of time to rack in the dough, preferring, instead, to stay even in the race to have the coolest products.
At the same time, the software that cost Hollywood filmmakers hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire in support of such pioneering films as “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2” could be purchased on the exhibition floor of the NAB for pennies on the dollar (two years later, it would be milles on the dollar). Considering the limits of the potential market for morphing and liquid walls – and, again, short shelf life before something cooler came along – it’s easy to see how unprofitable an enterprise this was for anyone except the studios … occasionally.
With each new December in the modern digital era, those of us who cover such things were required to put together lists of cool Christmas gifts for home-entertainment enthusiasts. It was easy enough to do, but, invariably, we’d dutifully return to Las Vegas too weeks later for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. It was here that we’d be introduced to the products that, in six months time, would render our gift ideas obsolete.
VCRs held their value pretty well through the 20 years of their reign, with most of the improvements arriving in regular intervals, and as they were required by consumer demand. Then, along came DVD, which they public also embraced. It’s taken less than a decade for the same cabal to begin making the push for a spin-off technology – hi-def DVD – that would require another full reinvestment from their customers. The jury’s still out on that one.
Best Buy, Target and other retail giants continue to sell analog television sets to customers, even in the face of the government-mandated switchover to digital in 2009. HDTVs and digital converters are readily available now, at affordable costs, but how many citizens actually have allowed that fact to sink into their heads?
The dust had yet to settle from the iPod explosion, when Disney announced that it would support the concept by providing several of its high-rated shows for hand-held display. After the requisite two weeks reserved for competitors to piss on the idea, nearly every provider of entertainment content jumped on the same ship. Video-enabled cell phones also became flavors-of-the-month, even as it became apparent that the vast minority of owners used their phones primarily for conversations, and the occasional IM and photo.
No new or upgraded product – including portable satellite-radio receivers – will be put in the marketplace without some kind of iPod or MP3 gizmo implanted therein. The same is true with new automobiles, many of which still offer cassette and AM/FM players as basic equipment. Hi-def radio, which offers traditional broadcasters expensive new options, is a big item at this year’s NAB … even if XM and Sirius have yet to report a profit.
All this coming at time when our soldiers in Iraq are driving cut-rate coffins on wheels.
On Sunday, at about the same time as director James Cameron was extolling the benefits of digital cinema and 3-D to attendees, one of the key developers of the THX sound system was warning broadcasters of another unforeseen threat to their profits. In his keynote address to engineers, Tomlinson Holman used surveys and other data to demonstrate how much more sophisticated – and, more to the point, demanding – consumers have become when it comes to audio quality.
“For home theaters, when surveys are done, movies are the killer app,” argued Holman, now a professor at USC. “In these same surveys, however, (consumers) rank audio quality above video quality. Those who own these systems find they do more DVD and television viewing (than those with ordinary setups). The average first-time system costs about $2,100, and about 35 percent of households have already invested that much.
“Satisfaction with these systems is high among those surveyed.”
Holman said consumers who participated in a recent MIT survey, which compared HD and SD systems, “were attracted by the sharper picture, but better sound was the first thing noticed … 75 percent of home theaters are equipped with 5.1 channels of sound. About 70 percent of those surveyed said that upgraded sound was the most important feature of DVDs in a home-theater environment.”
In other words, shape up or continue to watch ratings plummet. Cameron has said pretty much the same thing, except as it regards box-office revenue.
Cameron subsequently visited the booth of NHK Technical Services, whose employees were handing out glasses on the exhibition floor so attendees could sample its 3D-HDTV technology on screens large and standard-sized. The televisions and set-top boxes were still in the prototype stage, but the enabling chips are ready to go. Negotiations with set manufacturers have already begun.
And, yes, it looks great from all angles. HD plus 3D … what a concept. If the public ever does embrace the format, we’re all in for a treat. If chips are built into the sets, the boxes won’t be needed.
A few steps away, other NHK employees were directing foot traffic into a large enclosure, where they would be introduced to the company’s “Ultra High-Definition TV System.” Ultra HDTV? I’m still making payments on my sub-ultra unit, and have no timetable to acquire a hi-def DVD player … let alone, a clue as to whether I’ll choose HD-DVD or BluRay.
The Ultra HD experience – get this – allows for 4,320 scanning lines, and 7680 X 4320 pixels, which compares to the standard HDTV’s 1080 lines and 1920 X 1080. On the audio front, there are 22.2 channels of sound, in a three-layer setup … 22.2 friggin’ channels. Nine channels comprise the top layer, 10 channels in the middle orbit and 5 on the floor.
And, here’s the bad news, it’s amazing … like real life, but better … even compared with the best HDTV I’ve seen. Individual faces popped out from crowds, and we in the audience felt as if we were in the stands watching the basketball game and sumo-wrestling match. A wind-swept field of sunflowers approached those painted by Van Gogh in intensity and vibrancy.
All one needed to know about the sound could be heard in the dribbling of the basketball in the Nets game. Again, it was as if we were in the Jack Nicholson seats at Staples Center … precise, punchy and hypnotic.
Granted, this display was provided on a rather large screen in 16 X 9 aspect. The hostess said it was the same size as Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” which also was photographed for the product reel. Anyone who’s going to spend the bucks required for the Ultra experience, however, isn’t likely to waste them on a standard-sized set.
So, there, you’ve been warned. Ultra HDTV is right around the corner, whether we need it or not, and before the vast majority of American consumers have even had a chance to show off their new HDTVs to the neighbors. — GD

One Response to “Ready or not … Ultra HDTV right around corner”

  1. hatchling says:

    I was just reading some reviews of the first HD-DVD players on the market, and the buzz was less than thrilling. And since most of the DVD’s being offered in HD are either dogs or ones I already own, I’ve decided to take a pass.
    I have a two year old photo iPod… works great and I only have 42 days of music on it, or 15% of it’s capacity taken up. Who wants to watch video on a 2 inch screen anyway? I have a 3 year old DVD player/recorder.. works great too, holds some 80 hours of broadcasts [if only I had time to watch]. I have a 1 year old 60″ HDTV Tv… nice big picture, but there’s not nearly enough HD broadcasting on the 250 channels I get on cable. And most of it’s crap TV anyway.
    Ya know, I think I’ll just let the new generation HD-DVD or Blu-ray pass on by. It’ll be obsolete soon enough.
    That Ultra DVD sounds good though. In a couple years, I’ll give it another look… about the same time broadcasters finally get on board with HD… and I’ll get a compatible new TV screen to play it all on.
    In the meantime, I’m trying to find enough worthwhile new films to see in the theaters or buy on DVD… now there’s a niche which ought to be filled in the here and now.

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“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
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